For Atlanta, Some Hard-Won Lessons from Jakarta

02/11/2014 04:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

As another winter storm bears down on Atlanta just two weeks after several inches of snow and ice paralyzed the city, one question remains painfully relevant: How and why did such a modest bit of winter weather cause such havoc? True, snow in Atlanta is a rare occurrence. But isn't Atlanta so well-endowed with modern roadways, a pioneering combined rail and bus transit system, MARTA, and sophisticated planning regulations to preclude the need to overreact to these occasional mishaps? Perhaps this isolated event exposes some fundamental flaws in how a quintessential American city operates.

A comparison to another auto-dependent large metropolis in a very different part of the world illuminates the problem. Atlanta's problem of roadway gridlock is nothing compared to the everyday problem of traversing the Southeast Asian megacity of Jakarta. As the capital city of Indonesia, the fourth-most populous country in the world, it forms the core of a mega-urban region boasting 28 million people living in an area 2,468 square miles. Compare that to Atlanta's extended metropolitan area which encompasses 10,000 square miles but with a population of slightly more than 6 million. The low-density settlement pattern evident in Atlanta is a distinctly American phenomenon, and throughout the 20th century was the desired outcome of planners. At the same time, the older cities of Europe and all of the vast megacities of Asia and South America utilize only a fraction of the land area. For example, Sao Paulo, the largest metropolis in South America, covers about 3,000 square miles. Mexico City covers nearly 3,500 square miles. These places accommodate upwards of four times the population of the Atlanta metropolis.

Both Atlanta and Jakarta have planned to serve the transportation need of their expanding populations principally through an ever-growing highway system. For Atlanta, the highway expansion dates from the 1960s with the construction of several legs of the interstate high system. In the 1970s, Jakarta embarked on an equally ambitious program of road building, supported by consultants from the United States, to guide its rapid urban expansion deep into the hinterland. Atlanta's MARTA system added a transit alternative, with two lines going north and south, and two east and west, to connect the world's busiest airport to the city center and its environs. The costs of expanding the rail system have stymied efforts to expand service deep into adjacent DeKalb and Fulton counties, let alone the larger metropolitan area. In Jakarta, a bus rapid transit system opened in 2004 with one line through the city center has grown over the past decade then into a system with 12 lines, covering more than 125 miles and serving approximately 300,000 passengers per day. Yet, Jakarta's express highways which make three rings that circle the metropolis remains gridlocked daily. This is especially the case in the suburban fringe where so much of its new development has occurred, and where with greater densities, Jakarta looks a lot like sprawling Atlanta.

It is at the urban edge where Atlanta and Jakarta begin to look very much alike, with an endless flow of traffic seeking the center each morning that exceeds road capacity, followed by a comparable volume car and trucks with the reverse commute in the afternoon, and further impacted by the steady stream of vehicles simply use the urban highways as a pass through within the national network. On a recent visit to Jakarta, I experienced a 14-mile, bumper-to-bumper traffic bottleneck (and not because of an accident) stretching from the city center deep into its hinterland. Fortunately we were traveling in from edge to the center so our three lanes of heavy traffic moved at a reasonable clip while we observed what our driver told us was the daily nightmare heading in the opposite direction.

So the real takeaway from the freakish snow event in Atlanta is not so much about disaster preparedness but rather what it tells us about the type of urban community being fashioned through decisions about the interrelated transportation and land use systems. These are the most fundamental decisions that affect the form and function of urban areas, and every decision has a range of small and potential large intended and unintended consequences. And whether it is snow in Atlanta, the rainy season in Jakarta, with its many flooded streets, or in the near future the effects of sea level rise on a coastal city like Miami, or earthquake prone Los Angeles, it is the unprecedented scale of cities in the 21st century that demands a planning process that envisions the whole but that is sensitive to how even the most seemingly inconsequential decisions about transportation and land use can trigger disasters. The unwillingness of most American cities to recognize and plan adequately for the implications of the massive scale of our urban footprint, and to invest in ways to make it function better, suggests that the daily malaise of Jakarta may soon become more than just a snowy day drama in Atlanta.