Monday, February 16, 2009

Let's Stop Driving: Traffic

Perhaps the most noticeable and most convincing piece of evidence that humans shouldn't be driving is the existence of traffic. Traffic represents a breakdown in the flow of the system. While a properly running transportation system should be bereft of bottlenecks, the Washington, DC area is a veritable bonanza of traffic jams.

It stands to reason that there was a time in human history when there were no traffic jams, probably for the first five, ten, maybe even twenty years of the existence of the automobile. And then, at some point, there were so many cars that people had to start waiting in line to drive from point A to point B. What was the solution? Widen the roadways. So crews were assembled, the ground was broken, and the roads were widened. And when the dust cleared, the traffic jams were gone.

Sure enough, though, as time wore on, more and more cars were being used, and traffic jams started popping up again. This time, however, maybe widening the roadways wasn't an option, because you'd have to tear down buildings. So what did we do? We built more roads. With more options of which road to use to get from point A to point B, fewer people would be on each road, and that would lessen traffic. And it did. The traffic jams disappeared, and everyone could drive without being hindered by the existence of other cars on the roads. But what happened next was really amazing, and was something that no one could have predicted.

More cars showed up, and traffic jams formed again. The same strategies were employed: more roads, wider roads. And they helped for a while, until the traffic jams cropped up again. This cycle has continued for decades, and continues today, except for one noticeable difference: we don't get rid of the traffic jams anymore.

It reminds me of Tetris. You start building up, leaving that one-block-wide spot at the end to drop the long pieces in to get the "Tetris," the four-line completion. And it works for a while; you drop in the long pieces, knock out four lines, and keep going. But as time wears on, the blocks next to the hole accumulate and get closer to the fatal top of the screen. And at some point, you say, "Alright, I'll just drop this one piece in there and get a couple of lines, then I can get back to working on Tetrises. But of course, you don't. You catch another bad piece, and have to cover up the hole, "temporarily" you tell yourself. And before you know it, it's a race just to stay alive.

That's how it is with traffic. We're no longer working to prevent traffic jams altogether. We're just trying to mitigate their impact, and spread them out over a larger area. But they're completely beyond our ability to control at this point. Am I the only one who finds that worrisome? We've created a monster that we can't control. This is like Jurassic Park; traffic is the velociraptors. It's only a matter of time before it gets out of hand and we're running for our lives...alright, maybe that analogy isn't as good as the Tetris one, but you get my point.

The reality is that every day you'll see work being done to expand roads, add a lane here, build another highway there. But no one has any hope of actually eliminating traffic as a time drain on all of us. We're willing to settle for a slight reduction in backups, and saving 5% off our daily commute.

If we're going to spend money, lots of money every year, expanding and "improving" our road system, shouldn't we start to look at other options that might dramatically increase the efficiency of our transportation systems?

One last point that I didn't really make clear in my first post: I don't have an answer. I think a top-flight mass transit system is a good idea, but it's certainly not going to eliminate our dependence on motor vehicles altogether, which means it's not going to solve the traffic problem completely. The intention of these blog posts is not to try to sell a specific transportation idea; it's to sell the conversation. I think people should be talking about this as a real problem.

This post is running long, so I'm gonna cut it here. But if any of what I've said has given you pause, take the next step. Ask someone you think is smart what they think of the situation. Like I said, all I want is the conversation.

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