“A weather system that was expected to yield only flurries brought just enough snow to snarl traffic, strand 3,000 students overnight at more than 50 schools and produce nightmarish commutes lasting eight or more hours.” – WRAL
“Lisa Sun resigned herself to spending the night inside a 24-hour grocery store when police closed an ice-covered bridge, cutting her off from her home. She had already spent four hours covering a distance that usually takes half an hour and saw ‘a slew of accidents.’” – Fox News
“Residents — particularly those who have lived in other parts of the country — could not believe the city was brought to its knees by just an inch of snow.” – USA Today
This week, snow and ice plunged the southeastern United States into a weather panic. Reports of traffic jams, stranded school children, and power outages painted the scene as a “snowpocalypse.” Commuters spent the night in Home Depots and gas stations after driving mere miles over a ten-hour stretch and a baby was delivered on the highway.
While those stories are pulled straight from yesterday’s headlines, the actual news quotes above aren’t from this week. They aren’t even from this year. They aren’t even about Atlanta. They were written in January 2005, right after snow and ice sent Raleigh into its own snowpocalypse frenzy.
On January 19th, 2005, Triangle residents rushed to get home and schools released early to beat the weather, but to little effect. Surprise snow and conflicting weather reports resulted in complete gridlock on I-40 and I-440. No babies were born, but the similarity remains the same:
The news story, “The Day We Lost Atlanta: How 2 lousy inches of snow paralyzed a metro area of 6 million,” sounds eerily similar to “The Half Inch of Snow that Paralyzed Raleigh.”
Granted, the Triangle isn’t home to six million people, but that isn’t a permanent reality.
We may not be six million, but we’re growing, and that trend is projected to continue. The Triangle area can expect a 1 million + increase in population in the next twenty years. We’ve already experienced a taste of the “snowpocalypse,” but imagine if we were the size of Atlanta. Rebecca Burns, author of “The Day We Lost Atlanta,” gives four factors that led to the Atlanta chaos, and none of them are the adage, “Southerners don’t know how to drive in snow.” We know how to drive, and that may be part of the problem.
Two of Burns’ factors are, “since the 1950s, the car—and the highway—has dominated Atlanta’s transportation system,” and “the transit that eventually was built does not serve the whole region.” If we are to avoid another snowmageddon, we should heed her advice. We need an alternative to the highway and that alternative needs to be effective.
Just two days ago, I wrote about how MARTA helped the UNC basketball team get to their hotel in the Atlanta traffic. However, according to Burns, MARTA is hindered in its own way. Due to restrictions on transit income, MARTA hasn’t been able to expand or increase its service. More people have moved to the Atlanta area, and yet there aren’t more stops or routes. From Burns’ perspective, MARTA is limited. It still needs to be able to serve an entire region at the level of effectiveness required for the population.
We’re a region in the Triangle. The proposed light rail project has the potential to connect us regionally, not just locally. The project is being approached with a regional mindset; connecting one city isn’t the sole focus. It can’t be – the Triangle is made up of commuters. People who live in Raleigh work in Durham and people who live in Durham work in Chapel Hill. In the case of a winter storm, we are all traveling different directions, but we’re all headed to the same place: home. If we reach the projected growth of a 1 million + increase in population in the next twenty years, those are 1 million + more people trying to get home. We cannot expect to all be driving on the road at once and not experience the same aftermath of this week’s storm. The interstate has to have some reprieve, and that reprieve could be in the form of rail.
In August, the DC Streets Blog reported that the city of Vancouver “has reduced traffic on its major thoroughfares even as its population has swelled.” According to the post, although Vancouver has grown 4.5 percent since 2006, figures show that traffic has dropped 20 to 30 percent. How? The city made its strong transit system a top priority, using trolley buses, increased walking and biking options and rail.
The DC Streets Blog also invited further comparison to a US region, Arlington, Va. NPR followed suit, featuring Arlington in a story of its own: “How One D.C. Suburb Set A Gold Standard For Commuting.” Instead of having the Metro line bypass the area, local planners chose to integrate it into the current neighborhoods. Due to that choice, Arlington experienced a “metamorphosis, from a downtrodden suburb where everyone drives to a place where people live, walk, bike, eat, play and commute, all without ever getting behind the wheel.” In a project by Arlington County Commuter Services, researchers even found that “traffic volume has decreased on several major arterial roads in the county over the last two decades, despite significant job and population growth.”
Through an emphasis on alternative transportation, Vancouver and Arlington have been successful in co-managing population growth and road traffic. Light rail has the potential to bring the same traffic decrease to the Triangle.
The News & Observer also reported in November on a younger generation of workers who “are not the sort of commuters who want to spend 30 or 45 minutes in the car each morning.” With the upcoming population increase, the goals and priorities of that population have to be evaluated as well. As Mitchell Silver told the News & Observer, “It’s not transit just to make sure people have an alternative or to alleviate congestion. It manages growth. It helps create great places. It is efficient use of land. It will help keep taxes low and stable. It will give people more choices to live and to work.”
Right now, we have the choice to plan for the future. We have the choice to observe, learn from our experience and Atlanta’s, and become better.
There may not be a way to avoid another snowpocalypse, but there is a way to make one safer for our children and for our fellow drivers.
The Triangle Durham- Orange Light Rail project is still in the planning phases and reaching out to the community for feedback. To get involved and have a say in the Triangle’s transit future, visit the Our Transit Future website. You can also check out the GoTriangle transit plan page to read more about short- and long-term planning goals for the region.