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The Southern Snowstorm and Sprawl

  |   By: Wesley Vaughn  

The snowstorm that shut down much of the Southeast this week raised many questions and concerns. Did public officials adequately prepare residents? How did meteorologists miss this? Does no city in the South own a salt truck?

All of these discussions are valid, but the one that interests me the most is how the South’s built environment contributed to the region’s shutdown. We planned our own demise by planning our communities for the car by zoning residential and commercial uses away from each other, and by locating schools away from the neighborhoods they serve through poor capital investment planning.

Once a sense of normalcy returned and the snow melted, some made the connection between the region’s inability to handle the snowstorm and its suburban sprawl.

Rebecca Burns, deputy editor of Atlanta Magazine, wrote the best piece I’ve seen so far. In the piece published by Politico, Burns points out how the Atlanta region’s auto-dominated culture and decision making failed it during the crisis. She didn’t make excuses for the region and tell those in the North to stop laughing, like an embarrassing Gizmodo column did. She placed responsibility on the public officials and residents who paved the road to their own troubles. Even though Burns was credited with being the first to make this connection, André Natta and I totally made this case on Twitter the day before.

Alex Walsh of AL.com looked at the commuting data in the Birmingham region to see if the high number of vehicles on the roads exacerbated the snowstorm’s effects. Walsh found that “while nearly one in three of the area’s workers has a job in or close to Birmingham city, fewer than one in five live there.” That statistic illustrates how critical vehicles are to the region’s workers and illustrates the high demand on the road connections between downtown and the suburbs.

Sweet Home Politics’ own Kindred Motes wrote how the snowstorm revealed the Birmingham region’s lack of mass transit. Although I don’t think a better bus system would have helped much this week, I do think that planning the Birmingham region around mass transit — called “transit-oriented development” — would have helped. Transit-oriented development concentrates mixed-use development within walking distance of transit stops, thereby creating walkability within neighborhoods and connecting them to the rest of the region.

Lastly, the political fragmentation that sprawl has created since the post-WWII period certainly didn’t help this week, as pointed out by Conor Sen on Business Insider. The Birmingham metro alone includes seven county governments and 87 local governments. One unified response would have been impossible with that many decision makers. Political fragmentation makes long-term decisions incredibly difficult as well. The Atlanta region  voted down a ballot measure in 2012 that would have funded regional transit projections, and the Birmingham region voted down the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy in 1992 that would have devoted funding to a regional transit system. The South has failed to grasp the sense of regionalism that the Northeast has capitalized on.

So, even though Gov. Bentley has pled us not to play the “blame game,” I think we should at least have a conversation of what went wrong and how to be better prepared — especially in terms of our built envirionemnt.

Follow Wesley on Twitter at @WesleyVaughn

Wesley Vaughn has a master's in city planning. He believes in Birmingham, Nick Saban, and his foreseeable marriage to Anna Kendrick.

The Sweet Home Politics Blog features brief thoughts and responses to news. These posts are too long for Twitter but not long enough for a full-length opinion piece.