Green Buildings Aren’t Truly Green Without Location Efficiency
A recent two-inch snowfall in Atlanta proved that suburban sprawl has a dangerous underbelly
I was one of the lucky ones. I spent only two hours in my car when the big snowstorm of 2014 hit Atlanta on Tuesday. We got only about 2 inches of snow in my part of the city, but I made the mistake of going out for lunch at a restaurant right next to Emory University and the CDC compound. It took Jeffrey and me an hour and 45 minutes to drive the 2 miles back to the office. In the first photo below, you can see that the roads themselves were still in good shape at 2 o'clock, at least where we were.
While I was sitting there in the passenger seat, I decided to take a look at the rest of Atlanta traffic. The map below, with all the red showing bad traffic, shows what it looked like at 1:45 p.m., near the beginning of our sojourn. Then it got worse.
The good news, though, was that the grocery store near our condo was still fully stocked with milk (photo below). I can’t believe our neighbors allowed this to happen and hope they show the appropriate level of panic next time.
If you paid any attention to the news, you heard plenty of horror stories about the tremendous pain caused by a meager 2 inches of snow. One woman couldn't get to the hospital so she gave birth to her new baby in her car, stuck on I-285 (the Perimeter). Kids were stuck in school buses until late at night, or even overnight. There were 1,254 traffic accidents in a 24-hour period. And on and on...
The basic facts are that everyone went about their lives as usual on Tuesday. Adults went to work and kids went to school. The snow started coming down around noon. All the schools and many workplaces released everyone to go home at about the same time. The roads gridlocked quickly. The snow hit the roads, melted, and then froze into ice.
The government bodies in charge — and there are many, with over 60 mayors of cities and towns in the metro area — didn't pretreat the roads. People here don't have snow tires or chains, for the most part. The result was abysmal driving conditions, leading to all the accidents and even more gridlock.
Why we melted down in the big freeze
Plenty has been written about it, and you can read some good analyses in this article in The Atlantic as well as this article in Politico Magazine. Yes, the school districts could have helped to avert the nightmare by canceling school in advance. The governments could have pretreated the roads. People could have stayed home from work. The problem is actually deeper than that, but why didn't anyone do those simple things anyway?
Some people have blamed the meteorologists, saying weather reports were calling only for flurries in Atlanta with most of the snow going to the south of us. That's not what I saw. I get my weather news from the Weather Channel app on my phone, and it had been calling for snow two days in advance. What they were forecasting 24 hours ahead is exactly how it played out.
The National Weather Service did get it right. The American Geophysical Union published an article showing that we were under a Winter Storm Watch starting at about 5:00 a.m. on Monday. They upgraded the Winter Storm Watch to a Winter Storm Warning at 3:39 a.m. on Tuesday, about 8 hours before the snow started falling, with a prediction of 1 to 2 inches of snow. The problem wasn't a lack of warning from the weather forecasters.
Despite our governor blaming bad weather reports, however, the problems go still deeper.
When suburbia goes sprawling
Yeah, it definitely could have been handled better to mitigate the trauma we experienced this week. The root cause, however, is suburban sprawl with few alternatives to getting around by automobile. We have MARTA, with its sparse heavy rail and its buses. I use the train when I go to the airport, but it's difficult to live here without relying pretty heavily on your car.
When the MARTA rail lines were built, some of the suburban counties rejected having them extend out to their areas. In 2012, we had a statewide referendum on approving new tax money to fund transit projects that could provide alternatives to cars. Sadly, voters rejected it by a large margin.
Yes, weather forecasts and bad decision-making affected the results. Better long-term planning could have had millions of people safely at home instead of sleeping on grocery store floors, in churches, or in their cars. The drive-till-you-qualify housing market lets people have bigger houses, but at a cost.
Will we learn our lesson?
It remains to be seen if this will be a tipping point for us. I'm a bit skeptical because our state government prefers funding highways over public transportation. I'm sure we'll hear some calls for more lanes and more roads as a solution, but I doubt the results would have seen different even if we'd had double the amount of roads.
But there is hope! The Atlanta Beltline, shown in the map below, is ramping up and offers some relief, at least in some areas of the city. The Beltline includes transit-oriented development, light rail, trails, and parks. It's a really cool project, dreamed up by a Georgia Tech student in 1999. We need more of this kind of planning!
Look for the helpers
One of the great things that comes out of a nightmare like this is hearing about the people who went out of their way to help others. I saw a photo of a man passing out snacks to people stuck in traffic. Many people helped push cars and try to get them unstuck. Businesses and organizations opened their doors to stranded commuters. Teachers calmed their students by treating the event as an adventure.
I grew up in the '60s and loved to watch Mr. Rogers on TV. The stories of the helpers remind me of something he said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ "
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