Transportation Solutions For a Transit-Challenged Region

August 10th, 2007 by 1 Comment

By Stephen Fleming 

(Part II of a two-part commentary. Read Part I, “In Transportation, as in Technology, Packets Beat Circuits,” at http://www.georgiapolicy.org/?p=5482.) 

Atlanta grew up around cars. It’s fundamentally a packet-switched infrastructure. Ask any telecom engineer. You cannot replace a packet-switched infrastructure with circuit switching for any reasonable amount of money. Can’t be done. 

“But they do it in New York City,” I hear you cry. Yes, and that’s because New York City grew up around mass transit. It’s physically different from Atlanta (or pretty much any other town in America outside the Northeast, except maybe Chicago). The circuits are dense enough to have connection points within walking distance. 

Look at the cities with successful public transit systems. With the partial exception of the Washington Metro (which violated the “any reasonable amount of money” proviso), they grew up around rail systems; rail systems were not overlaid after the growth had occurred. (And I’ll note that even the Washington Metro does a lousy job of serving the high-growth suburbs to the west of the city.) 

So dreaming that any circuit-switched transit architecture is going to get Atlantans out of our packet-switched automobiles is pointless. Can’t be done. 

But we have real transportation problems in Atlanta. Companies and entrepreneurs are reluctant to move here because of our legendary traffic. Instead of trying to get people out of their cars, why don’t we try solving the real problems caused by cars? 

Here are a dozen things we can do right now: 

  • Time-of-day pricing on toll roads – lots of toll roads! – would help even out the traffic jams. If you really have to be on Georgia 400 between 7:30 and 8:30 am, it will cost you two bucks. Between 8:30 and 10:00, it’s a dollar. If you can wait until after 10:00 am, it’s 50 cents.
  • Add some lanes to freeways and major arterial routes. Charge for them. Convert high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to toll lanes. I don’t care if you call them “Lexus Lanes;” they’ll reduce congestion and reduce pollution. (HOV lanes make things worse.)
  • Higher gas taxes (and I’m talking an additional dollar or two per gallon) would encourage people to buy smaller more fuel-efficient cars. And that is encouraging them, not forcing them. Those who really want to drive their 8 mpg sports cars can do so; they’ll just have to pay more.
  • Put more timing lights (ramp meters) on freeway entrance ramps.
  • Build more roundabouts.
  • Getting serious about telecommuting one day a week would reduce traffic by 20 percent right off the bat.
  • Ditto for flex-time.
  • Easing zoning would encourage more live-work-play complexes like Atlantic Station (hopefully with better security) and Glenwood Park.
  • Relaxing the rules against jitneys would allow more people to use existing mass transit facilities. (Quick, ride MARTA to Cox Communications headquarters! Whoops, the Dunwoody MARTA station is a mile away. Don’t want to walk a mile in Atlanta heat? Sorry, jitneys are illegal here. Pull the car out of the driveway and add another vehicle to the I-285 traffic jam.)
  • Charge lots of money ($1,000 a year or so) for student parking at high schools. They can pay up, or carpool, or take the bus. (Yes, it’s a circuit-switch, but a circuit that’s intentionally routed in front of each student’s door. It’s horribly inefficient, but a high-school student’s time isn’t worth much.)
  • FlexCar and ZipCar are great. If city planners really want to “do something,” subsidize lots of free parking spaces for those.
  • Subsidize recharging stations for plug-in hybrids.

But for crying out loud, don’t spend billions of dollars on circuit-switched infrastructure that doesn’t address the needs of a packet-switched environment. You could probably do everything on my list above for the cost of a mile of MARTA heavy rail, and it would make a far greater difference in Atlanta’s quality of life. 

Packet switching always beats circuit switching 

Those of us in Atlanta (and cities like Atlanta) are going to live in an automobile-dominated world for the rest of our lives. Deal with it, or move back to New York. Let’s make our city work better, rather than wishing for mass transit to do something that is fundamentally impossible. 


Stephen Fleming is Chief Commercialization Officer at Georgia Tech. To read Part 1 of his two-part commentary, “In Transportation, as in Technology, Packets Beat Circuits,” go to http://www.georgiapolicy.org/?p=5482. A longer version, with external hyperlinks, is posted on his blog at http://academicvc.blogspot.com. Reprinted with permission of the author by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of Georgia Tech or the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 10, 2007). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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