Dave Emanuel, Cut to the Chase

Although they are annoying, infuriating, frustrating and countless other adjectives, heavy traffic, and road congestion are facts of life, not only in Gwinnett County but in just about every metropolitan area in the country. In spite of the negatives associated with it, heavy traffic is a sign of success; large increases in population occur in areas that are desirable as places to live and work.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to traffic problems. In an effort to address that situation, the Georgia legislature recently passed legislation that focuses attention on expanding public transit as a means of encouraging drivers to park their cars and take an alternate form of transportation. Rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) are the two modes that appear to be gaining the most attention. However, given the geography and population density, multiple transit options will be required to bring about a significant reduction in the number of private vehicles plying the county’s streets and highways.

Traditionally, heavy rail (defined as a system that is above or below street level, or otherwise separated from vehicular traffic) has been viewed as the transit option of choice. That may be appropriate for cities with high-density populations, such as New York City, but it’s completely inappropriate for Atlanta and surrounding counties; the numbers tell the story. New York City has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile. That includes all five boroughs; Manhattan has a density of 67,000 people per square mile. In comparison, Atlanta has a population density of approximately 3,400 people per square mile; Gwinnett County has a population density of 2,060 people per square mile. (Statistics vary a bit depending on the source.)

With both residential areas and business centers so spread out, it’s difficult to devise a system that efficiently transports people from where they are, to their desired destination. And at a construction cost of approximately $250 million per mile, heavy rail is the most expensive means of not transporting riders from their current location to their destinations.

Clearly, bus rapid transit (often described as light rail with rubber tires) and autonomous vehicles are the future of public transit. They are especially appropriate for low-density areas because the cost of construction and operation are significantly lower than for rail. And with autonomous vehicles coming online, transportation, both public and private, will be revolutionized.

In fact, the revolution is already underway. Driverless taxis (Uber) are already operating in Pittsburgh, PA and Phoenix, AZ, and the city of Peachtree Corners has launched an autonomous vehicle test track. It won’t be too long before driverless vehicles are operating throughout Gwinnett County. Whether they’re part of a public transit system or operated by private companies, they will dramatically change the face of transportation.

Dave Emanuel is a Snellville City Councilman, small business owner, and former journalist.