A Radical Approach to Addressing Atlanta’s Traffic Woes

All the bids for Amazon’s HQ2 were due Thursday, October 19, 2017. Atlanta is said to be one of two front runners – alongside Austin, TX – to land the internet behemoth’s second headquarters, including 50,000 new jobs and a ton of investment in the Atlanta community. Atlanta has everything Amazon wants, and some thing that they don’t: traffic. Atlanta traffic sucks. There are lots of reasons that it’s so bad, and a thousand people have offered up ways to improve it over the years. I have never heard one of these solutions that did not involve more bigger roads and more MARTA. In other words, asking our state and local governments to do more of exactly what they’ve done for the last 50 years. I’m proposing a more radical approach that puts Atlantans 100% in charge of solving our traffic problem.

I Hate My Commute

Full disclosure: I live in Roswell and work in Buckhead and Midtown. So, in the immortal words of Bill Clinton: “I feel your pain.” I live in Atlanta traffic to the tune of 24,000 miles on my car last year. I just happened to know that number because we just finished our 2016 taxes and I got a sweet deduction for all those miles. Yay.

Let Us Count The Ways

Before I make this radical proposal, let’s look at some – though definitely not all – of the ways we as Atlantans (or anyone else for that matter) can decrease traffic.

  • Telecommute – I’ll be the first to argue that there is no substitute for face to face interaction, and especially spontaneous interaction and conversation. You can’t jam on new ideas when you have to plan a meeting for it. That said, ask 10 people if they get more done on the days they work at home and you’ll get a 70-90% positive response.
  • Ride a bike to work – Means you have to live at least somewhat close to work, have a bike (cheaper than a car) and be willing to suffer some bad weather and a little road rage and actually learn and obey the traffic laws from a new point of view.
  • Walk to work – Same as biking, but more so. Most parts of Atlanta are not yet walkable, but building more roads will not ever fix this. It’s only been in the last decade that Atlanta has truly embraced mixed use (residential+retail+corporate in the same building) development. Midtown Atlanta is almost live-work-play. Almost. But Midtown is not the source of most of the traffic.
  • Don’t drive your kids to school unless absolutely necessary – Primarily in the burbs where I live, so so many people drive their kids to the public schools everyday. Why? Our tax dollars are paying for buses that drive right by their houses. The carpool lines for the private schools around town are RIDICULOUS, and yet we’ve accepted the carpool line at public schools as well. Let’s stop.
  • Work closer to home – I had a conversation with a recent college grad this summer. He had a job offer from a great company that would require him to move to another state. He flatly declined, saying he simply did not want to move. If you have that luxury, good for you. Most people do not. That said, this one is likely the hardest solution to the problem. Work in Buckhead? Chances are you cannot afford to live in Buckhead. It is my thesis that, over time, if commuting from OTP were deemed generally completely unacceptable, more businesses would embrace the suburbs for their main office or a satellite office at one of the many new co-working locations popping up all over Atlanta.
  • Carpool – An oldie but a goodie. Unfortunately, it’s one that we Atlantans do not embrace at scale. We like to have our cars. We don’t like to not have our cars. Guilty as charged. I hate being stuck somewhere without my car. It’s a bit of a safety blanket. Because I have a choice.
  • Use Uber / Lyft – When the I-85 bridge was out earlier this year, I used Uber + MARTA a LOT. It was less convenient than driving my car, as in it took more time, but I got there, and I didn’t miss anything because of it. I can name half a dozen people that I know who had cars, and gave them up because they really did the math of car payment, maintenance, gas, and insurance vs. a few bucks per ride. No ride, no cost.
  • MARTA – I could take MARTA every day for half the distance of my commute. The North Springs Station is on my way from Roswell to Midtown or Buckhead. But that piece of the commute is the longest. South of North Springs is about 30% of my daily commute, so I don’t take MARTA. I do take it to the airport, because my wife can drop me at the station and there simply is no better way to get to the airport from north of town. That said, I do not like riding MARTA. It’s hot. It smells. People are rude and inconsiderate. I have a choice, and I choose to drive.

But what if my choice changed? What if driving became less appealing than taking MARTA every day?

Doing The Same Thing Over and Over, Expecting Different Results

MARTA, I-20, I-75, I-85, I-285, GA400 were all decided on decades ago. Has our traffic improved? Ever? No. Traffic has only become worse and worse as our great city has attracted more than 6 million new residents in the last 3 decades in spite of the bad traffic! It wasn’t a secret in 1990 that we had really bad traffic, and it’s no secret now, even though it keeps getting worse. And people keep moving to Atlanta, for all the other great reasons. Maybe Amazon will, too.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do not think anyone ever set out to make traffic worse on purpose. But when you’re a hammer, everything you see is a nail. Much like “lawmakers” are paid to make more laws (no matter how asinine or ineffective), Departments of Transportation are paid to build more roads! They’re just doing their jobs, but it hasn’t worked and won’t work any better tomorrow or the next decade. Look at the Bay Area of California! More building of more roads will not solve our traffic problems, and even if it could, it would take 20-40 years. Remember, we were saying the same things 40 years ago. Building more and more roads in Atlanta is the definition of insanity.

So what should we do? That’s a trick question. Here’s my radical proposal.


Our DoT should be reduced to maintenance only. We’ve got plenty of roads already. Anyone can get from anywhere to anywhere else using the roads, buses, and MARTA. Let’s use the tax dollars to make sure those roads are perfectly maintained and MARTA is spotless. Did you know Atlanta is the nation’s leader in the use of those massive steel plates to cover potholes? Let’s fix all the potholes, repave all the roads, and make sure every street and highway is completely up to date. Let’s make MARTA sparkle with excellent user experience.

But let’s not add one more inch of road to metro Atlanta. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. More roads and more MARTA will mean only more traffic.

But All The Construction / Transportation Jobs We Will Lose?!?

Yes, government contract highway construction firms will take a hit. Sorry, not sorry. Or will they? How many potholes, busted sidewalks, and old bridges are there in metro Atlanta? That’s plenty of work. For a long, long time.

I am convinced that the leaders of these highway construction businesses – not the folks doing the actual work – are in the business justifying their own existence by making up projects to spend tax dollars on. Prime example: the “speed limit” signs on I-285 that change throughout the day to tell you what the speed limit is at that time. Those signs cost $200k each. What do they do? Nothing. Useless to tell drivers on the perimeter between 4 – 7pm that they should be going 55MPH when they’re going 8. Similarly useless to tell those same drivers to slow down to 55 at noon. Ridiculous waste of taxpayer money just to give business to these contractors. Also, cutting down trees within 50 yards of the highway. Really? No, you made that up. Suck it up. The rest of us have.

You did a superb job fixing the I85 bridge. Let’s put that same kind of effort into eliminating 100% of all potholes in Atlanta.

Let The People Fix The Traffic Problem

Instead, let’s put the solution to this problem in the hands of those who have to live with it: commuters. Necessity is the mother of invention. When we – as regular everyday private citizens – need something, we will find a way to get it. When we’re stuck on a problem, we can find a way around it. Will it be inconvenient? Yes, it most certainly will, but not nearly as bad as spending your life in Atlanta traffic.

Fix the roads we have. Don’t build one more road or add one more inch of track to MARTA. Things will change. People will change when they understand that their circumstances (traffic) will not change. People will move. Businesses will move. Fiber will be added to neighborhoods. Bicycle lanes will be accepted. Sidewalks will be built. Uber & Lyft will thrive.

How Do You Know?

I don’t know anything for certain except that God is God and I am not. However, I do know that, during the I-85 bridge outage, a lot of people changed their daily habit because they had no other choice. Was it inconvenient? Yes. Painful at times? Yes. I was there. I had to adjust my commute, but I hardly remember the inconvenience, because we just dealt with it. We had no choice.

Now that the bridge has been fixed, everything’s gone back to just the way it was before. Sitting in traffic on I-85. Isn’t that great?

I am sure there are a lot of strong opinions here, so let’s hear ’em.  What do you think?

5 thoughts on “A Radical Approach to Addressing Atlanta’s Traffic Woes

  1. Well, the first thing I would do is bypass the land use rules you just created by calling Elon Musk’s Boring company to build a new commercially owned road underground and make some serious money from the people you’ve pissed off. 😉

    Seriously, we have very stable bedrock here. We could take our roads underground and make them go where we want them to, not just where we can get the available space to put them. The outer perimeter would be very useful right now.

  2. Don’t do anything. Don’t try to fix traffic. Don’t do it. The less you do, the more you do. Let’s see you pop up. That’s not it at all. Do less, get down. Try less. Nope, too slow. Do less. You’re doing too much, do less. Remember, don’t do anything. Nothing. Well, no, you gotta do more than that.

  3. G’day, as an influential traffic blogger, I welcome your views. Atlanta has landed at No. 4 in a ranking of the most congested U.S. cities for 2018. Will Atlanta’s Smart Cities programs make a difference in traffic congestion? Will smart traffic signals, intelligent roads, road congestion sensors and monitors and the Internet of Things reduce Atlanta’s bottlenecks & traffic jams? I’m writing about the topic at the Icons of Infrastructure site. Pls weigh in. Hope to hear from you soon. Thank you

    Site: http://iconsofinfrastructure.com

    • My take? Nope. For 50+ years the only solution the municipalities of metro Atlanta have come up with is “build more bigger roads”, and our traffic has continued to get worse and worse.

  4. It’s kind of stupid to say that “building more roads haven’t worked for past 40 years”. It would have been even worse if there was no road building. The reason that situation has worsened is that road building has not kept up with the city development. What this artical suggests is that commuters should just deal with the inconvenience instead of trying to better the situation. ROADS DO WORK. Atlanta’s traffic woes dste back decades because the interstate that network planned was never built, mainly due to NIMBYsm. There was a plan of passing i75 seperate from i75 through Virginia highland and that would have been much better than gigantic downtown connector. Also Atlanta’s street pattern is wacky, there is always a need to funnel to a major artery and rest ofthe streets are under utilized. If you want to look at the example of well planned city, look at dallas. People can still afford good standard of living in safe suburbs and commute to their jobs in reasonable amount of time and have time to enjoy life than seating in traffic. At last I checked dallas has better job opportunities and lesser crimes better schools and lesser taxes than atlanta. These whole anti development only benefits people holding property in the prime location, and making renting / commuting expensive for everyone else. Young and poor people are specifically at disadvantage, cause they are more likely to burnt by higher rents which has to be closer to their jobs because they have unbearable commute if they want to live somewhere affordable. So my answers is build the roads that were necessary but were never built. And improve the street connectivity to reduce the load on major arteries.

What do you think about that?

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