What the Collapse of This Highway Teaches Us About Poor City Planning

April 1st 2017

Shonitria Anthony

A major highway collapsed in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday leaving residents worried how it will this impact their daily commute. The city, like many other Southern U.S. cities, lacks widespread, accessible, and adequate public transportation, with many residents relying heavily on driving as the main vehicle of transportation.

Now, one of its major highways has been closed due to catastrophe, and it's not too far fetched to imagine a similar crippling scenario playing out in other car-dependent U.S. cities.

On Thursday evening, highway interstate I-85 in Atlanta caught fire, which officials say "started when PVC products stored under I-85 caught fire." Now, three people are in custody in connection to the fire on Friday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) reports.

It wasn't long after the fire started that the northbound highway, which about 243,000 cars drive through daily, "fell with a big 'kaboom,'" said Cortez Stafford, spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department, to CNN. There were no injures but the impact of the devastation was felt on the city in the following hours, as it was announced that it would take several months to repair the damage. "U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao authorized $10 million dollars to pay to replace the bridge," Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said, according to USA Today.

"Despite our coordinated efforts, this will be a long process," said Gov. Nathan Deal, who also declared a state of emergency. "This is due, in part, to the fact that bridge beams must be cast, poured, tested, transported and individually installed. During this time, public safety is our chief priority and primary concern."

Now, the city, which was recently ranked eighth for the worst traffic in the world, faces a tremendous traffic crisis. Residents, who spend an average 70.8 hours in traffic each year, are heavily reliant on their vehicles. While the city does have a public transportation option, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), it's been reported that the commute time is double that of drivers, making it one of the "worst cities for public transit."

People quickly began writing on Twitter that the city only has itself to blame for it's lack of funding and prioritization of its public transportation:

For years, surrounding neighborhoods voted against funding and helping MARTA expand due to what some suspected were racially motivated reasons. "The votes against MARTA were not the only evidence of the role of race in Atlanta’s transportation plans. The interstate highways were designed to gouge their way through black neighborhoods," Atlanta magazine reported.

Christopher B. Leinberger, professor at George Washington University, told Atlanta magazine that the city's inhabitants believed “that the car was the be-all and end-all forever. The other part was the basic racism that still molds how Atlanta is built.”

Atlanta isn't the only city that's over-reliant on cars.

"Fifteen of the 20 metro areas that rank highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the West," according to the Brookings Institution. The nation's reliance on cars has been reported by City Lab as substantially high, "in 2010, Americans drove for 85 percent of their daily trips" and for trips that were under one mile, "Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time."

So, what's next?

While the cause of the highway collapse in Atlanta is still being investigated, the city did report seeing an increase in people taking MARTA Friday. "We have seen an uptick in ridership. We anticipated this so we did increase the frequency of our trains, even on our bus routes we increased it," Erik Burton, senior director of media relations for MARTA, told ATTN:. "We will continue to work with all our partners, GDOT [Georgia Department of Transportation] and all of our regional transit partners to really address the need to get people moving throughout the city of Atlanta."