Mark Arum: Gridlock Guy

I went to Los Angeles last week to study the traffic patterns of what some consider to be the nation's worst commute. I wanted to see if there was anything we in Atlanta could learn from California gridlock. I wanted to compare our two cities to find if there were any common ground solutions that could help commuters in Atlanta. Well actually, I just went there for vacation, but I told my editors it was for a traffic story so they would pick up my expenses. Please keep that under your hat.

The amazing thing about my trip was that I came back to Georgia realizing things for commuters in Atlanta could be a lot worse. Simply put, traffic in L.A. boggles the mind. It is horrendous.

Granted, there are a lot more people in the metropolitan Los Angeles area than in the metropolitan Atlanta area. According to 2009 data, the metro Los Angeles region has a population of 12.874 million people while metro Atlanta checks in with 5.475 million. But a higher population alone isn't what makes L.A. traffic so bad. It's population density.

The L.A. region is estimated to be about 1,668 square miles. Compare that to the metro Atlanta region which is about 8,376 square miles. That makes for a huge difference in population density. In metro Atlanta there are 630 people per square mile. In L.A. there are an amazing 7,068 people per square mile! Think about that next time you think Atlanta is getting too crowded.

As a result, traffic is much more miserable in Southern California than in North Georgia.

In Atlanta you usually have "safe windows" of travel. Barring construction or a bad accident you can get around on Atlanta's interstates fairly easily between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. In Los Angeles you have no such buffer zone. I found that out first hand last week when I took what should have been a 30 minute cab ride during the middle of the afternoon. Thirty minutes turned into 90 minutes and a hundred dollar fare. Don't tell Clark Howard that I paid that much. He might stab me.

I did find that L.A. and Atlanta have one thing in common. In most cases you only have one real way to get somewhere. In Atlanta, if you are in Cobb County and you want to get downtown, you are pretty much limited to I-75. In Los Angeles, if you want to get to Santa Monica you are basically stuck taking the Santa Monica Freeway. I compare that to New York, the nation's largest metropolitan area. By sheer numbers and population density, New York should have the worst traffic in the country but it doesn't. Why? Well obviously first off, New York has a well used and well positioned mass transit system. Buses, trains, ferry's all help to alleviate traffic congestion in New York. But for folks that still drive, they have many options to get where they want to go. Commuters have multiple alternatives. If you want to get to New Jersey from Manhattan you have plenty of choices. You can take the George Washington Bridge, the Holland Tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel. If you want to go from Brooklyn or Queens into Manhattan you have six options including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the 59th Street Bridge.

That in my opinion is what separates New York traffic and Atlanta traffic. In New York you have options. In Atlanta and Los Angeles you are playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun. Odds are you aren't going to like the result.

So in the grand comparison of traffic in Atlanta to the two biggest regions in the U.S. things could be better for us (New York) or they could be a lot worse (Los Angeles).