Cars vs. trains?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

So much of the transportation conversation in metro Atlanta these days frames a highways versus transit argument. Today, Beltline mastermind Ryan Gravel writes that transportation diversity — cars and trains — is what’s needed to reduce our vulnerability to winter storms, rush hour, accidents or worse, terrorism. In our second column, an IBM executive says the cars-trains argument soon could be irrelevant, as technology allows us to create smarter vehicles such as driverless cars that act more like trains.

Commenting is open.

A need for more choices

By Ryan Gravel

On Sunday, I braved the mobs of smiling people on the Atlanta Beltline by bike to pick up some groceries with my kids. Our short sleeves at sunset made the region’s two-inch snow debacle back in January seem a distant memory. But it’s important to understand what went wrong.

At first we blamed meteorologists, as if they were also accountable for our response to their predictions. Later, we blamed planners without the nuance of differentiating between planning and our region’s consistent rejection of planning as a valuable professional practice (a recent stadium proposal comes to mind, which has never made ink on any regional plan).

We also pointed at the dysfunctional lines of communication across our increasingly fragmented regional politics, even though our second snow in February proved that those challenges can be fixed.

What was most curious to me is that we never pointed at ourselves.

The collective “we” of regional Atlanta should own up to our problem. After all, isn’t this exactly what we wanted? We built a car-dependent region because we wanted it, and the events of Jan. 28 simply underscore the inherent consequences of those decisions. In the parts of the region that have access to transit and live more compactly in walkable areas, people fared reasonably well. They should; they’ve been investing in transit for more than 40 years.

But if we’re honest, we have to say the car-dependent areas of the region also fared well under the circumstances. It’s not like anybody died.

But what if we had also lost power? Imagine if it had been two feet snow, or a chemical spill, or a terrorist attack. What if we had to go for weeks without driving? The distances most people live from where they need to go, and the disconnected nature of our roadway network, would leave most of the region stranded. The consequences of our car dependency would be much more dramatic. Our economy and our way of life depends on people being able to get around, and in most areas of our region, we rely exclusively on an infrastructure that gets jammed up in any emergency.

The midday panic of closing schools and icy streets immediately gridlocked a system that is simply not designed to handle such a crisis. It works OK most of the time, but what happened that day is simply a more spectacular variation of what happens every day at rush hour. The system gets jammed up. Most of our region is built around a system that is incredibly inefficient for emergency response, and also for day-to-day matters like going to work or school, or conveying water, electricity and other utilities to our spread-out way of life.

We chose to build it this way. We wanted it like that, and we consistently refuse to diversify our system with transit and other ways of moving around. That’s fine, I guess, but it has consequences. It has made us vulnerable.

So, yes, we’ll learn to communicate better not only in emergencies but in our day-to-day commutes. Technology can help. But it is important to note the irony that without controls on sprawl, any measures to make roadways more efficient, like streamlined intersections or automation, will only create more sprawl and therefore more congestion.

The best way to protect the quality of life in communities defined by sprawl would be to stop building more of them. We should instead focus on creating a more diversified transportation system through transit investments in the compact parts of the region that can handle more growth. This will both invigorate existing centers and protect the free flow of roadways that much of our region’s economy depends on.

While we may not be able to un-choose the infrastructure system that we built for ourselves over the last 60 years, we can choose to build a better system to support the next million people that will make Atlanta their home.

Let’s at least do that.

Ryan Gravel is an urban designer at Perkins+Will and writes at

Cars-trains debate may soon be moot

By David Edwards

It wasn’t long after Winter Storm Leon gridlocked our city before some observers raised the question whether a more robust mass transit system could have alleviated the impact of the storm. Transportation historian David Jones calls this the “mass motorization versus mass transit” debate, and our city seems particularly susceptible to it.

Cars or trains — which will it be?

What few noticed, however, was that just days before the storm crippled our city, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it will soon require new cars to incorporate communications technologies that will allow them to communicate with other cars and with traffic infrastructure such as stop lights and road signs.

These technological advances are expected to lead to significant improvements in car safety, potentially saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damage caused by automobiles accidents each year.

In addition to being safer, these “connected cars” will improve the efficiency of our highway and street infrastructure by injecting intelligence into car routing and signaling systems. The days of sitting at traffic lights at empty intersections may soon be behind us.

What these technologies do is allow automobiles to begin to act more like transit systems. Using specially designed software, they coordinate the speed, movement and spacing of cars to optimize the use of the road and highway infrastructure. During our recent storm, these cars could have informed drivers immediately that is was going to take them 12 hours to get home. I am sure many people would have abandoned their quest if they had known what was awaiting them on the interstates that day.

As our automobiles become increasingly intelligent, some analysts wonder whether we are headed toward a world of autonomous vehicles. They imagine a network of driverless cars that provide on-demand taxi-like services for a fraction of the cost of owning a personal vehicle.

“It’s a game changer,” says car researcher Alain L. Kornhauser of Princeton University. “What I think is going to happen is that nobody will own a car.”

A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that Singapore could eliminate 60 percent of its automobiles if it adopted a universal network of driverless cars. In essence, these vehicles could provide a form of “personal-public transportation,” solving the “last mile” problem that plagues existing public transportation systems by providing door-to-door service.

Driverless cars have the potential to be the first transformational technology of the 21st century. The Eno Center for Transportation recently estimated the annual benefit from autonomous cars could approach a half-trillion dollars.

Big investments are already underway. IBM has partnered with European auto supplier Continental to develop a cloud computing platform to deliver a range of new mobile services to cars. Things like software updates and vehicle control functionality will be delivered over the Internet. These and other developments could make automated driving a reality.

Before long, the cars versus trains debate may seem as relevant as the “horses versus cars” debate a century ago. Cars that behave like trains may be where we are headed.

David Edwards, a former chief policy officer for Atlanta, is global offerings manager for IBM Smarter Cities.

3 comments Add your comment

Bob Peppel

March 4th, 2014
8:15 pm

David Edwards makes some good points and the cars that talk to each other may be very beneficial but all the talking in the world won’t be much good when they are sliding sideways. One advantage of transit is that vehicles on flanged steel wheels riding on steel rails don’t slide sideways and they don’t jackknife. Do you suppose that if we had spent as much on transit as we have on roads, sprawl would be greatly reduced and those people that couldn’t get home for 12 hours might have been able to walk home in much less time?

Should we really wait around for "soon"?

March 4th, 2014
2:47 pm

Certainly the promise of autonomous cars is great, but these autos are still vulnerable to the same kinds of threats that crippled Atlanta a few weeks ago.

Before we invest billions upon billions into super-intelligent roadway networks or just tapping our feet until the promise of UAVs is realized, let’s start investing in choices:
- the choice to live, shop, and work in walkable neighborhoods,
- the choice to get around by bicycle, train, or foot, and
- the choice to lifestyles that aren’t defined by our commutes.


March 4th, 2014
1:40 pm

Perhaps Ryan Gravel should have consulted MARTA’s schedules during the snow storm before praising transit’s ability to deal with snow storms.