Damn This Traffic Jam

January 30, 2014

‘I used to think that I was cool,
runnin’ around on fossil fuel,

’till I saw what I was doin’
was driving down the road to ruin”

In the age of weather extremes and terrorism, we’ll have to figure out better ways to move people around than sprawled freeways. Just sayin’.

Business Insider:

The stories coming out of Atlanta are crazy — people are abandoning their vehicles on the road, a baby was born in a car stuck in traffic, and 800 kids are stranded in schools as snow completely paralyzes the city.

The scene resembles the giant traffic jam depicted on “The Walking Dead” after Atlanta is taken over by zombies.

One to two inches of snow fell on Atlanta Tuesday, bringing traffic in the area to a near standstill. Atlanta’s mayor has told people to stay off the icy roads, but thousands of people are still stuck. The dangerous road conditions have already caused hundreds of accidents.

The roads are so bad that schools in the area have suspended bus service. Parents are having a hard time getting to schools to pick up their kids, so hundreds of students might have to stay overnight.


But before nightfall, the situation in Atlanta had grown more tragic than comic. A baby was delivered by her father in a car on I-285, the “Perimeter” highway that circles the city. Parents en route to pick up kids dismissed from school early were stranded on highways. The Facebook group #SnowedOutAtlanta contained desperate pleas from moms trapped in frigid minivans with toddlers and adults worried about their elderly parents—stuck without medications.

What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather. More than any event I’ve witnessed in two decades of living in and writing about this city, this snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it. It tells us something not just about what’s wrong with one city in America today but what can happen when disaster strikes many places across the country. As with famines in foreign lands, it’s important to understand: It’s not an act of nature or God—this fiasco is manmade from start to finish. But to truly get what’s wrong with Atlanta today, you have to look at these four factors, decades in the making.

So on Tuesday, as schools, businesses and governments, announced plans to close early, everyone who works in Atlanta headed for the freeways to get home or collect their children. In a press conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Reed reported that one million vehicles were part of the mass exodus from downtown. We’re not morons, Northerners: The problem was not one of Southerners’ inability to drive on icy roads, but of too many cars headed for congested highways.

Between noon and 5 p.m. Tuesday, those million drivers headed for the “Downtown Connector,” the highway that bisects the heart of Atlanta, the city, and, ahem, connects its suburbs to the rest of the country. (If you’ve ever taken a road trip to Florida or the Georgia Coast, you’ve doubtless idled on the Connector.) Construction on this main artery, where interstates 75 and 85 converge as they pass through the city, began in the 1950s, and in the process tens of thousand of people were displaced and hundreds of residential acres bulldozed, further decreasing the density of the city’s population and triggering more sprawl to the suburbs. In the 1960s, Mayor Ivan Allen, who lured the Braves to Atlanta and is credited with helping the city navigate the tumult of the Civil Rights era, was not able to convince the region to support construction of a transit system. Highway construction, on the other hand, continued apace, abetted by construction-happy legislators.

More at the Politico link.

Obviously in this case, weather was the problem, but you don’t need inclement weather for Black ice to form.


I’d always assumed the moisture for black ice just came from the weather — it rains a little, then it freezes, and voila. But that’s not the case. Black ice, in case this is a regional colloquialism that doesn’t translate everywhere, is actually transparent ice. It’s a thin layer of slippery stuff that forms on roads and is almost imperceptible to the eye. You look and see a normal road. You don’t see the ice.

Technically, black ice can form from any source of moisture, but the big one turns out to be the droplets of water that condense out of vehicle tailpipe exhaust and dribble onto the roadway.

11 Responses to “Damn This Traffic Jam”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Atlanta is the poster child for the problems discussed in Terra Nova—the disastrous land use patterns around our cities brought on by once cheap oil, too many cars, too many roads, and too many ever-more-distant suburbs. The writer says, “we’re not morons, Northerners”. Having visited Atlanta twice a year for years (in spring and fall, not during “snow season”), I would debate that a little bit—I saw a lot of moronic drivers on a moronically inadequate road system each time—but he is correct in saying that it’s really “nobody’s fault”.

    It’s everybody’s fault, in this case particularly those who have failed to recognize that turning EVERYBODY loose on the roads at the SAME time does not work, and those in the bureaucracy who failed to heed the weather warnings and get the roads treated. We had a similar situation here in the DC area not long ago, with the same result. And good luck on trying to convince anyone that they should not be on the head of the line at “bug out” time.

  2. skeptictmac57 Says:

    Concerning northern vs southern driving abilities in wintry conditions,I think there are several factors at work:
    1. Because these events are less common in the south the infrastructure to keep the roads driveable are fewer.
    2.The south handles snow a lot better than ice,but ice is more likely in some parts of the south.Dallas is a good example.We are famous for semi annual ice storms,but snow is less common,handled better,and usually not very extensive.
    3.Most drivers do drive appropriately for the conditions,but it only takes a few to screw up traffic for the many,and those with less experience (due to fewer exposures to these events) will surely be more dangerous.
    4.People who live with these conditions commonly are going to own cars that handle wintry roads better(Subarus are all over Colorado for example).They are also more likely to have good snow tires.Those are rare in the south.

  3. MorinMoss Says:

    All that from 1-2 inches? Sheesh.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      It’s not the 1-2 inches of snow that really hurts down here, it’s the 1/4 inch of black ice. I have watched SUV drivers go past me on the interstates here at 60mph because they have FOUR WHEEL DRIVE, while I am going 20mph and gripping the wheel in fear (as well as the seat with my butt to sense any skidding). I once watched a Jeep “in a hurry” do a 360 right in front of me at 45 mph—he recovered without hitting any of us that were carefully trying to avoid him and KEPT ON GOING (but at the same speed as the rest of us).

      I hate to be “mean”, because they probably have families that love and depend on them, but I DO derive pleasure from watching them spin out and slam the Jersey walls. Nothing like a several-thousand-$ repair bill to teach a lesson.

      • MorinMoss Says:

        Black ice kills a lot of idiots.
        About 20 yrs ago, I spun out of control on an offramp that had black ice in the tightest part of the curve, lost all control at only 15-20 mph tops.

        Had to get pulled out of a snowbank at 4am on a windy morning at 5 below.

      • Sometimes the slow driving white knuckled drivers on skinny all season tires are watching the over confident Bimmers and 4wd spin into the ditch. I watched a Bimmers fly past into a long puddle and aquaplaned. It’s weird how only two things will get some drivers to slow down and pay attention. One is a recovered 360, the other those flashing lights. But even careful drivers are powerless to do anything about slippery roads. I watched cars take banked freeway exit ramps too slow and wind up sliding down into the embankment. The car becomes a boat. On ice, you need an anchor to keep a car from sliding. Once it’s on ice even at no speed it goes downhill with no control.

  4. rayduray Says:

    The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog has photos of the ice storm:


  5. We had gridlock in Boston in 2007 when the powers that be decided to send all the kids and workers home at the same time after a snowstorm got busy. I know, because I was on the way to a doctor and it took me 5 hours to go 7 miles. Boston is good with snow, but administrators need to think when they plan.

  6. Turning to solutions, there is public transit, but Atlanta is sprawled. Here’s another.

  7. […] 'I used to think that I was cool, runnin' around on fossil fuel, 'till I saw what I was doin' was driving down the road to ruin" In the age of weather extremes and terrorism, we'll have to figure o…  […]

  8. MorinMoss Says:

    Ah, the Lit Motors C1. Been keeping an eye on them for a couple years.
    As far as I can tell, they’re sticking to a late-2014 small production run.

    Keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll see some of these in consumers’ hands by Xmas.

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