Reimagining Atlanta’s commuting culture

Traffic slowly moves along Interstate 85 near Spaghetti junction on May 24 in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)



Traffic slowly moves along Interstate 85 near Spaghetti junction on May 24 in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Metro Atlanta is poised for substantial population growth, with projections indicating an addition of around 2.9 million people by 2050. If managed effectively, this population growth could bring significant economic opportunities. However, several critical challenges must be addressed to ensure the region can accommodate this anticipated growth.

From 2012 to 2022, MARTA’s ridership declined by 60%. The pandemic affected the decline in recent years, but other factors such as outdated technology, poor lighting, absence of security and fewer transit staff also played a part. The perception of public transportation in metro Atlanta might be preventing more people from using it.

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

Poor driving habits, such as driving too aggressively, being distracted or speeding, are not new. However, these behaviors have worsened over the past decade in metro Atlanta, as evidenced by the number of fatalities in motor vehicle crashes increasing by nearly 160% from 2013 to 2022.

Insufficient access to public transit in metro Atlanta exacerbates the notorious traffic congestion. According to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, only 38% of working-age residents in metro Atlanta have access to public transit and only 22% of jobs are within a 90-minute commute on public transit. This leaves most residents with one realistic option for their work commute: drive. Almost 80% of Atlanta workers drive to work alone.

For instance, my commute from Milton to Chamblee is 23 miles each way. It takes 35 minutes without traffic and up to 60 minutes with it. With a four-day in-office schedule and one day remote, my weekly commute totals 184 miles and 332 minutes round trip.

But that drive to the office costs more than time. My vehicle emits 475.5 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, exceeding the average, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, by 75 grams. My vehicle emits 21,875 grams per round trip to work. That’s 87,492 grams per week, 349,968 grams per month and 4.2 tons annually — just to get me to and from work.

If I lived within half a mile of a bus or rail transit station and had a 30-minute commute to work, the potential reduction in carbon emissions, traffic time, fuel costs and maintenance expenses would be significant. And by taking my car off the road, other commuters would get to their jobs faster, meaning less congestion, pollution and other effects. Imagine the change if even 30% of commuters had access to a 30-minute commute to work on public transit.

One of the major obstacles is the “last mile” of public transit: getting to the station or stop. Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is crucial to getting people out of their cars, as is, in limited cases, adequate parking at suburban transit stations. Rental bikes or scooters at bus and train stops, safe bike storage, protected bike lanes and safe walking paths have been proved to reduce road congestion.

If something doesn’t change, our region will suffer. Imagine it’s the year 2050, and you live in metro Atlanta. Your daily work commute takes roughly 90 minutes to travel 15 miles each day of the week. Alongside you are hundreds of thousands of stressed and frustrated commuters who share a similar fate.

You arrive at work irritated and exhausted. You just spent 90 minutes of your morning stuck in traffic. During a typical workweek, you spend roughly three hours a day on the road. That’s more than an entire month out of the year just commuting to work.

Over time, your productivity and overall morale decrease, making you a less efficient employee. This isn’t just a problem for you; many other employees in the metro area are experiencing the same thing. Of course, this has an impact on employers. Job turnover rates, job satisfaction, presenteeism and opportunity costs, have all worsened because of long commute times, putting greater strain on these employers.

Despite the efforts made by local and state government officials over the past several years, the infrastructure itself remains largely insufficient. Road expansion, the typical solution, provides only temporary relief. As more lanes are added, more people are encouraged to drive, leading to more traffic congestion. The construction and timing of these projects often exacerbate the issue, causing more congestion because of lane closures, reduced speeds and confusing detours.

As traffic congestion has worsened, driver behavior has, too. State routes and freeways have become battlegrounds during rush hour, resulting in a steady increase in motor vehicle accidents and fatalities each year.

Pleas for public transportation expansion, improvements and rebranding seemingly have been brushed aside as ridership continues to struggle outside the Interstate 285 loop. This has made the transit rail services an almost city-exclusive system, forcing more people to drive to work, creating more traffic congestion.

Residents have grown frustrated with the heavy traffic congestion, the need for more efficient and attractive public transportation, poor driving behaviors and the complacency of local and state government officials. metro Atlanta has become a cautionary tale of the consequences of neglecting decadeslong issues.

This is what happens when nothing is done to address lingering issues. (Look at the recent water main problems in Atlanta as one example.)

Addressing the challenges of population growth and traffic congestion is a shared responsibility between government officials, residents and businesses. Here are a handful of solutions that could be implemented to help mitigate those challenges.

First, refresh and rebrand MARTA. Enhance service standards by ensuring cleanliness, installing live maps, improving speaker systems and strategically placing attendants to redefine customer expectations and streamline navigation. Leveraging social media to amplify positive experiences could boost ridership, reducing traffic congestion. Rebranding plays a vital role in shaping public perception. MARTA could revamp its image to foster a positive association with public transit. Updating its logo akin to Kia’s redesign could signify progress and modernization.

Second, expand exclusive bus-only and bike lanes. This is not just a theoretical solution but a practical one that has been proved to decrease travel times for riders in cities such as Chicago and Boston. These lanes streamline commuting and mitigate overall gridlock by segregating buses from general traffic. Atlanta, for instance, could enforce bus-only lanes during peak hours on weekdays, allowing only designated vehicles such as bikes and emergency services outside these times. Fines for unauthorized lane usage could be enforced via surveillance cameras, promising safer, more efficient transit and reduced emissions while facilitating urban development.

Third, take advantage of artificial intelligence. Like many regions, metro Atlanta grapples with a police shortage, which makes efforts against reckless driving harder. Integrating AI, particularly advanced speed detection devices on crucial roads, could ease the strain on law enforcement. Placing speed cameras strategically in accident-prone zones, with AI-guided forecasts, could deter recklessness effectively. Fewer accidents would mean less congestion.

Lastly, cities should prioritize and provide incentives for mixed-use developments and transit-oriented districts. Mixed-use developments, such as Avalon in Alpharetta, combine amenities such as hotels, offices, residences and retail within a walkable area. This could improve fiscal health, stimulate local economic activity and increase property values. Meanwhile, transit-oriented districts, as in Chamblee, include mixed-use spaces connected to transit stations, all complemented by rental electric bikes or scooters, reducing car dependency and congestion while fostering sustainable transportation practices. This could lead to reduced transportation costs and more sustainable development practices.

Addressing the challenges of population growth and traffic congestion is not a task for one entity alone. It is a shared responsibility between government officials, residents and businesses. Each of us has a role to play here. Together, we can take tangible steps toward mitigating these challenges and building a more sustainable future for metro Atlanta.

Garrett Keith Shan works in the Chamblee Planning and Development Department.