Gridlock Guy: Don’t forget the traffic tricks we just learned

Credit: WSBTV Videos

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Atlanta traffic is pretty much back to normal following pandemic, GDOT says

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Atlanta traffic patterns have never seen the swings witnessed in the last three years. With delays and volume at an all-time high in 2019, the COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020 created what amounted to the Rapture on the roads. Both workers and students suddenly being thrust into doing day-to-day life remotely and the ensuing lack of entertainment-pursuits outside of homes emptied the roads.

Though Georgia was one of the first states to see significant reopenings, schools and businesses operated remotely for many months after. Some offices still do.

The changes in lifestyle meant changes in traffic volume, but even more so changes in when people traveled. Working at home didn’t mean that a person didn’t go to stores, restaurants and events.

The trend in Atlanta has become that morning drives start later, peak later and continue into the midday hours. For the evening drive — my daily shift in the WSB Skycopter — traffic generally peaks earlier and has worse delays than mornings.

And with concerts, sporting events, festivals and road trips returning, weekend and evening traffic clogs the roads and has to contend with the numerous work zones.

Some recent flights for WSB Triple Team Traffic, including filling in during the morning drive, have shown me that the morning hangover has largely lifted. Delays have really become a problem, for example, on GA-400/southbound from Alpharetta. That had been the last interstate to really show much aggravation on weekday mornings, but the last throes of the spring semester have seen that route clogged the entire way to the I-285 work zone.

These observations have me thinking about something that may be obvious, but also is getting lost in the craze of returning to “old normal”. We just learned how to really improve traffic.

When an unheard of virus brought a pandemic and forced many of us to work remotely, we found a way to do life too. And then the trips we had to take were so much more efficient and enjoyable. Air was cleaner, too.

That option may not exist in full anymore. Employees need to interact with each other after all. But that does not mean that every job needs every employee on site from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. We’ve learned time and again that even taking a few cars off of the roads goes a long way towards decreasing traffic backups.

Employers have a bonus they can afford their teams that costs almost no money. Allowing people to do swaths of their jobs at home improves quality of life and oftentimes morale. And we learned that productivity really didn’t take a hit when people were forced to stay home. Coming back to the cubicle farm for old time’s sake might do more harm than good.

Of course we need some workers onsite to do their critical tasks that keep the gears of society spinning — teachers, restaurant employees, hospital staff and many others — But if a few of us would flex our work schedules, take public transit, carpool or work remotely more often, we could open the roads so that those in necessary in-person fields can serve more easily. We would also decalcify the pipes to get critical freight traffic moving faster.

When the I-85 bridge south of GA-400 collapsed in 2017, MARTA ridership spiked on the northeast corridor. But when the bridge opened six weeks later, even fewer people ended up taking Atlanta’s trains and buses than before. To no surprise, traffic stunk even worse on that stretch after the reopening.

Convincing people to change their ways is tough. But many altered their travel habits when forced to in 2020. And while many parts of life got worse during COVID-19, traffic was remarkably pleasant. With society back to normal in so many ways now, having remarkable traffic is nearly impossible. But workers and employers should deploy some of the great tactics learned these last two years. Most meetings can happen at home and laptops can handle loads of emails.

Let’s not forget the convenience and alternatives we learned in the COVID-19 world the same way we forgot about transit when I-85 reopened.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.