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Building Science

Green Buildings Aren’t Truly Green Without Location Efficiency

A recent two-inch snowfall in Atlanta proved that suburban sprawl has a dangerous underbelly

The morning after the storm, abandoned cars littered the city. I saw these two cars near my house. And yes, that's a BMW on the sidewalk.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
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The morning after the storm, abandoned cars littered the city. I saw these two cars near my house. And yes, that's a BMW on the sidewalk.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
Red lines indicate stalled traffic. During the 2014 Atlanta snowstorm, traffic locked up quickly as schools and businesses sent everyone home at the same time.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
Road conditions during the 2014 Atlanta snowstorm weren't bad at first, but the sheer number of vehicles on the roads guaranteed gridlock.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
There was a lot of milk in this grocery store at the end of the day it snowed, probably because so many people were stranded in their cars.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
The Atlanta Beltline project offers some hope of relief from our transportation woes. With rails, trails, parks, and transit oriented development, it could help keep some cars off the roads.
Image Credit: Atlanta Beltline
The Abominable Snowman showed up in the Atlanta snowstorm, at least in social media. This image spread widely on Facebook and Twitter after the storm.
Image Credit: Unknown

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.

What happened?

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.’ “

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, energy consultant, RESNET-certified trainer, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


  1. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #1

    Ok, I'll gloat
    Good recap of our snowpocalypse, Allison. Interestingly, although I watched the snow, since I work out of my house and can walk most places I need, I wasn't even aware of the problem until friends and family from out of town started emailing and texting me to ask how I was doing. Then I turned on the news and saw what a mess it was. My house was well stocked with food, and I walked into Decatur Tuesday and Wednesday nights to socialize with other locals. A few meetings were cancelled and I got a bit bored sitting at home, but fortunately, I never had to get out in the icy mess. Helps living in one of the few walkable neighborhoods in the state.

  2. cussnu2 | | #2

    I'm sorry
    But all the Atlanta snow storm proved is people in the south are idiots who don't know how to drive. People in the midwest don't use snow tires or snow chains anymore either and had no problem navigating worse conditions this past weekend than you had in Atlanta. Next time it snows, go out and find an empty parking lot and cur loose. Do some doughnuts. Put your car into several skids. Learn how your car reacts to your heavy foot on both the brake and the gas peddle. Figure out how to get started and stopped. Find out just how long of a following distance you need to come to a stop. Figure out how to have a light touch on the steering wheel. Figure oout how to not make sudden movements. The snow wasn't the issue and the you didn't need the government nanny state to hold your hand. You need some common sense down their and a lot of drivers training. Every one of my kids has loved a good snow when they are 15/16 years old because they know Dad will be taking them out for some fun behind the wheel sliding. Eight to twelve inches of snow yesterday and today. Drove a tiny Toyota two wheel drive pickup to and from work without any problems at all. (This is about the worst type of vehicle you could ever imagine for snow.) Learn how to drive.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to B.W.
    The two articles that Allison linked to -- How 2 Inches of Snow Created a Traffic Nightmare in Atlanta and The Day We Lost Atlanta -- do a pretty good job of dismantling your theory that the problem occurred because drivers in Atlanta are unskilled.

    The author of the Politico article noted, "What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather. More than any event I’ve witnessed in two decades of living in and writing about this city, this snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it."

    You can read both articles for more details.

    Many Atlanta drivers were stuck on interstate highways for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic that wasn't moving at all. When you are stuck in a traffic jam like that, your driving skills are irrelevant. Even James Bond would be stuck (unless, of course, he had a helicopter car).

  4. cussnu2 | | #4

    Read How 2 inches of snow
    again and note the author admits his own problem with getting home was an idiot driving 5 mph. That is how the traffic jams came to be parking lot standstills. Rather than disprove my theory he supports it with first hand evidence despite the fact that liberals want to make this out to be an issue of cramming more people into smaller spaces and forcing them to use mass transit. There is no reason on earth with the number of 4 wheel drive vehicles owned in the south that there was that traffic nightmare except drivers who had no clue what they are doing.

    and just for the record thats not an Abominable Snowman its a Bumble from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

  5. user-1135248 | | #5

    visit beautiful New England
    Heh, "but why"'s comments sound almost exactly like something
    I'd write. LTFD. Some of you have seen my various rants on
    traffic and driver behavior... and after I shovel out today I
    might very well go out for, uh, donuts. Not the ones you eat.


  6. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #6

    Response to But Why?
    Yeah, it's fun to blame drivers in the South when this kind of stuff happens, but guess what? It happens in the North, too. A snow storm did nearly the same thing in Boston in 2007. In addition, a significant number of the drivers here in Atlanta are from the North and presumably learned to drive in snow.

    Finally, you seem to have missed my point that the roads were locked up even before the snow started sticking. See the photo from my 2 mile drive.

  7. user-1087436 | | #7

    I hold this truth to be self-evident;
    namely, that if a person goes around making self-serving generalizations about this state's drivers or that state's drivers, or if he attributes a place's traffic problems to drivers who are substandard (i.e., not as good as he is), then that person's opinion is to be disregarded. The fact is, American drivers aren't that much different wherever you are, and some cities in marginal climate zones have a real problem when snow and ice hit. Sprawl is a universal American condition. Portland has an excellent public transit system, but when snow comes it's still a mess. Same with Seattle. I drove a transit bus in Seattle for 32 years, and I've seen epic snow catastrophes. When the ice forms on those steep hills it's tough no matter what you do, and when a 22-ton 60-foot articulated coach bends at the hinge and starts to slide ALL BY ITSELF...well, I'll say no more. I've seen plenty of 4WD vehicles in the ditch, so they are not a cure-all. In all, I think it's obvious that Atlanta residents should have been a lot better prepared. But blaming the traffic jams on bad drivers is just silly. Everybody reacts to the conditions differently, and patience is the only way through.

  8. stuccofirst | | #8

    It sounds like someone didn't
    It sounds like someone didn't didn't think of rush hour when the designed the roads down there. What you need are some good ol' turnpikes!

  9. user-869687 | | #9

    As a bike commuter...
    I observe traffic congestion but it hardly affects travel time. A two mile journey takes about ten minutes any time of day. Sometimes there's a bridge up and everyone has to wait, but then you get to watch the bridge in action, and wave to the boat.

  10. Sfair74 | | #10

    I still don't understand how 2" of snow could do this. I live in Sanilac County Michigan. We don't believe in using salt to treat our roadways (poor large County). I commute 36 miles each way over two counties. Sanilac County the roads are in rougher shape for about 2-3 days compared to areas that treat their roads. The last major storm we had we were driving on hard packed snow that turned to grooved ice for a couple days before we got 2 tracks clear to pavement.

    I drive a first generation Honda Insight and still don't have that much trouble even on gravel roads when dragging bottom. Since this car has the back tires inset over 2 inches in the rear it likes to swing the rear two one side or the other to have one of the rear tires follow the track if conditions are poor.

    The worst commute I have ever had was 2 hours on a normal 50 minute commute. These conditions were unplowed and untreated roadways with most cars dragging bottom. You knew if you were in your lane based on the rumble strips and not much else. ..

    I agree that urban sprawl without support for mass transit can be an issue but i see no reason why 2" would cause gridlock. A 15 minute lesson (Joy Ride) in winter driving in a parking lot should be enough to prepare motorists for snow. To be fair a lot of people in Michigan forget how to drive in the snow the first snowstorm of every year and they should have the knowledge and experience to cope with it.

  11. gusfhb | | #11

    What in masschusetts 2007 kids were stuck in schools for 12 hours?
    traffic was backed up for the entire day?
    with 2 inches of snow?

    I think not

    Things that do make sense:
    they do not stock mountains of salt in Georgia like they do in Michigan or Mass
    We up north underestimate the difference the almost invisible amount of sand/salt mixture that is put down at the very beginning of a snow storm every single time. Why would Georgian's have this skill down?

    Drivers who don't know how to drive in snow are a problem. Hell, Californians cannot drive in the damn rain, I have seen it.

    At the end of the day, if it snowed 6 times a year in Atlanta, this would not happen. It is unpreparedness on multiple levels. The lack of public transportation is one of them. Honestly sprawl is an issue, but in this case it is pretty far down the list.

    Higher population density has problems of its own, and frequently those are magnified when the poop hits the air conditioning.

    I mean, where would you rather be when the zombie apocalypse hits...............

  12. wjrobinson | | #12

    Sprawling or not urban areas are not green
    All the cities world wide are at 99% capacity on a good day. Toss in a bad day and... there you go.

    The less you live in a group.... the better for this dog. I enjoy the cities on good days only just like I enjoy the mountains and oceans on good days. Doesn't take brains just common sense.

    The solution is not public transit. The solution is to get out. The solution is less humans on this planet.

    When my town put up stop lights... sure felt like time to move.

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