The Night That Sprawl Drove Dixie Down

You can point the finger at unprepared politicians or mistaken meteorologists for paralyzing Atlanta this week. But to find the real culprits, you'll have to look at the region's history of land use and transportation decisions, argues Rebecca Burns.
January 30, 2014, 1pm PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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William Brawley

Meteorologists and public officials have been blamed for causing the "rush hour from hell" that stranded drivers on Atlanta area roadways and others in their schools, homes, and workplaces Tuesday evening. But for Rebecca Burns, the true causes of the disaster were decades in the making. 

"What happened in Atlanta this week is not a matter of Southerners blindsided by unpredictable weather," she writes. "More than any event I’ve witnessed in two decades of living in and writing about this city, this snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it. It tells us something not just about what’s wrong with one city in America today but what can happen when disaster strikes many places across the country." 

She examines four factors that turned a light snowfall into a regional catastrophe:

  • Atlanta’s patchwork of local governments
  • Auto-oriented development
  • History of inadequate transit investment
  • Rejection of a transportation sales tax referendum in 2012

"If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it," Burns concludes. "And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around—and out of—the city other than by car."


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Published on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 in Politico Magazine
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