An Atlanta travel diary: Just how bad was a week without I-85?

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

This week was the first week that Atlanta roads were fully loaded with commuters since the bridge collapse and subsequent closure to part of I-85.

Around the metro area, commuters plotted and planned. They downloaded apps, consulted neighbors on the best routes, took a chance on MARTA and in some cases just stayed home, all in an effort to avoid what Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said was not "a business-as-usual situation."

Almost anyone who normally travels a north/south route hit traffic snags. Reed estimated last week that travel times would increase by 30 percent and it turns out his prediction was pretty close for some and way low for others.

I spent the week trying several different commutes from southeast Atlanta to the AJC offices in Perimeter Center. My commute was 35 to 100 percent longer than normal except in one case: the day I worked from home. Here's how it went down for me and a few other people I encountered along the way:

Day 1

The Plan: travel off-peak in the morning

Total travel time: 2.5

The details: I leave home at 10:30 am. Traffic is all clear until I hit I-285. The exit to 400 looks horrific, so I stay put and arrive at the office about 11:12 a.m., a 42 minute commute. On the return, I leave about 3:40 pm. Almost immediately things begin to go wrong. There is the usual traffic buildup on 400, but the re-route to Sidney Marcus is slooooow. It takes almost 20 minutes to get from the Sidney Marcus exit to Lenox Road where traffic clears. Once I escape the mess at Sidney Marcus and hit the east side, things start to clear up.

This is a good place to note that Sidney Marcus is a not-so-hot spot for many Atlantans. Residents in the area -- the neighborhood is home to many apartment and condominium developments -- who have entrances and exits on Sidney Marcus were reportedly unable to leave their driveways for 20 minutes even during non-rush hour travel times. While Atlanta Police are posted up nearby, they don't seem to be managing the situation to the satisfaction of residents.

Day 2

The Plan: Take MARTA

Total travel time: 2 hours

The details: I forgot to check the MARTA schedule but as it turns out, I arrive at the East Lake station just after 8 a.m. and a few minutes before the train arrived because the trains are running more often during rush hours.

Unlike many other passengers, I did not have an issue parking at the station. MARTA offers online updates of its parking lots and early in the week, many of the busiest lots were full, despite MARTA's efforts to provide additional parking . There was also some confusion about where the extra parking was.

At King Memorial Station, for instance, a lot that formerly served as parking for Grady employees has been converted into station parking during the I-85 drama, but since the MARTA app still shows King Memorial as a station with no parking, almost no one knows this. There were plenty of spaces in the parking lot on Grant Street, but only in-the-know commuters were utilizing it.

There are a few other concerns about riding MARTA, like the shootout that occurred on Thursday afternoon at the West Lake Station . Police described the incident which killed one and injured three as an isolated incident and MARTA Police said they will have an increased presence at all stations on Friday.

On the day I rode MARTA, it was packed, as clearly everyone got the message to take public transportation. I stood up for most of the ride to Five Points Station and had to endure two acquaintances having a conversation over me while I was standing between them.

Him: Hey, how are you? You riding MARTA now?

Her: Yes, I ride sometimes, but just made sense.

Him: Yeah, there are a lot more people on here than usual.

Her: I guess everyone had the same idea!

Then they start talking about a bunch of personal stuff that I really didn't need to hear.

I transfer to the red line at Five Points and get to work by 9 a.m. On the return, I leave the office at 3:35. I make it to the station, wait just a few minutes for the train and get a seat. Two co-workers are engrossed in conversation about the I-85 collapse:

Co-worker 1: OHMYGOD! Look at all of that traffic out there (pointing out of the window at northbound traffic as the train approaches Lindbergh Station). That's ridiculous!

Co-worker 2: Yup, that's where it all fell down.

Co-worker 1: Where? I can't see it.

Co-worker 2: Over there somewhere. That's why there is so much traffic.

Co-worker 1: That is ridiculous!

It is ridiculous (!) and MARTA is looking pretty good until I start getting motion sickness from the side to side jolting of the train. Who is driving this thing? I can barely stand it. Thankfully the ride gets better on the East/ West line and I manage to get home for a total commute time just 30 minutes longer than normal.


The Plan: Telecommute

Total travel time: 0 hours

The details: There really isn't anything to say here. No stress, no motion sickness, no road rage. I got a lot of work done and felt very grateful to have a job that lets me telecommute sometimes.

But even some telecommuters struggled. Lisa Adler, who lives in Grant Park, telecommutes daily, but has to transport her two kids to two different schools. Normally, she splits duties with her ex-husband, but he was out-of-town this week.

Her daughter goes to daycare near the capitol and her son goes to school off Briarcliff and Clairmont, which is a hike, but the school offers a dual language program that she sought to support her family's cultural background. It is usually a 25 minute drive each way in the I-85 HOV lane to drop off her son and a 25 minute return to drop off her daughter, but this week, it took 25 minutes just to get through traffic on the Buford-Spring Connector.

The entire journey to drop both kids at school took more than 2.5 hours. By the time she got home, she was exhausted. "It was really hard to start my day, I felt like I wanted to pull my hair out. The worst part about it was that I knew four hours later I was going to have to do this all over again," she said.

The next day she tried taking backroads using her ex-husband, a native Atlantan, as her navigation system. She managed to shave her total round trip commute time down by a few minutes. By mid-week, travel apps showed normal travel times, so she took a chance. Turns out, the apps were wrong.

"The apps were saying 41 minutes and they were completely wrong. It took an hour and 20 minutes (one way)," she said. By Thursday, she was in full-on meltdown mode. So on Friday, she called her kids' schools, explained the situation, told them it would be resolved next week when their father returned and kept them home for a Good Friday/Passover vacation.

Day 4

The Plan: travel off-peak in the afternoon

Total commute time: 3 hours

The details: I leave the southeast side at 8 a.m. and hit traffic immediately. Waze routes me to I-285 which is stop and go. The map says the road is clear, but it is not. My estimated one hour drive takes 1.75 hours. On the return, I leave at 12:30 in an attempt to beat the crowds. Bad move. Waze tells me to take I-285 to 400 and exit at Sidney Marcus which we all know is a cluster no matter what day, time or direction you are going. The app tells me to turn right on Sidney Marcus to Piedmont. I take one look at the traffic and turn left to on Sidney Marcus to Lenox Road. But traffic is just as bad. There is no way to win today. I plow across town, get home and decide to write this story.

If there is an upside to all of this, it could be that commuters are treating each other with just a little more kindness.

Riders on MARTA didn't hesitate to offer seats to those who looked a little more fragile.

Drivers are actually merging politely during traffic backups and even occasionally offering sympathetic glances to fellow travelers.

And in Norcross, teachers, staff and students at the Primrose school, offer treats to parents as they drop their kids off at school in the hopes that a little coffee, skittles, cinnamon rolls and bear claws can ease the pain.