Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Atlanta Snowjam 2014 – A Failure of the Built Environment

The Atlanta area mess that has become known on social media as snowjam, snowpacolypse, snowmaggeddon and many others has been awful for any of us that have had to live through this nightmare.  For those unaware, yesterday, January 28, 2014, a snow storm of biblical proportions for Atlanta (all of two inches) hit the metro Atlanta area just after noon.  The city and state – which had proclaimed their readiness following the 2011 snow/ice storm that shut the city of Atlanta down for one week – failed to close schools in anticipation of the storm and failed to adequately prepare roads for the snow.  Despite the widespread forecasts of at least one to two inches of snow in the Atlanta area starting around noon, schools were not closed and major arterial roads were seemingly not salted or sanded.   Yet once it become obvious that the snow was coming down hard and sticking to the ground, a mass exodus of people from office buildings and schools began.  And thus began the snowjam.

Atlanta is essentially a regional of linked subdivisions.  There are the downtown and midtown areas which have grid systems, and the MARTA rail system runs north-south and east west but has severe limitations, but otherwise metropolitan Atlanta is one giant suburb.  It is a collection of suburbs linked by several key arterial roads, highways and interstates.  There is no road grid system, even in dense areas like Buckhead.  Atlanta has been built around the car almost exclusively.  The built environment here not only favors the car, but the car dominates the built environment.  And the built environment has failed us as the snowjam clearly indicates.

Unfortunate Atlanta motorists who were stuck in their single passenger vehicles for 6, 8, 12 even 24 hours had no other alternative.  Arterial roads and interstates iced up, and the arteries clogged all around town.  People abandoned vehicles on interstates, slept in retail stores that opened to stranded motorists or bunked at the homes of friends, neighbors or even strangers.  Those that only had a few miles to travel were forced into a death march as the only way to their destinations required a trip on those tremendously clogged arteries.  

While the city, state, Georgia Department of Transportation, local school systems and other governmental officials exacerbated this situation by their lack of planning, ultimately the built environment is to blame.  City planners and developers have simply failed us over the last 50+ years, and the snowjam is the ultimate, terrible result of this failure.  Without a grid system of at least some sort which would provide alternate paths to any destination, drivers are forced onto the same arterial roads in which everyone else is attempting to traverse.  The grid system would at least allow many roadways going in the same or similar directions.  The grid would also allow for those that choose to walk all or part of their destinations to do so much more easily.  And this is without even mentioning the glaring lack of an adequate transit system in Atlanta which was an obvious factor in this disaster.  

We have been failed, and this failure exists not just in Atlanta but throughout the country.  A reliance on a few arterial roads is simply a failure of proper planning.  Moreover, the interstate system was not originally designed to move traffic intra-city but instead to move traffic throughout the country.  Atlanta and many other large metropolitan areas, especially those in the sunbelt and the west, will continue to face situations like this if we do not make major changes to the built environment in which we live.  This is a wake-up call.