Tip of the Iced Burb

Atlanta’s urban form doesn’t cope well with ice storms. That doesn’t mean it’s going to change any time soon.


This is coming to you from the suburbs northeast of the city of Atlanta, where, two weeks after two inches of snow cleared the roads and caused 30-hour traffic jams, ice blankets everything. The storm is inspiring the National Weather Service to new heights of eloquence: “Catastrophic, crippling, paralyzing, choose your adjective,” read a bulletin issued Wednesday morning, the first day of the storm. Augusta, to the east, is expected to get an inch of ice. I’m typing as fast as I can before the power goes out.

“SnowJam 2014” prompted a series of reflections on how Atlanta’s urban form leaves it nastily vulnerable to winter weather. (And when I say “Atlanta,” I mean the amorphous blob that is metropolitan Atlanta. The city’s population is less than 450,000, the metropolitan area closer to 5.5 million.) A truncated heavy-rail system that serves only two counties out of 10 means most people are dependent on clear roads to get around. And when the roads are blocked, the design of spread-out suburbs makes the nearest shelter or grocery store a distant walk.

Ryan Gravel, a prominent local urban planner, outlined the problem succinctly:

The collective “we” of regional Atlanta should own up to our problem. We built a car-dependent region because that’s what we wanted…What if we had to go for weeks without driving? The distances that most people live from where they need to go, and the disconnected nature of our roadway network, would leave most of the region stranded. The consequences of our car-dependency would have been much more dramatic. Our economy and our way of life depends on people being able to get around, and in most areas of our region, we rely exclusively on an infrastructure that gets jammed up in any emergency.

But ice storms, as dramatic as they are right now—and, depending on your belief as to the meteorological consequences of global warming, as likely as they are to increase in frequency and severity—are not Atlanta’s usual weather problem. Atlanta’s usual weather problem reinforces the desire for the car-dependent, anti-public-transit, low-density development that’s been in local vogue since the 1950s. Atlanta’s usual weather problem is heat.

There’s been a lot of research on how the urban form might contribute to excess heat—Atlanta’s sprawling concrete has helped make the area a heat island—but there’s less discussion about how heat might have shaped the urban form in the first place. Anyone who bemoans Atlanta’s quick and total embrace of the car has to factor in that for six to eight months of the year, the car functions as a handy dandy portable air conditioner.

Popular Science ran a piece on the first air-conditioned car in 1933; by 1940 you could buy an air-conditioned Packard; by 1969 more than half of all new cars sold came with air-conditioning. Atlanta offered what claimed to be the first air-conditioned public trolley, in 1945, but it’s not hard to see the appeal of air-conditioned cars in a city where the average high temperatures in June and September are 87° and 82° F, and where the record high temperatures (of 102°) were set in 1936 and 1925 for those months.

Like a lot of places, Atlanta has seen its share of hotter-than-usual summers since the mid-1990s; but those usual summer temperatures were not low to begin with.

Never let them see you sweat

Think of the car as portable air conditioner, and a lot about Atlanta’s sprawl starts to make more sense. You don’t need to have stores close to homes, because people are going to drive to the store anyway. But you are going to need large parking lots everywhere.

When the Peachtree Center complex of buildings was built downtown in the 1960s and 1970s, it included enclosed walkways from building to building. This was partly to separate workers from the “dangerous” downtown, but also to spare them from the summer heat, like Minneapolis’ extensive Skyways protect its citizens from the bitter cold.

Similarly, businesses don’t need to be located close to public transit. In fact, public transit becomes a detriment to the average Atlanta employee, who, if forced to wait for a bus or train in the hot sun, is going to show up to work sweatier and more disheveled than someone who sat in traffic while receiving blasts of cold air right in the face. Bus stops rarely provide much in the way of shade.

The sad truth is that racism, classism, and climate are are inextricably entwined in Atlanta. Visible sweat is seen as gauche at best. (Gone With the Wind, which is not a bad guide to the psychological history of white Atlanta, has Scarlett sweaty only when she’s miserable—“Her lavender calico dress, so freshly clean and starched that morning, was streaked with blood, dirt and sweat,” and so on.) The advent of the air-conditioned car, and the asphalt on which it drives, has strengthened an existing prejudice. Walking means sweating, and sweating means you are too poor for a car with air-conditioning.

A winter storm upends that calculation: suddenly cars are out of the question and walking is advantageous. But even potentially catastrophic winter storms don’t happen often enough to tip Atlanta’s collective calculation towards giving up the car.

If anything, we’re stuck in a particularly vicious cycle: the amount of car-driven development intensifies the heat-island effect, and the resulting heat waves send us scurrying back to our air-conditioned cars and our air-conditioned houses and air-conditioned office buildings and even air-conditioned indoor playgrounds. Until someone finds a way to overcome prejudices that go deeper than urban form, Atlanta is going to keep sprawling, and getting hotter, and staying vulnerable.


Jessica Doyle writes about business education at Economist.com and previously covered the southeastern US for the Economist. She has a master’s in city and regional planning from Georgia Tech, where she was a researcher at the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development. Her most recent article for The Magazine was “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.”

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Photo by William Brawley.