Traffic Congestion in Atlanta

I was pleased to have the opportunity to have an op-ed produced on transportation in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 17. The op-ed, entitled “Arterial system needed” argued that the most important thing the Atlanta metropolitan area could do to reduce traffic congestion would be to develop a decent arterial street system, something that, unbelievably, does not exist today. Regrettably, the permitted length of the op-ed did not permit much elaboration of the point, or mention of other important issues.

In metropolitan areas with effective arterial street systems (such as Los Angeles), there is usually a surface alternative to a grid-locked freeway. A skilled driver can use these alternate routes and avoid much of the frustration of congestion. This may or may not improve travel times, but it is certainly better for the psyche. In Atlanta, there are few alternatives to the freeways and even the freeway system itself is very sparse.

The principal elaboration for which I wish additional space had been available had to do with the role of transit. Many Atlanta officials are of the view that transit is the solution to traffic congestion. Many of them join pilgrimages to Portland (Oregon), where planners are only too happy to reinforce this view, with their doctrine to the effect that transit has transformed their urban area. The reality is that, after nearly 25 years of major transit improvements, transit’s market share in the Portland area is about the same as it was before.

There are proposals to expand the MARTA transit system and tax from the core counties of Fulton and DeKalb to suburban counties. It is hard to imagine a more counterproductive policy approach. This would shower the overly-costly MARTA system with a stream of revenue with which its out of control costs per mile could escalate. The additional cost to taxpayers and riders would be far in excess of any potential benefits. MARTA’s principal problem is not lack of funding; it is rather insufficient cost control.

The reality is that to reduce traffic congestion, transit would need to attract a large share of urban trips. In fact, however, whether in Paris, Portland or Atlanta, the transit system that could compete for most metropolitan trips has not yet been conceived of, much less developed or even proposed. Because of the necessity to travel from every point in an urban area to every other point, this is simply impossible. The vast majority of travel demand in all major urban areas of the United States and Western Europe is for personal mobility – automobiles – simply because there is no choice in their modern, affluent economies.