Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the road to nowhere

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 10:10 AM

  • Erin Noel
What happened in Atlanta on January 28th 2014 will, it's safe to bet, live in infamy.

It will be a story told, told again, and retold for weeks, probably months to come, and in 50 years by grandparents to grandchildren as they gather round some synthetic fire of our bright future. Perhaps someday it will even be arranged by history into the timeline of Atlanta's crucial events like Sherman's burning of the city, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, and the 1996 Olympic Games. In 50 years we may all travel in driverless cars, or flutter around in pilotless drones comfortably insulated from the memory of "roads", "traffic" and the coldest obscenity: "gridlock." On that day, January 28th may seem as distant as the time we traveled in covered wagons. But, at the moment, I'm not concerned with the distant future.

I was going to start this piece off with my own "horror story." Something about a light repeatedly turning green and my foot clamped firmly to the brake. After 30 minutes of looking out on a traffic jam with a pleasantly light frosting of snow, I reached the limit of my patience. I pulled over, parked the car, uttered my hundredth sacrilegious "This would never happen in New York" and walked 15 minutes to the closest MARTA station.

But my experience seems utterly pleasant now compared to the truly horrible extremes to which people were driven. The sickening stories of being marooned for 12 hours or more on helplessly filled freeways, of children hopelessly separated from parents, babies born in cars, a night spent on the hard tile floor of a CVS aisle. Sitting in a car for 45 minutes to go a distance I could normally travel in five left me scarred. I can hardly imagine the post-traumatic stress disorder that will be suffered by those who spent the entire night in their car, their eyes bloodshot from a lack of sleep and from staring into an endless stream of taillights. Or, possibly worse, waking up, face frozen to the same horrific scene that was their last image before nodding off.

During the relatively brief time I was trapped, lamenting my decision not to ride my bike as usual, I got a call from my dad. He was chuckling about the mayhem that was forming on his Midtown street. At 1:30 p.m., cars were already clogging Piedmont Drive and beginning to fill side streets in an attempt to elude the impending doom. "I've never seen it like this! I already saw two people carrying gas tanks back to their cars!" At this early stage it was almost funny, and the connection that coalesced between "hysteria" and the use of "hysterical," to mean hilarious, still seemed apt, and not tragic, in my mind.

Earlier in the day I had explained to my dad my belief that Atlanta is quickly and in my view, all too quietly approaching a tipping point. With Atlanta's population increasing now not only in the suburbs but also recently for the first time in 40 years within the city proper, I predicted that in the next ten years we would see a day in which a few big accidents at key interchanges could lead to a disastrous traffic snarl-up that would affect the whole of the metro area.

He jokingly congratulated me on my prediction coming true far sooner than we could have imagined.

I would not be so naïve as to think that a MARTA line up I-75 or commuter trains to Cumming would have prevented the disaster that occurred. But I do firmly believe that the situation would not have been nearly as dire if a significant portion of the metro Atlanta population commuted by rail.

I know that I am by no means the first person to raise this suggestion. But after more than 30 years of proposals to increase mass transit, to build the gleaming multi-modal station in the Gulch, to do something, anything, what do we have to show besides nation-leading commute times and, now, a historic traffic nightmare?

Every day of this dangerously hurried legislative session that our lawmakers do not take serious action towards solving the metro area's transit problems is a day we will all someday spend suffering in another traffic catastrophe. The conversation, although still plodding along in certain circles, has been deadlocked for too long. The history of racism and classism that have for so long prevented progress on this issue must be whittled away if not by logic, than by the realization that traffic knows no race or class. And that all of us individually and the state collectively is suffering for lack of movement. If the metro area is the engine of this state's economy, it is an engine we have not oiled for far too long. And while any car can get by for a few thousand miles without changing the oil, eventually, inevitably, the engine will seize up.

As I walked through Downtown at 3 p.m., the snow still falling and the drivers looking ever more panic stricken, I crossed the streetcar tracks, still under construction. I was reminded of a GIF I saw a few months ago. It showed a block of an urban street and alternated between the street completely filled with cars, and then the street empty except for one streetcar. It's a jarring contrast, flashing on repeat, to see the space required for forty people in forty cars and forty people in one 66-foot streetcar. But before the chorus of doubters is raised about how the streetcar isn't enough, and while we're still the butt of late-night jokes, remember that every little bit helps, and that you have to start somewhere, and of course, the sooner the better.

Nick Stephens is an Atlanta native and writer. His last piece for CL looked at the Atlanta Braves' decision to flee the city.

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