Atlanta’s I-85 disruption shows importance of transit, flexibility of demand

Current estimates of Atlanta’s I-85 collapse give the freeway at least several months before it is repaired and re-opens. When the fire collapsed a section of the highway last Friday, a major route became closed for commuters.

Like similar emergency disruptions in other major metropolitan areas, the situation is a clear glimpse into how people shift their traditional commuting habits, and the significance of transit in providing alternative options.

On Monday morning, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported MARTA stations flooded with new commuters looking for a non-driving way into downtown Atlanta. Fare sales provided an early look into how many new riders were trying out rail this week.

Sales of Breeze cards were up 100 percent in some stations. Or more: Sales were up 111 percent Monday morning at North Springs and a whopping 172 percent at Sandy Springs.

“What we’re also finding is that people weren’t buying just one (trip) on a Breeze card,” Taylor said. “They were buying 10 trips or monthly cards, because they know this is going to be a long haul.”

And as Joe Cortwright notes at City Observatory, the predicted “Carmageddon” – similar to other daunting shutdown situations in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. – never quite appeared on Monday morning.

The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips. When the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.

Transit options like MARTA rail play a key role here. When disruption occurs, commuters, fearing clogged highways, have the option to shift their trips off of the road. These emergencies create an environment in which people who would not typically try rail or bus take it for the first time, potentially changing their habits. Together with other flexible options, such as telecommuting, the potential for congestion on alternate highway routes is reduced.

But telework may not necessarily be a sustainable long-term option for many Atlanta commuters as they wait for the I-85 to be repaired. Georgia politicians are already citing the I-85 collapse as a key reason to fund expanded MARTA transit service and capacity.

Photo: A man waits for a MARTA train (Druh Scoff, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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