Back-to-school traffic, for better or worse

The kids hit the books; the adults hit the brakes. Back to school for them, back to gridlock for us.

For most metro Atlanta drivers, the increased traffic as children return to school is enough to make you want to slam your head in a locker. But how different are the average summertime and school-year commutes?

The answer may surprise you.

The Georgia Department of Transportation pulled data from 10 state route and 16 interstate traffic counters, comparing one week in late July 2013 with a week in mid-August 2013. The results showed that traffic on many parts of the interstate lightened, while congestion on the surface streets grew significantly heavier.

At the Animal Care Center on South Cobb Drive, workers say getting to the clinic takes longer now that Cobb County Public Schools have started back.

“I have to leave home 10 to 15 minutes earlier, because it’s just a sea of cars coming down that street,” said receptionist Susan Robinson, gesturing toward South Cobb Drive.

The veterinary clinic’s driveway is just south of Ridge Road in Smyrna, where GDOT data showed a morning traffic increase of 17 percent. Six schools lie within a mile and a half of the area.

Sophie Presley, another receptionist, said there’s only one way she gets through the morning madness when her typical 30-to-40-minute commute from DeKalb County slows to 45 minutes or more.

“I have to play my Praise 102.5,” Presley said. The gospel station lifts her spirits.

One parent, Nnamdi Obiamwa, who had just returned home from picking up his 9-year-old daughter at Nickajack Elementary School in Smyrna Thursday, said the congestion already appeared to be easing as the first week of school for Cobb students wore on.

“Everybody was kind of taking their kids to school at first,” said Obiamwa. “More kids are riding the buses now.”

Traffic volume on many state routes showed an average increase of 14 percent during the morning commute after school started back last year, GDOT data shows.

At some locations, like on Jonesboro Road near Forest Parkway, and on Chamblee Dunwoody Road near Colt Drive, congestion worsened by as much as 27 and 20 percent, respectively.

Interestingly, the total daily traffic on the roads and interstates remained about the same over a 24-hour period. State officials say drivers probably just changed what time they got on the road after the school year started, so that more of their commutes were clustered around the same peak period.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said there’s no way to know why traffic on 11 of 16 interstate segments declined on the morning after school started back last year. It might be attributed to parents changing their route to work so they could drop off children, Dale said.

The slight decrease in morning interstate traffic (3.5 percent on average) could also have been caused by any combination of factors, such as data collection error, normal ebb and flow of traffic, special events, vacation travel, gas prices or seasonal truck traffic, Dale said.

The most noticeable ease-up was at Ga. 400 South at Mansell Road in Alpharetta, which saw 15 percent fewer vehicles during the a.m. rush, and I-85 North at Ga. 120 in Duluth, which experienced a 13 percent drop.

Roswell resident Craig Yardley said on Thursday that Ga. 400 South at Mansell seemed a little more congested that week, compared to the previous one. He expected even more of a jam heading into this week.

Not that it bothers Yardley. He works on his laptop, skims the newspaper or reads a book while taking the Xpress bus from the park and ride lot off Mansell Road to a job downtown.

“That’s why I do this every day,” Yardley said after disembarking. “I don’t have to think about traffic.”