Atlanta Traffic Mess: Paging the Department of Redundancy Dept.

We tend not to think about the tremendous value of redundant systems until the moment we need them the most.

Let’s get two things straight off the bat. First, the traffic nightmare gripping Atlanta is not a laughing matter. It’s a serious threat to public health and safety. Second, we in the cold-weather North have no reason for smug self-satisfaction in all this – it wasn’t but a few years ago that we here in Boston suffered through a not dissimilar traffic nightmare caused by the disastrous decision to send all the states’ schoolkids and workers home at the same time in the teeth of a driving snowstorm. And, unlike Atlanta, we have salt trucks.

But the Atlanta traffic catastrophe does pack some relevant lessons for transportation planning and policy, particularly regarding the need to build systems that are resilient and have some degree of redundancy built in so that the failure of one part of the system can be absorbed with a minimum of damage to the whole. Our snow traffic disaster in Boston in 2007 was bad, but it could easily have taken on Atlanta-like proportions if we didn’t have the MBTA transit system to serve as a safety valve.

Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog hits the nail on the head by focusing on resiliency in her piece on the Atlanta traffic snarl today. And if you are looking for some theoretical background on resiliency, Todd Litman of the irreplaceable Victoria Transportation Policy Institute (VTPI) has an excellent summary here.

The policy issue at play is that we tend not to think about the tremendous value of redundant systems until the moment we need them the most. I suspect that many Atlanta area commuters today wish that the region’s heavy rail system covered more ground than it currently does. One of the beauties of extensive subway systems like those in New York is that, at least in central areas, there is more than one way to get where you’re going, meaning that a train problem or construction outage causes a minor inconvenience instead of a nightmare. (This is a real weakness of our hub-and-spokes rail system here in Boston.)

Even traditional street grids tend to be more resilient than suburban systems based on collector and arterial roads because they provide a variety of short cuts, back ways and emergency routes that allow traffic to fan out and continue to proceed – albeit more slowly – if there is a failure of any major part of the system.

One of the most important things I learned from VTPI’s work in identifying the economic value of public transportation is that transit provides value to drivers even if they rarely use it by serving as a backup option that is there when driving is impossible. Events like the traffic debacle in Atlanta reinforce why the value of resiliency and redundancy ought not to be ignored when the public and decision-makers weigh various options for investing transportation dollars.



Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.