Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Crisis That Never Came

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Regional planning is not a field rife with natural law. The field, and professionals in it, deal with messy, complex problems that are difficult to codify into over-arching, all-encompassing truths. However, if there is one truism in the field that resembles natural law it is this: new capacity yields new demand. It is a phrase that flows off the tongues of transportation planners as easily as pedestrian traffic moves on any Atlanta sidewalk. It is a phrase to use when a governor promotes a new, roads-focused transportation plan or a county commission chooses to add lanes to a major artery. It is a phrase to use right before casually extolling the need for a robust transportation network that encompasses bicycles, buses, streetcars, and/or light rail. And while planners have had numerous opportunities to test out the affirmative, they have rarely had the opportunity to test the rule’s corollary at scale. What happens if you take away significant road capacity in a major metropolitan area? Does it result in less traffic? 

Atlanta is now in the midst of discovering whether the tried and true traffic rule does in fact have a corollary. On March 30th, a bridge connecting the downtown connector to Georgia 400 and I-85 collapsed in a fire. The major artery handles approximately one quarter of a million cars on a daily basis. And while it is still too early to tell, the initial results indicate that “carmageddon” is unlikely to happen as a result of the disaster and that gridlock will not render Atlanta residents incapable of doing anything save for wallowing in despair. It has not been the doomsday scenario many (i.e. all) were expecting, and certainly, not what public officials were planning for. The city and the region is still open for business, children still go to school, and the supply chain still flows. The city and the metro region is surviving. Regional systems are not inflexible, immovable objects. Regional systems adapt and adjust to new conditions should disaster strike the system’s core. 

Some initial observations that engender adaptation include the following: 

  • Folks will adjust behavior: While complete data is scarce on the entirety of the event, more would-be drivers are utilizing alternatives. On March 31st, the day after the collapse, MARTA reported a 25 percent increase in ridership and an 80 percent increase in Breeze Card sales according to MARTA’s CEO Keith Parker. Station parking across the network is at or near capacity. Whether these new riders become transit converts is still anyone’s guess. 
  • No matter how terrible the commute, folks will still drive: Surely there is a limit to the pain and suffering a driver is willing to undergo. Atlanta commuters may be reaching that upper limit, but right now folks are still driving. Buford Highway, a road that runs parallel to the I-85 Bridge is jammed with cars during a now lengthened rush hour. If the bridge collapse has done anything it has shifted traffic to local roads. Whether it is Piedmont or Cheshire Bridge, I-85 and Georgia 400 traffic (the highways most heavily impacted by the collapse) is being funneled onto local roads that now serve demand beyond their capacity. These smaller road capillaries are central to Atlanta’s ability to thwart wholesale crisis. 

The caveat of these observations is that the situation is still evolving and there is not yet a complete picture how the Atlanta’s transportation system adapted throughout the entirety of the crisis. The situation still has the potential to deteriorate in the short term. Over the long term, it is likely that this event will become just another blip in commuters’ memories with no real change in commuter behavior. This is not a failure of Atlantans to leverage this crisis for some higher purpose. Rather, it speaks to the resiliency and flexibility of regional systems and the people who live in them.