Thursday, January 30, 2014

Southern Drivers Just Suck and Other Fallacies - Thoughts on Snow Jam 2014

Fleeing the ATL. 
I have now lived in Atlanta as long as I lived in New Jersey, which is one of the reasons why I take umbrage at all the northerners who see the headline, "Atlanta Receives Two Inches of Snow; City Paralyzed With Gridlock," and laugh at the stupid southerners who can't drive. "Oh, silly rednecks," they say, "it's two inches of snow. I've driven in two feet of snow with no problems." Well, I really beg to differ. Unless you drive a Zamboni, you really have no basis for comparison.

I'm no traffic engineer, or logistics expert, or psychologist, or meteorologist but I think it would take experts in all these fields to adequately explain the mess that occurred in Atlanta on Tuesday. There is just no easy answer, nor are just one or two people to blame for what happened. If you had to write an equation to capture the problem it could be: Ice + Drivers + Traffic Volume + No Central Control + Psychology = Total Cluster. There are probably some other factors, as well, but let's be clear one of the factors is not incompetent southern drivers. Here's a look at some of the major elements that contributed to the mess.

Ice, Ice, Baby - I drove in the snow all the time in New Jersey and never had a second thought. There were a handful of times that we got ice rather than snow, and you know what? Cars were sliding all over the roads just like in Atlanta. There was an ice storm when I was about eight and we had to catch the train in a neighboring town. The only way to get there was to go down a very steep hill and across a bridge. Instead of taking the family car, a Ford station wagon (wood-paneled, of course), my parents opted to take Dad's car, which was a 1962 Buick Special. It was basically a tank and easily weighed twice as much as the wagon. Even though it lacked seat belts (!!), it ended up being the right choice as cars were literally sliding past us as we crept down the hill. No one thought that those people were sliding because they were southern transplants. We all thought they were sliding because the roads were covered with ice.

Drivers - Obviously there were hundreds of accidents yesterday, but a car rear-ending another car doesn't close a four lane highway. You know what does? A jack-knifed tractor trailer.  God bless the men and women who drive 18-wheelers because I like having out-of-season produce as much as the next American, but those things scare the bejeezus out of me. Not only are they ginormous and capable of squashing anything in their path, but they are engineered to carry cargo, not to turn on a dime. Can you think of another vehicle that "jack-knifes?" Me either. When I was in law school I interviewed with a law firm whose main client was a trucking company. The associates who took me out to lunch were a fun group and were regaling me with stories of the horrific accidents involving the trucks that they were hired to defend. They were all like, "tell her about the chocolate covered Mexicans!" That was a story about a truck carrying Oreos that hit a compact car full of Hispanic men. Hilarious! I had pretty much decided this was not going to be the job for me, but I figured I might as well learn something from these experts. "So," I said, "what's the best thing to do when you see a tractor trailer on the highway?" Immediately, one of them said, "just get away. Seriously, do not drive near those things." You know what, I bet that at least some of those truck drivers who wrecked aren't even from the south.

Traffic Volume - Traffic in Atlanta is the norm. On a good day, commutes take over an hour and people are accustomed to that. On Halloween, everyone knows that the traffic will be worse because many people leave work early to take kids trick-or-treating or to man the candy bowl at home. Tuesday was like Halloween, only with everyone participating, and schools dismissing early, and ice. Once the schools started with early dismissals and aftercare programs were cancelled, this guaranteed that people would have to leave work to get their children. This led to an unprecedented number of vehicles on the road at the same time. Add in the icy conditions and a couple of dozen jack-knifed tractor trailers and the result is people stranded on the roads overnight, a baby born in a car, school children stuck in their schools, and people sleeping in Home Depots and Waffle Houses.

Finding Shelter in a CVS.

Translation: these are not roads, they're parking lots.

No Central Control - Atlanta isn't just one place. The Atlanta metro area is comprised of dozens of city and county governments, none of which, I assume, coordinate with each other before they make decisions. Do the Superintendents of the schools in DeKalb County, City of Atlanta, Cobb County, Fulton County, and the leaders of the hundreds of private schools in the area contact each other before they decide to release students early? I can't imagine. Do all the millions of private companies and businesses coordinate with each other before they allow employees to go home? Literally impossible. So, much as we want to lay sole responsibility at the feet of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed or Governor Nathan Deal for allowing everyone to close schools and leave work at the same time, they were only two of the many different government and business leaders whose decisions to close early led to the massive traffic problems.

Yes, Deal and Reed (but mainly Deal, in my opinion) should accept responsibility for failing to get ahead of the storm and salt and sand the roads. The reason I blame Deal more is that even though I'm not an expert in intergovernmental relations, I feel pretty certain that the Georgia Department of Transportation (and by extension, the Governor) has jurisdiction over state roads and the interstates within Georgia. Deal should have marshaled equipment to salt and sand the roads before the storm. I have no idea why this didn't happen, or only happened only in the most half-hearted way, but that all resources weren't brought to bear to deal with the ice is inexcusable.

Reed should have done the same for local roads in the City of Atlanta. Once you understand that Reed's responsibility is limited to Atlanta city roads, you begin to get why Reed is being defensive when he's blamed for the gridlock on I-85, because that's not his jurisdiction. If there's gridlock on Peachtree Street, then that is Reed's responsibility. If the gridlock on Peachtree is caused because of gridlock on I-85, then I guess you have to blame both Reed and Deal. Or neither, because, as I said, this isn't the fault of one or two people. Many factors contributed to the utter breakdown of the Atlanta traffic system.

Psychology - Do you know what Nathan Deal said in his State of the State speech last year? He said this, "Last year, I told you that I had a goal: To fulfill the truest purposes of government - the ones for which Georgians need their government most - and then get out of the way so that they can live their lives in freedom and as they see fit." So, what were the chances that Deal was going to order a staggered dismissal of all businesses and school in the affected area? This is a governor who wants to limit governmental involvement in people's lives, not micromanage when they can leave work. I think that minimizing traffic congestion during an ice storm would be fulfilling "the truest purposes of government," but if Deal's fundamental belief is in less governmental control, I don't think his first inclination is to require private companies to queue up their employees to leave work like they're waiting in a line at Disney.

But Deal's not the only leader whose decisions were influenced by factors that had nothing to do with the snow. I feel certain that all the leaders of the area schools felt pressure to keep schools open on Tuesday. Two weeks ago, Atlanta had its first taste of the polar vortex with record-breaking low temperatures. Many metro schools were closed for two days, because of concerns about children waiting at bus stops in temperatures in the single digits with wind chills below zero. (Aside: A stereotype about Atlantans that is based in some reality is that some are unaccustomed or unequipped to dressing for the cold. My kids have friends for whom a fleece or a hoody is their winter coat. Typically, they'd probably be fine with this attire. Not so when the windchill is -10.) Some may disagree, but I think it was very smart to cancel school so that children didn't get frostbite, but I'm kind of a softy.

Atlanta area schools don't have snow days built into the schedule like schools in the north because, well, it hardly ever snows. That would be like a school in New York having huricane days. If it actually snows, the schools just have to tack days on at the end of the year or cut short breaks and take away teacher work days. These are logistical difficulties that I feel pretty certain most superintendents want to avoid. In addition, if superintendents cancelled school prospectively and it hadn't snowed, everyone would be criticizing them for that. So, I think that either consciously or unconsciously, the desire to avoid having to change the school calendar and the desire to avoid public criticism if the snow had been less than expected motivated the superintendents to hold school on Tuesday, despite the risk of snow.

Solutions - Hard as it might be to do, I think that city, county, and state officials need to work together to come up with some kind of coordinated plan to address these winter weather events. I have no idea what this plan would look like, but maybe there needs to be a group that coordinates regional responses to weather emergencies. Superintendents from all the public school systems need to be involved, as well, because when schools close, parents have to leave work to get their children and that dumps tons of cars onto the roads along with the school buses.

Reed has suggested that it would have helped the situation if the city had employed a staggered dismissal. The plan would be to dismiss schools first, then business, and then government. Well, fine, but what happens when children are dismissed from school, put on a bus and sent home to an empty house because their parents haven't been allowed to leave work? Please, please don't suggest a "solution" that will only create different problems. In addition, this relies heavily on every individual actually following a coordinated plan, which seems highly optimistic. With the experience of Tuesday's disaster in everyone's minds, I think the impulse for most will be to get on the roads even more quickly in order to get ahead of the crowd. It certainly won't be to wait around in your office until the mayor or governor tells you to leave.

In my opinion, our leaders have to be better about preparing for the worst, no matter what the forecast. If there's a chance of snow for Atlanta, you just have to get the salt and sand trucks out ahead of the storm. Trust me, far preferable to have the country laughing at your over-preparedness, than to be on the front page of every paper because you did nothing to avert disaster.  

No comments:

Post a Comment