Snowpocalypse 2014: A product of the New South

As I worked this week from home in my pajamas, I couldn’t help but join the millions of Atlantans and Birminghamians, among others, in contemplating just how Snowpocalypse 2014 happened.

This will not surprise you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fault of the New South.

Traffic stands still in snowy Atlanta
Perhaps the most iconic image from Tuesday’s disastrous commute in snowy Atlanta.

Although much has been written already on this topic, permit me to weigh in and offer five supporting arguments for my assessment. Feel free to disagree and tell me so. And for the record, I did not write this during my 2 hour and 20 minute commute (one of the shorter ones in metro Atlanta on Tuesday):

1. Southern Pride. Down South, we never surrender, and we’re tired of being mocked. Government officials, school superintendents and business owners did not want to close Tuesday on the threat of snow because they did not want to keep everybody home and this storm turn out to be a light dusting. I don’t care what they say now about taking this threat seriously. Clearly, this arrogance in the face of eminent danger was at least an indirect psychological factor in the minds of Southern deciders.

The sad thing is, the Yankees still won. It’s like heckling a batter while he’s in the on-deck circle. If he ever acknowledges you, even with a nod, a smile or giving you the one finger salute, you know you got in his head. You won.

This was the same scenario. Folks more accustomed to snow mock Southerners each time there’s a threat of winter weather. They ridicule our excitement, need to rush to the grocery store to buy bread and milk and complete lack of ability to drive in those conditions. I believe this got in the heads of us Southerners, so much so that we went against our better judgment. We wanted to stick it out. Sherman (General Tecumseh, not Richard) would not have the last laugh.

2. Selective hearing. Our attention spans in the New South are waning, and this was on full display Tuesday morning. When the forecast was changed from a slight dusting in Atlanta with most of the precipitation falling south of the metro area to the possibility of 2 to 3 inches hitting squarely on the metro area, we didn’t really notice. We heard the first thing forecasters said, not the last thing.

We had it in our heads that this would be another of the dozens of near-misses rather than the rare direct hit, and when the National Weather Service issued updated warnings, it fell on deaf ears. We had already made up our minds and were on to other things. Anyone who paid attention and acted accordingly was discounted as a “Nervous Nelly,” unable to handle two inches of snow.

3. Sprawl. I can’t speak for Birmingham, but in Atlanta, we’ve gotten too big for our lifestyle. The Atlanta metropolitan area spans 8,376 square miles. That’s a lot of snow-covered roadway to traverse going to and from work. The average Atlanta commuter spends 240 hours commuting each year. For the mathematically challenged, that’s the equivalent of 30 work days.

Atlanta’s commute ranks no. 7 nationally, according to Bloomberg and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, on the list of worst commutes. It’s clearly not an ideal situation on a good day. Tuesday was not a good day. All of us in our cars trying to get back to the suburbs left downtown at roughly the same time. By the time we all figured out that this was a bad idea, it was too late.

4. Saving cash. Preventive maintenance is sound, reasonable thinking, but it flies in the face of human nature. We don’t want to do anything we don’t absolutely have to. So before we criticize the Alabama and Georgia departments of transportation for not pre-salting and graveling the roads, let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves: when was the last time we changed our vehicle’s oil on time? OK, then.

It’s no secret that we don’t have resources to deal with winter weather – namely salt trucks and snow plows – in the South, and no one would blame us. It only snows like this once every four or five years. We wouldn’t get a good return on that investment. And it costs money to operate the equipment and purchase the salt and gravel that we’re just going to throw around. Why salt and spread if you don’t have to?

Officials gambled and lost. I think we can all admit we would have at least been reluctant to make the call to spend the cash to pre-treat the roads when the threat did not seem that bad.

5. Scapegoating is our favorite pastime. None of us want to take personal responsibility for contributing to the circumstances that caused the commuting disaster on Tuesday, but if just a fraction of us had taken personal ownership of our lives and made different decisions, the crisis would have been mitigated if not averted. But where’s the fun in that? In the New South, we cannot move on from any disaster without affixing blame. It’s what we do.

We are going to blame our mayors, our emergency management leaders, and our governors regardless because this is the most basic reason why we vote: to have someone to blame when things go wrong. They’re not so much elected to lead us as to be our scapegoats. Tuesday’s commute disaster needs a scapegoat.

Officials tried to pin this on the forecasters. But when you run a 24-hour cable network, you have plenty of time to rebut. With state elections in Georgia just around the corner, I’m afraid challengers to incumbents will help make this blame game stick on those currently holding office as they lay out their attack ads leading into the fall.

One of my takeaways from Tuesday will be gratitude for not having a worse or more dangerous experience. I’ll also try to let the memories of the boys joyously sledding on Wednesday replace thoughts of Tuesday’s awful commute.

Regionally shared experiences are rare. Throughout the South, we now have harrowing experiences and stories to share for generations to come. In our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural New South, we all have Snowpocalypse 2014 in common.

Was the area in which you live touched by Winter Storm Leon? What was your experience like? If you live in Atlanta, what was your commute like on Tuesday? Did you pick your kids up early from school? Did you heed the warnings? Let’s begin sharing our stories by leaving comments below.

Commuter dude

I recently changed jobs, and in the process traded a consistent 30-minute commute for a nail-biting daily adventure into downtown Atlanta.

Atlanta traffic
Here’s a clue about my new work destination. It’s also now an all-too familiar view out of my windshield.

Commuting is not a remarkable activity in and of itself. It is a necessary evil for those of us with kids, living the suburban “dream.” And, unfortunately, it is one of those activities that characterizes life in the New South — at least the urban New South.

According to the U.S. Census, Atlanta has the sixth longest commute time — an average of 30.3 minutes — in the U.S., behind such undrivable places as New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago and Los Angeles.

I’ve found that I fall right into that average, depending on what time I leave my house in the morning and the office in the afternoon.

Way back in 2008, Forbes magazine did a piece on the worst cities in America for commuters. No surprise to anyone who has ever been stuck on one of Atlanta’s “thoroughfares,” Atlanta ranked no. 1 on the list of worst cities for commuters. The reasons? Back then, Atlanta was the fastest growing city in America, and infrastructure improvements could not keep up with growth.

Also, the public transit system does not reach out into the suburbs sufficiently to be a convenient alternative to driving. The growth and urban sprawl conspire to put more people behind the wheel because there is simply no alternative.

My new commute is 23.7 miles, one way. If I leave the house in the vicinity of 7 a.m., it’s at least 45 minutes. If I leave before 6:30 a.m., it’s a half hour. This is a no brainer. I’ve latched onto a schedule that has me leaving the house at 5 a.m. (I’m up at this time any way) and arriving at the gym near my office when it opens at 5:30 a.m. That puts me behind my desk and ready to work at 7 a.m., without the stress of fighting traffic.

The afternoon has been a more difficult  puzzle to solve. If I leave between 4 and 4:30 p.m., my commute is about 45 minutes. Departing the office anywhere near 5 p.m., and it’s upwards of an hour. I’ve tried multiple routes already, but the only sure-fire solution is to hit the door before 4:30 p.m.

Atlanta traffic 100 years ago
What a difference 100 years make. This is Peachtree Street, circa the turn of the last century. Now that’s a commute!

It’s taken me 10 years as an Atlantan to get to experience what most Atlantans deal with from day one. It’s early yet, so I have no right to complain, but what the experience is teaching me about life in the New South is enlightening:

1. Time is our most precious resource. Money can’t buy happiness, nor can it give you back the time you spend in your car. Time is a zero sum game. The more time I am in the car in the afternoon, the less time I am spending with my boys or talking to my wife.

2. Transportation must be functional. I used to want a pickup truck. Not anymore. Now I want to replace my 2001 Volvo V70 wagon with the most fuel-efficient car on the market. I’d even drive one of those solar-panelled, sailboat-looking things if it was reliable.

3. Sleep deprivation is deadly. My wife says I don’t get enough sleep. Well, if she is correct, then I need to make some changes. Tooling down the back roads of Gwinnett County while in need of some shut-eye will get you into a ditch. Nodding off while fighting the hordes on the Connector or I-85 will get you killed.

4. Mental health is on the line. Nothing tests your true state of mind like a commute. If you are calm and at peace, it’s no big deal. You’re willing to let someone cut in, you drive safely and patiently, and you make it to your destination in one piece. If you are already amped up before you get behind the wheel, look out world! Road rage will spill over onto your co-workers or family. Serenity now!

5. The Golden Rule applies. Hey, we’re all just people out there trying to get where we’re going. It’s not a race. The most basic of all rules governing human interactions can save lives during a commute — or at least save your sanity.

See you on the highways!

Do you have an awful commute or are just minutes away from the office? How do you cope with commuting? Share your pain or brag by leaving a comment below.