It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since the 1996 Olympic Games. This two-week event fostered unprecedented growth in the region and recognition for years after the closing ceremonies, truly solidifying Atlanta as an international city.
As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of Atlanta's Olympics, it's understandable if many Georgians who were part of the experience are feeling a bit nostalgic. Some of us may even be tempted to dust off our Izzy memorabilia. But those involved with The Clean Air Campaign are excited to celebrate the occasion for a different reason: the Olympic experience shaped our mission for less traffic and cleaner air, providing a glimpse into what was possible.
As the 1996 Olympics approached, senior business and political leaders agreed that traffic congestion and poor air quality could have an adverse impact on the success of the Games. Atlanta had cultivated an image as the City that would carry off the biggest, most successful Games in history. This required not merely facilitating the 10,000 athletes involved, 15,000 members of the international press and more than 2 million spectators on hand, but also ensuring that gridlock and poor air quality issues did not upstage the Games. All agreed this would require significant efforts to reduce normal traffic congestion in the region. For their part, the business community agreed to take steps to encourage employees to significantly reduce commuting trips during the period of the Games. In preparation for this effort, The Clean Air Campaign was officially launched in the late-spring of 1996.
The arrival of the "Games of the 100th Olympiad" brought unparalleled excitement for many, but employers and commuters were concerned about the impact of millions of visitors on Atlanta's transportation network. How would the business community be able to conduct business as usual during the Olympics if employees couldn't get downtown? And so, a business strategy came into focus, albeit years ahead of its time. Allowing employees to work from home or from remote locations (telework) would help keep them out of traffic and be productive. Ask anyone who traveled the roads at rush hour during this time and they'll tell you it was surprisingly empty. A vision for less traffic was achieved in part through the proactive, business-driven decisions of Atlanta employers.
At this same time, Atlanta's environmental and health communities observed a remarkable trend. Air quality in the region actually improved during the Olympics. No Code Red or Code Orange exceedences for ground-level ozone or particle pollution were observed. A study even found area visits to emergency rooms for respiratory illness declined 40% during this timeframe. With half of all smog-forming emissions in the region coming from tailpipes, this unexpected and positive news on air quality validated the notion that voluntary actions could move the needle toward cleaner air.
Fifteen years after the Olympic cauldron went dark, there is still much to celebrate. The Clean Air Campaign and its partners currently work with more than 1,600 Georgia employers across the state on commute options programs that improve employee productivity and morale. Tens of thousands of Georgia commuters have also changed their commute activity with assistance and resources from The Clean Air Campaign and more than 330 Georgia schools are involved in the Clean Air Schools program, educating future leaders about the importance of air quality. Nearly a decade has passed since the region last experienced a Code Purple exceedence for ozone, and the number of Code Red exceedences has declined significantly.
The transformational impact of the Summer Games on this region will always be a point of pride. So, too, is the mission for less traffic and cleaner air.