Spinning our Wheels

Spinning our Wheels is a commuting blog about the challenges of getting around Atlanta by car, bus, MARTA, bicycles and on foot written by transportation reporter David Wickert

School's coming, and Atlanta traffic will get worse ... or will it?

If your office is like mine, people are already buzzing about how bad Atlanta traffic is going to be once school resumes – in some district that’s next week. They’re dreading the longer commutes, the more intense stop-and-go traffic that inevitably comes when school resumes.

Or does it?

It makes sense that traffic would get worse during the school year – all those yellow buses on the roads, families back from vacation, etc. And yet, that’s not necessarily what statistics show.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation traffic volumes on metro Atlanta highways hardly decreases during the summer, even at rush hour.

For example, here’s a look at average traffic volumes (vehicles per hour per lane) on southbound I-75 from I-575 to I-285 in Cobb County. The orange line shows traffic volumes from June 6 to July 22, 2016, and the blue line shows volumes from Oct. 3 to Nov. 4, 2016 (you can click to enlarge the image):

As you can see, they’re hardly distinguishable.

Here’s a look at traffic volumes on southbound I-85 from Beaver Ruin Road to Spaghetti Junction in Gwinnett and DeKalb for the same period:

Again, not much difference. If anything, summer volumes were actually a little worse for parts of the morning rush.

GDOT charts for I-575 and several stretches of I-285 showed similar patterns. One exception: Traffic volumes did seem to drop off a little during the summer on southbound Ga. 400 from Holcomb Bridge Road to I-285:

GDOT did find a substantial seasonal difference in commute times on some local roads near schools. From January to May, morning travel times were as much as 37 percent higher around some schools when compared to June and July – though afternoon times in several areas saw little change.

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said traffic definitely slows down for school zones or stopped buses on local roads. But she said the public’s perception that traffic also gets worse on highways during the school year does not match reality.

Of course, that doesn’t mean your individual commute isn’t longer. You may be driving more during the school year.

“In summer, you go from your home to work,” Dale said. “During the school year you go from home to school to drop off the kids and then to work.

“It’s not that there’s more people on the roads (during the school year),” she said. “They’re just going to different places.”

I’m trying to learn more about this from traffic experts. But in the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts. Do you buy this? Do you think traffic gets heavier on Atlanta highways during the school year, no matter what the statistics show? Does your commute get worse or not?

If you’re willing to chat about your commute and be quoted in a newspaper article, shoot me an e-mail: dwickert@ajc.com.

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