“Help is coming” was the slogan of a Sept. 12 Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber of Commerce “Transportation Summit,” advertised with an image of the new I-285/Ga. 400 interchange that is now under construction. But the theme was how to help commuters help themselves, as the expert panelists said infrastructure improvements alone will not solve the area’s massive congestion woes.
Ann Hanlon, executive director of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, told the audience at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in State Farm’s Park Center tower that her group’s work with companies on promoting such tactics as transit use and teleworking are making a difference.
“I’ve had people tell me recently that Fridays and Mondays are feeling better,” Hanlon said. “Now, if we can get them thinking in a flexible way about Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, we can make a lot of progress. We are at a point where traffic is so painful that people realize they have to make changes internally.”
Other panelists included: Marlo Clowers, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s project manager on the “Transform 285/400” interchange project; Rosalind Tucker, who heads the Georgia Commute Options commuting alternatives program at the Atlanta Regional Commission; and Johann Weber, who manages the PCIDs’ “Perimeter Connects” commuting program.
On the road-building side, Clowers gave an overview of the Transform 285/400 project, which is scheduled to finish most work about a year from now, and the toll lanes that GDOT plans to add along both highways over the next decade.
Clowers did not bring up local controversies about the toll lanes, which include property takings, their efficiency compared to transit lines. On part of Ga. 400, the lanes are intended to carry MARTA buses as well as private vehicle traffic.
Rick Carr, a local businessman, told Clowers he thinks the toll lanes will not reduce congestion. “HOV lanes are already there, but no one is using them,” he said. “It’s not going to work.” Clowers replied that the toll strategy adds more control over the flow of traffic.
Clowers noted that the Transform 285/400 project includes a connection of a future extension of the PATH400 multiuse trail under I-285 along Peachtree-Dunwoody Road. “We are thinking beyond cars,” she said.
Tucker said that alternatives beyond private vehicles are necessary as Georgia roads face increasing demand from delivery services and population growth. Metro Atlanta’s population of about 6 million is projected to reach 8 million by 2040, she said.
“Technology and services that reduce the need and desire for travel are happening, but are competing forces for the roadway,” she said. “Three million people are ordering from Amazon. Someone has to get that to our doors.” Tucker said she orders all her groceries online for home delivery, and “although I may not be on the highway, I’m still perpetuating an increase of travel on our roadways.”
But with challenges come opportunities, Tucker said. “More people are working at home,” she said. “If we can continue to really work with employers to see the great benefit in allowing their workforce to telework, we will continue to see great gains.”
Hanlon said State Farm, Mercedes-Benz USA, and Cox Media Group are among the major Perimeter Center corporations already on board with incentivizing their employees to take transit, telework and offer flexible work schedules.
“Each of the corporate owners is, I think, ready for behavioral and cultural change,” she said, adding the PCIDs is also approaching smaller companies.
The PCIDs’ “Perimeter Connects” program works with local commuters on such options as transit, sharing rides and bicycling.
“It’s a program to try to tackle traffic, and addresses other elements that are at play,” said Weber, the program’s manager. “We estimate that this year [our work represents] about 6,400 trips that aren’t happening each average day. If you take those cars and you put them bumper-to-bumper, 20 miles of highway would fill up.”
Weber said “shift scheduling” is a key part. “If you get someone to work from home one day a week, that trip doesn’t exist anymore.” His company works with employers “to implement policies, programs, services, and other strategies… to change the geometry of traffic.”
Tucker noted an option to support alternative commuting is a program called “Guaranteed Ride Home,” in which commuters can register for up to five free taxi rides annually in case of an unexpected event.
The PCIDs is a self-taxing district of commercial property owners, and transportation improvement is its main goal. Increasingly, that includes new kinds of infrastructure to support alternative commuting.
“We focus a lot on construction and building new stuff, but we also spend time on what Roz and Johann are doing, which is getting people out of their cars,” said Hanlon. As one example, she cited the recently opened pedestrian bridge across Nancy Creek between Dunwoody’s Georgetown neighborhood and Perimeter Center. The PCIDs contributed $200,000 to its construction.
“Not a glamorous project, but it connects two places that were not connected before,” she said. “Now people can get somewhere without driving.”
For more information about the PCIDs’ “Perimeter Connects” commuting alternatives program, see perimeterconnects.com.
–Kevin C. Madigan