I spent some down-time during our snowy debacle thinking about how two inches of snow brought metropolitan Atlanta to its knees, leaving thousands of people stranded in cars, children at school overnight, and at least one baby born on the side of the highway. It has been fascinating to watch the fickle finger of blame be pointed at meteorologists, as if they were also accountable for our response to their predictions. Later we pointed at planners without the nuance of differentiating between planning and our region’s consistent rejection of planning as a valuable professional practice, (a recent stadium proposal comes to mind, which has never made ink on any regional plan). The finger of blame has also been aimed at various points of leadership and the dysfunctional lines of communication across our increasingly-fragmented regional politics. What’s most curious to me is that we don’t ever point at ourselves. Why don’t we own up to it? After all, isn’t this exactly what we wanted?
The collective “we” of regional Atlanta should own up to our problem. We built a car-dependent region because that’s what we wanted, and what happened on Tuesday simply underscores the inherent consequences of that decision. In the parts of the region that have access to transit and live more compactly in walkable areas, people fared reasonably well. They should – they’ve been investing in transit for over forty years. I spent my evening sledding with my kids on the Atlanta Beltline. But if we’re honest, the car-dependent areas of the region also fared well under the circumstances. It’s not like anybody died. What if we had also lost power? Imagine the mayhem – both intown and in outlying areas – if it had been two feet snow, or a chemical spill, or an airborne infectious disease, or a terrorist attack. What if we had to go for weeks without driving? The distances that most people live from where they need to go, and the disconnected nature of our roadway network, would leave most of the region stranded. The consequences of our car-dependency would have been much more dramatic. Our economy and our way of life depends on people being able to get around, and in most areas of our region, we rely exclusively on an infrastructure that gets jammed up in any emergency.
The mid-day panic of closing schools and icy streets immediately gridlocked a system that is simply not designed to handle such a crisis. In fact, most of the region is built around this incredibly inefficient system – inefficient not only for emergency response, but also for more day-to-day matters like going to work or school, or conveying water, electricity, and other utilities to our spread-out way of life. We chose to build it this way, and while it works ok most of the time, what happened on Tuesday is simply a more spectacular variation of what happens every day at rush hour. The system gets jammed up. But we wanted it like that, and we consistently refuse to diversify our system with transit and other ways of moving around. That’s fine, I guess, but it has consequences. It has made us vulnerable.
So yes, we need to better manage school closings and those sorts of things. We’ll have to learn to communicate better. There are a lot of issues at play and I don’t want to minimize any of them. But while we may not be able to un-choose the infrastructure system that we built for ourselves over the last sixty years, we can choose to build a better system to support the next million people that will make Atlanta their home. Let’s at least do that. >> Ryan Gravel