Snowy Atlanta traffic jam reenacted with Hot Wheels

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ATLANTA (CNN) --In a move "as cold as ice" Georgia resident Rachel Richards used Hot Wheels to reenact the snowy traffic jam that paralyzed Atlanta and resulted in commutes that exceeded 20 hours for some people.

It's a tongue in cheek gesture over a statewide disaster that left more than 2,000 cars abandoned when 2.6 inches of snow overwhelmed Atlanta's ability to cope. By Friday most cars had been picked up, but Tuesday was a completely different situation.

Many people spent the night in their cars Tuesday, trapped in the gridlock. Some students were stuck on school buses, others had to shelter overnight in their schools.

Abandoned Cars along Georgia 400Charley English, director of Georgia's Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) apologized for not cranking up emergency operations six hours earlier than he did.

"I got this one wrong," Charley English said.

Mayor Kasim Reed cited the mass exodus from his city as largely responsible for the gridlock and said the schedule for sending people home should have been staggered.

He acknowledged that a "lack of experience" in dealing with severe weather events in Atlanta played a role.

Monster sprawl

Reed has managerial control over most, but not all, of Fulton County. But greater Atlanta comprises 28 counties with 140 cities and towns sprawled over an area the size of Massachusetts, and Reed does not have administrative power over them.

That needs to change, according to retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who coordinated relief efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

"They need to have in Atlanta the same type of government you have in New York, where the mayor controls the city and everything around that city, and the mayor can make decisions on road closures; he has emergency powers as when schools close," he said.

Atlanta's transportation system is fragile

Though warmth may have returned to Atlanta, its residents still can't count on a reasonable commute. The city's subway -- called MARTA -- does not reach many areas of the city, so the vast majority of commuters drive. That often means traffic jams during rush hours, which can extend through much of the day.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility 2010 study, cited by the Clean Air Campaign, the region is the 12th most wasteful commute in the country. The average Atlanta driver is stuck in traffic for 43 hours per year; that's in addition to his or her normal commuting time, it said.

That translates into a cost to Atlanta commuters of nearly $3 billion per year in time and fuel -- $924 per person, it said.

The average commuting distance is 35 miles in metro Atlanta, and costs commuters $16.45 per day, said the Clean Air Campaign, a not-for-profit advocacy group.

More than four in five commuters (82%) drive alone, it said, citing a 2010 survey carried out for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Despite those statistics, voters in 2012 turned down a transportation initiative. "Nobody fought harder for funding for MARTA than me during the regional transportation referendum," Reed said Friday.

But, he added, he has transportation improvement in mind, with plans to extend a street car due to come on line this year and to invest in roads, bridges and sidewalks.

CNN's Ed Payne, Vivian Kuo, Holly Yan and Greg Botelho contributed to this report

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