Gridlock Guy: Coronavirus, teleworking, and Trump’s visit to Atlanta

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“One of the most unfortunate things about being sovereign I have discovered is that you paralyze virtually any situation you walk into. The very last thing emergency and rescue services need when they are working against the clock is a queen turning up.”

Queen Elizabeth II said this to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson on the acclaimed Netflix series “The Crown.” Though this quote is a dramatization, it’s a portrayal of a real-life event. Wilson pleaded with The Queen to visit the Welsh town of Aberfan after a mining-induced rockslide devastated the village and killed dozens of children.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS

While Queen Elizabeth later regretted her decision to delay her visit, the logic she used in doing so needs consideration by The White House and the Secret Service.

President Donald Trump’s decision to visit the CDC near Emory was undoubtedly going to be disruptive to the Friday commute. But this latest episode of “Motorcade Friday” was particularly and unnecessarily detrimental to Atlanta traffic — and to what good?

The last time Trump visited Atlanta — November 2019 — Vice President Pence came also and there were two sets of rolling road closures to and from the various campaign events. The last of those closures — to allow Trump and his motorcade to get safely from the Georgia World Congress Center in Downtown Atlanta to Dobbins AFB in Marietta — lasted 15 to 20 minutes longer than planned. This is because Trump went off-script.

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The same impromptu behavior both before and during the visit threw Atlanta traffic into a further tizzy on Friday, March 6. The Secret Service and the White House had given Atlanta a few days’ notice of Trump’s planned visit to the CDC, which was very helpful. People began making plans to leave work early or late. Patrons might have rescheduled a few early dinners in Decatur or Buckhead. Media crews (including the WSB Traffic Team) made detailed coverage plans. The Secret Service deployed significant manpower and equipment. And in the wee hours of Friday morning, the White House canceled the visit.

So Atlanta exhaled, some people in relief, some others in frustration. But at least the PM rush hour would be “normal Friday ugly.” The sun was out, the roads were finally dry.

And then before lunch, the White House suddenly decided the trip was back on. Commute-planning had become (just as the White House trip-planning had made it) a  "Wayne's World" game of street hockey.  Game on, game off, game on.

Information these days is both superfluous and siloed. None of us really has an excuse to not know something. But since we get news and facts so easily, we’re now conditioned to be hit with it, instead of looking for it. Because of this, many Friday commuters didn’t realize that the POTUS trip and motorcade closures had been uncancelled.

Sources close to the planning for POTUS and VP visits in Atlanta have told the AJC and WSB Radio that the Secret Service and Georgia State Patrol need about 15-20 minutes to clear the freeways. They begin that process at a precise word in either Trump’s or Vice President Pence’s speeches. But Trump often goes off-script to take questions or make more remarks, and that is when the traffic plan gets far out of hand and many people suffer extreme inconveniences.

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Trump’s unplanned presser this go-around caused far more than an extra-15-20 minutes of stopped traffic in the 5 p.m. hour of that Friday’s drive. The closures extended up to an hour, trapping people on I-75/85/northbound (the Downtown Connector) before 17th Street. I-85/southbound was shut down before North Druid Hills Road. GA-400/southbound couldn’t ramp onto I-85/southbound from Buckhead. No traffic could enter I-75/northbound between Midtown and Marietta. The side roads were completely stopped for far longer than the authorities closed the freeways.

Just as the recent "I-285 burnouts closure" was, this Atlanta traffic paralysis was unnecessary. And the visit really did nothing to help the Coronavirus threat. The Secret Service had their hands tied to protocol of which the Commander in Chief took full nearsighted advantage.

Trump could have used the time visiting the CDC to instead do a video teleconference with the important officials. The only reason to be there in person was for the photo op. Trump could have used this moment to be on the cutting edge of change to the normal presidential protocol of interruption.

He could have taken this time to be the example that we should all try to follow: teleworking. Companies, in fact, are now urging employees to telework to contain COVID-19. And working remotely can help combat both a virus breakout or even every day gridlock and air quality. Trump could have championed this cause, helped Atlanta traffic, and not potentially interrupted the vital operations of the CDC during what is now classified as a pandemic.

Trump should absolutely be on the scene of major disasters as a beacon of empathy and leadership. But both he and other leaders really need to be more self-aware of the effects their actions have on everyday life. In the coming weeks, Trump could set aside time to teleconference with individual victims of coronavirus. The activities surrounding the CDC visit were anything but self-aware and created driving nightmares far worse than the worst-case scenarios many expected.

For an in-depth look at how Smilin' Mark McKay and the WSB Traffic Team covered this closure and how Mark Arum's conservative commuting plan still made him late for his talk show, listen to the most recent WSB Traffic Podcast on wsbradio.com. 

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