From catastrophe to opportunity

Brandon Barr
Mar 31, 2017 · 4 min read

The fiery collapse of the I-85 overpass yesterday, while thankfully not claiming any lives (thanks in large part to the fantastic work of the fire department dispatched to the scene), is about to throw Atlanta’s traffic infrastructure into utter chaos. The major north/south artery into Atlanta is now inoperative, and the traffic effects will reverberate throughout the city as cars re-route to different arteries. Drivers depending on live traffic routing apps like Waze should help (as ostensibly crowd-sourced data will be smarter than humans who pick routes at their whims). But it’s going to be bad. And it’s going to be bad for awhile. Officials have yet to give an official estimate. But as of last night, a friend of mine texted me saying that an experienced Atlanta bridge engineer she knew estimated that it will take at least 14 weeks to repair.

14 weeks. That’s 3 and 1/2 months. Or, for “the foreseeable future.”

For commuters that depend on the I-85 artery, things are going to get difficult. Today will be tough — or not, depending on how many people just stay home. Next week is APS Spring Break, which will help a little bit. But traffic is going to be particularly difficult for the next month as commuters slowly discover their best options for dealing with the removal of their primary commute option — be it MARTA, alternate routes, car-pooling, telecommuting, or lifestyle changes (moving homes/jobs/social destinations — probably the least likely to change due to a medium-term closure).

But long term, this could be the best thing to ever happen to Atlanta’s traffic problems. Stay with me.

As I’ve written before, traffic in Atlanta (at least prior to the collapse) is not just an infrastructure problem, it’s a driver behavior problem. There are too many single drivers in 4-seat cars. Think about it. When a holiday hits, the roads are much easier to navigate, because there are fewer cars. So if we can change driver behavior to reduce the number of under-utilized cars on the roadway each day, traffic will move from unbearable to bearable.

I’ve always contended that the best way to do that is to do something supremely unpopular. Like tripling the number of HOV lanes, causing traffic jams until drivers change behavior. Or adding a large ($10+ per visit) toll to every car entering the city center (like London does). Or just removing the I-85/75 connector altogether (like these cities have done).

Unfortunately, no politician would survive forcing Atlantans to suffer such a pain in the ass that they are forced to change their long term behavior. So seismic change has always been unlikely. Until now. Because with the I-85 collapse, driver behavior changes are going to be forced, like it or not. And they are going to be behavior changes that last 3–4 months — 2 months longer than most science now says it takes to make a new behavior a habit.

How we decide to empower those changes (through public education, policy, and funding) won’t just help Atlanta navigate through this infrastructure emergency. It can help us navigate to a better traffic solution once the bridge is rebuilt and I-85 reopens. There’s the obvious basic blocking and tackling: City and state officials should be immediately directing Atlanta commuters to GA Commute Options to encourage MARTA ridership and carpooling — and not just as a “hey this is a nice option for you,” but with a civic address that implores Atlantans that it is their duty to find more sustainable routes into the city.

The city should not only work to increase MARTA’s train and bus deployment (which they have announced today), but offer to reimburse in-town businesses for MARTA passes to prod commuters to use mass transit. They should encourage all citizens driving from North Atlanta to use real-time traffic navigation apps like Waze to spread traffic out among other alternate routes, and even offer free short-term smartphones to drivers who can’t afford them to get them using Waze as well. Bigger roads draw more traffic — now is our opportunity to show Atlantans that smaller roads (if everyone uses them) can get you there just as fast — the opposite corollary of induced demand, which is explained in good detail by Wired here.) Finally, they should work with major employers to encourage telecommuting during the repair — and investigate long-term options that can make telecommuting the norm moving forward to reduce commute volume. For example, a ring of telecommuting hubs at the perimeter and in the city’s many live-work-play developments that let suburbanites work at connected workstations tied into major employers’ data networks.

Or we could be even more visionary, and not fix the bridge at all. We could look to San Francisco as an example to follow here. They also experienced a disaster that ruined their in-town freeway connector (in their case, an earthquake), and instead of repairing it, they demolished it — freeing up space for the Embarcadero, a pedestrian centered plaza and mix of business, luxury and affordable housing that transformed into a key part of the waterfront. Imagine if Kasim Reed, as an outgoing mayor not needing reelection but needing to cement his legacy, was able to capture Atlanta’s imagination and get voters behind removing I-75/85 south of the Brookwood interchange and north of I-20, replacing it with a centralized plan of transit, parks, and affordable housing that would that out-vision The Stitch and The Beltline combined, and cement our city as not one you drive through, but that you live in.

But that’s big dreaming. I’ll settle for us taking the opportunity to change commuter behaviors in such a way that we open their eyes and transform their long-term habits during the repairs — and ultimately have less traffic and a more sustainable city once I-85 is reopened. We have 3 1/2 months, give or take. Let’s change our behaviors, and change our city for good.

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