Thursday, January 30, 2014

Urban Sprawl + Lack of Public Transit + 2 Inches of Snow = Atlanta Shutdown

Mary L. Dudziak

There’s no better time than a weather-related shutdown to get back to blogging.  Apologies for my silence, which comes in part from my discovery that there really is a scholarly use of Twitter, allowing for both reading and writing across smaller platforms. [Jack: please install Twitter share widget on blog.]

As I am writing, the City of Atlanta is in a “civil emergency” as the city and the state of Georgia work to clear abandoned cars from icy roadways, and as temperatures finally climb above freezing to do the de-icing that the region lacks the tools to accomplish.  For the rest of the country, this has been hilarious. 

 But Rebecca Burns has a smart piece in Politico that allows us to see a broader, and more general, lesson: The Day We Lost Atlanta: How 2 lousy inches of snow paralyzed a metro area of 6 million. “What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather,” she writes.
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. It tells us something not just about what's wrong with one city in America today but what can happen when disaster strikes many places across the country.
Burns makes an argument that you will remember from the post-Katrina commentary: this was not a natural disaster, but “this fiasco is manmade from start to finish.”  The essay also reminds us of Randolph Bourne’s argument that it is in war that citizens see the state, and at other times “the State reduced to a shadowy emblem.” For New Orleans after Katrina and in Atlanta today, weather stands in for Bourne’s focus on World War I, as weather provides the occasion for residents to confront in a direct and sometimes dire way the consequences of their government’s aid or its neglect.

How could Atlanta’s weather crisis be manmade?  Burns makes four points. 

First, “Atlanta” is not a city but a region, and governance is diffused by the division of the metro area into many different counties.  Georgia has more counties than any state except Texas. In the 1960s and 70s a combination of flight to the suburbs and new Atlanta migrants setting outside the formal city boundaries left the city as “the commercial district to which people commute.” This is why, when snow began to fall and schools and offices closed, one million vehicles headed for the freeways at the same time.

Burns’s remaining points are about transportation: the focus on making room for automobiles, including the bulldozing of urban neighborhoods; the way balkanized government impeded development of a regional public transit system; and voters’ rejection of a public transit referendum in 2012.

Her most important generalizable insight is that forms of governance affect outcomes.  We tend to think that smaller units allow for deeper citizen participation, but Burns shows that it can lead to peril. “There was no coordination around school closings, because there are more than two-dozen city and county school systems in ‘Atlanta,’” she explains.
There was little coordination between highway clearance and service to city streets because "Atlanta" is comprised of dozens of municipalities connected by state and federal highway systems....  If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it. And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around-and out of-the city other than by car.
Read the full essay here.


Interesting, and in Houston we cancelled numerous business and public gatherings, schools and universities when we had been warned about impending ice.
It seems that another "human" factor was the failure to cancel such in Atlanta, whether or not the decision-making process was fragmented.

Let's be clear -- Cobb and Gwinnett Counties rejected MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) due to racism. Negative ads stressed who MARTA might bring to the suburbs; the "joke" was that MARTA stood for Moving Africans Rapidly to Atlanta. But even after rejecting it, Cobb and Gwinnett retained representation on the MARTA board. Now the Braves have moved to Cobb County complaining about lack of transportation to their downtown stadium. (Also note that the Braves are one of the teams that has kept a cap on the number of black players it has. Remember that when reliever John Rocker called his black roommate a "monkey," it was his roommate who was traded.) The 2012 referendum was an exercise in log-rolling unrelated to transit needs or benefits that smelled so bad it was rejected throughout the region.

Since the ascendancy of realigned Republican party (picking up the Dixiecrat wing of the Democrats), Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton Counties (the two heavily black counties which Atlanta straddles) have been subject to racist legislation. Blacks and urban democrats have been packed into 3 congressional districts, while Republican suburban districts stretch across the state to pick up enough voters. Sales tax revenues from the Atlanta Airport have been taken away from the city. The formation of white suburban minicities has been encouraged, taking away office parks and high property value residential areas from Fulton and DeKalb, leaving them with high-cost low-income neighborhoods while the minicities cut taxes.

Atlanta is a prime example of what can go wrong when people move farther and farther away in a futile attempt to evade urban problems, and then do everything they can to exacerbate them.

I agree that race is part of the bigger picture.

On minicities, which is a current issue in the metro area, there is an initiative in my DeKalb Co. neighborhood, which is blocks from the city boundary, to join Atlanta rather than independent citihood. So there is push-back, at least in Druid Hills.

Once again, r. friedman is on target. We don't hear from him often enough.

Urban centers with densities are becoming more popular for the well to do who do not like to waste time on long commutes to work or otherwise and a number of other reasons. This may result in neighborhood changes, such as in San Francisco, displacing economically long time residents who cannot afford the sprawl areas, e.g., gentrification.


All the suburbs in areas which normally experience winter manage to clear their streets and folks simply add a little time onto their commutes.

Southerners generally do not get snow, do not have plows on hand, and have very little experience driving in snow.

These problems were hardly limited to sprawling Atlanta. All the small towns around the South under an inch or so of snow were equally shut down.

That is all there is to this "crisis."

If the current solar minimum continues and the South starts experiencing real winter, I am sure they will adapt without rebuilding urban areas or taking away people's cars.

Bart, you don't live in Atlanta and thus have no idea what you are talking about. The problem wasn't a lack of plows or salt; we actually have far more than we rationally should. The problem was that the roads became so overwhelemed with traffic congestion that plows and salt trucks were useless. Many of the roads were pretreated, but managed to freeze over in the hours people were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

And, in fact, the people who actually live and work in Atlanta were fine. Surface streets were frozen, but you could at least walk or take MARTA. The people who sat in cars for 12-24 hours work in Atlanta but live in the suburbs.

If you actually lived in Atlanta or spent any time here, you would also know that it doesn't take a snow storm to overwhelm our transportation systems. Interstates become locked in hopeless gridlock if you add a weekday afternoon sporting event or major concert to rush hour traffic.


That panic was Southern inexperience with winter weather.

Here in Colorado, the plows are out before the snow, dropping gravel and salt. The later snow removal is a continuous process and we go about our business normally without clogging the roads. If we get a big dump, people are smart enough to stay home.

Atlanta is hardly unique in experiencing traffic jams before and after sporting events. Foolishly joining a traffic jam is a personal choice. Get out early and tailgate.

The inconveniences of modern life do not constitute a crisis.

Get a grip, folks.

We recently had the same problem in the northeast, where we have snow all the time. The storm hit during rush hour. We have plenty of plows, but they could not do anything because they were stuck in traffic. Blankshot Bart has no idea what he is talking about.

Bart, you really have no idea of the trafic problems in Atlanta unless you spend a significant amount of time here, which I gather you do not. The problem is that the infrastructure is stretched to the limit on a normal work day when everything goes perfect. The slightist deviation from the norm overwhelms the system completely. Too many people traveling too great a distance in too many cars for even Atlanta's sprawling interstate and highway system to handle.

These problems were hardly limited to sprawling Atlanta. All the small towns around the South under an inch or so of snow were equally shut down.Buy LOL Boosting
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