New hope for Atlanta traffic in driverless cars

By: Eric Tanenblatt

The world came to know Atlanta at the height of the civil rights struggle as “the city too busy to hate.” Now, in spite of vigorous efforts by civic and political leaders to remedy the constellation of red tail lights that illuminate our highways at dusk, Atlanta’s reputation has deteriorated into a city too busy because it’s locked in perpetual traffic.

Our famously harrowing traffic is worse now than at any point in our history. Indeed, Atlanta’s traffic registers as the world’s ninth-worst, rating as poorly as cities whose populations dwarf our own.

But in a place as innovative as ours, Atlanta’s worsening traffic doesn’t have to be our city’s ruin but instead a catalyst for a technological renaissance.

The problem is easy enough to diagnose: we have too many cars on the roads, because our transportation construct is one almost universally tied to individual vehicle ownership. While New York City services some 230 miles of heavy rail service and Los Angeles services 106, Atlanta boasts fewer than 50.

We know we need fewer cars on the roads, but what if the course to fewer standstills lies first in fewer drivers? A study released last month by the San Francisco think tank RethinkX predicted that, by 2030, 95 percent of US passenger miles will be logged in fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles.

Already, pilot programs for these robo-cabs have been planted in major cities across the country. Atlanta isn’t among them—yet.

Late last year, City Hall announced plans to engineer a smart corridor, connecting Georgia Tech and Ponce City Market through North Avenue, one of the city’s longest and busiest east-west routes. Not long after, the General Assembly passed one of the nation’s most permissive frameworks for the public testing of autonomous vehicles.

Just one tap of one car’s brakes can be felt for miles and hours behind it. But a study last year by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that the presence of just one autonomous vehicle in a stream of twenty cars could reduce the standard deviation in speed in all the cars (that is, unnecessary slowdowns) by 50 percent and that sharp braking was slashed from nine pumps to 2.5 for every 1.5 miles.

That’s the impact of just one autonomous vehicle. Now, think bigger. What would happen if you put not just one, but dozens of autonomous taxis on North Avenue, from Georgia Tech to the Beltline? What would happen if you put not just one, but dozens of autonomous taxis on the drag between the Arts Center MARTA Station to the tough-to-walk Atlantic Station, or the Peachtree corridor from the Buckhead Village to Lenox Mall/Phipps Plaza?

I’ll tell you: less congestion, fewer accidents and road deaths, and new opportunities for mobility for the young, the elderly, and the poor.

Atlanta remains the city too busy to hate, but let’s give the world a new reason to remember us: let them know Atlanta as America’s first truly driverless town.