The Day We Lost Atlanta


On Tuesday, snowfall of just over 2 inches shut down metropolitan Atlanta’s roads, schools, churches, government offices and businesses. Thousands of flights were cancelled at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms. It seemed that the only places open were Waffle House and Home Depot, the former serving hash browns and coffee and the latter opening up its stores as makeshift shelters. People who didn’t camp out in supermarket aisles and hotel lobbies were trapped in cars for 10, 16, 20 hours as they tried to make commutes that normally take just 30 minutes.

Surely to everyone else in the world, the staggering sight of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States brought to a standstill by a few flurries seemed comical at first. Oh, those Southerners, they don’t know how to drive in the snow! Indeed, as I tried to get home from work Tuesday evening, my tires spinning uselessly in an icy patch just yards from Peachtree Street, a trio of tourists snapped camera-phone pictures and laughed. I’m sure my Honda’s enshrined on someone’s Facebook page with a witty caption. Inevitably, people began to compare the gridlocked cars heading out of downtown Atlanta to the Walking Dead poster, Southerners trapped by a “snowpocalypse” instead of the zombie variety.

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. 

1. Atlanta, the city, should not be confused with Atlanta, the region.

Distinguishing between the city proper and the metro region is no semantic quibble. The city itself, population just over a half million, represents only a fraction of the metro’s 6 million residents. Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, is the face you see on CNN and the guy called out by Al Roker, but he’s only one of more than 60 mayors of the towns and cities that make up the Atlanta region, which, depending on whose metric you use consists of 10, 15, or 28 counties (each with their own executive officers).

Metro Atlanta’s patchwork of local governments is rooted in early Georgia history; the state has more counties—159—than any other in the country, save Texas. But while other metro areas strove to consolidate city and county operations in the mid-to late twentieth century, Atlanta grew more balkanized. In the 1970s, while then-mayor Richard Lugar helped to consolidate Indianapolis with Marion County, creating Unigov and making Indianapolis one of the largest cities in the country, the city of Atlanta witnessed an exodus of 160,000 people. The white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, triggered by integration of schools and housing, was followed by reverse migration as blacks from the Northeast and Midwest returned to the Atlanta region but opted to move into the suburbs of DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties. Atlanta the city, became—and despite a slow uptick in population, remains—the commercial district to which people commute from Atlanta, the suburbs.

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. And that brings us to the next history lesson.

2. Since the 1950s, the car—and the highway—has dominated Atlanta’s transportation system.

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.

3. The transit that eventually was built does not serve the whole region.

In the early 1970s, Atlanta finally got some transit. But the system that was created, MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), serves only the city of Atlanta and the two counties in which its boundaries fall, DeKalb and Fulton. In 1965 and 1971 votes, residents of the other adjoining counties—Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett—rejected MARTA, with votes following racial lines. A 1971 compromise hammered out in the statehouse hamstrung the transit authority’s governance, restricting its use of income for operations and service, meaning that MARTA has not been able to add more service or increase frequency even as the region’s population has grown. In the 1990s alone, 650,000 people moved to metro Atlanta, most of them settling in the northern suburbs.

Ironically, as the metro area grew over the past three decades, those suburban counties have become more diverse, more crowded and more congested. But even if those new residents wanted to use MARTA, it wouldn’t be easy for them to do so. There are few connections between MARTA and systems such as Cobb County Community Transit (CCT), which mostly operates bus routes between major commercial centers in Cobb and the heart of downtown Atlanta. Among the stranded vehicles Tuesday were regional buses. Indeed, a CCT bus spun its tires right behind me, to the amusement of those tourists. Clayton County’s bus service was eliminated in 2010, a victim of the recession.

4. Metro voters rejected transit relief in a 2012 referendum.

In a rare showing of regional allegiance, local leaders supported a referendum on a special tax for transportation improvement, known as T-SPLOST, in July 2012. But voters, suspicious of the government’s ability to carry out the plans, rejected T-SPLOST resoundingly.

Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, who has studied Atlanta congestion and development for three decades, wrote in his 2013 report “The Walk-Up Wake-Up Call: Atlanta”:

“Given that Atlanta’s primary reason for economic success over the past 175 years has been as the transportation hub of the Southeast U.S., this lack of investment is disappointing. It is as if the reason for the region’s very existence, transportation, has been forgotten. The overwhelming loss of the July 2012 transportation ballot measure is just the latest example of turning a blind eye to the reason for Atlanta’s economic success.”

And that brings us back to Atlanta’s present snowbound state. There was no coordination around school closings, because there are more than two-dozen city and county school systems in “Atlanta.” There was little coordination between highway clearance and service to city streets because “Atlanta” is comprised of dozens of municipalities connected by state and federal highway systems. In one of the most surreal episodes today, Charley English, the head of the Georgia Emergency Management Association, asserted that gridlock wasn’t severe around 3 and 4 p.m. Tuesday, never mind that traffic maps glared red and motorists had already been sitting on freeways for hours at that time. Mayor Reed claimed that the city had done its part getting motorists out of downtown Atlanta, and that getting them the rest of the way home was up to the state. On Tuesday night, Gov. Nathan Deal outrageously called the storm “unexpected,” never mind weather reports warning of the snowfall. During his Wednesday morning press conference, he spoke of the relief that will come with a thaw. An act of God might have triggered the fiasco, but wishing for another one to bring it to an end is hardly leadership.

As a Walking Dead fan, I appreciate all those jokes on social media, but as an Atlantan, I’m concerned that this storm revealed just how unprepared we are in case of real disaster. If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it. And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around—and out of—the city other than by car.

Rebecca Burns is deputy editor of Atlanta Magazine and author of three books on Atlanta history. She teaches journalism at Emory University and the University of Georgia and tweets at @RebeccaBurns. She lives in Atlanta, the city, and got home Tuesday by MARTA and foot.

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