Mad as Hell, Still Taking It

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 24, 2020

Are you getting pissed off yet? Americans lost an average of almost 100 hours of productive time due to congestion in 2018, with a cost—to us—of approximately $1,348 each. And that cost says nothing about the missed dates, late meetings, slow deliveries, airplanes that took off without us and general aggravation.

Gridlock in Taipei, Taiwan, sometimes rides on two wheels. (Koika/Wikipedia)

That’s according to an Inrix study, which listed Boston (Our Fair Neighbor City!) and Washington, D.C. as the most congested urban corridors. Los Angeles is usually the poster boy for this distinction, but there you’d lose only 126 hours to gridlock annually, compared to 164 hours in Boston and 155 in D.C., whose “Mixing Bowl” intersection is world famous.

It’s amusing that consumers are willing to pay huge premiums to buy cars that are a split second faster to 60 mph, when in the real world they’re crawling along as if they owned great-grandpa’s Model T. I got into this line of thinking when I glanced down at the dashboard in my uber-spiffy and fast BMW M850i Gran Sport and noticed that I’ve averaged 25.9 mph in the week I’ve had it. The Model T could, with a headwind, reach 45 mph.

Gridlock in Moscow. (Nevermind2/Wikipedia)

The Gran Sport can reach 156 mph and hit 60 in 3.3 seconds. But where will you be able to exploit that performance? If you’re lucky enough to live in Wyoming, which is the 10th largest state and has 80 mph speed limits with only 577,000 people, go for it! But given demographics and where the jobs are, most of those BMWs will be crawling in gridlock with the rest of us.

Incredibly, it gets much worse than what we see regularly in the U.S. The worst traffic I’ve ever seen was in Beijing, which compounds the issue with also having really bad air pollution. Mumbai and New Delhi, India, have all the same issues. IBM produces a Global Commuter Pain Survey, which shows that Mexico City is tops with a score of 108, followed by Shenzhen, China (95), Beijing (95, a tie), Nairobi, Kenya (88) and Johannesburg, South Africa (83).

The mess in New Delhi, India, where air pollution compounds the misery. (Nomad/Wikipedia)

By this measure, the U.S. problem looks relatively mild. Los Angeles gets a 34 score, New York City 28 and Chicago 25. Boston doesn’t even appear, but the survey was done in 2011.

We’re not doing much about this. The federal 2018 Urban Congestion Trends report from the Department of Transportation notes that 15 of 52 metropolitan areas showed some improvements in traffic flow from 2017 to 2018. What should be a 20-minute trip will take 26 minutes during rush hour. Of course, you and I in the real world have seen much bigger delays than that.

This is Los Angeles in 1953. (Los Angeles Daily News/UCLA Library/Wikipedia)

But they do everything on a grand scale in China, including traffic jams. How does two weeks sound? That’s what happened on China National Highway 110 beginning on August 13, 2010. The jam stretched 60 miles, with most drivers able to move only about half a mile per day. Vendors strolled through the world’s biggest parking lot and sold snacks and drinks.

In Moscow in 2012, a three-day pileup went on for 125 miles on the M-10 to St. Petersburg. Sao Paulo, Brazil, is legendary for its awful traffic, and 1,000 new cars join the sprawl every day. Things came to a head in 2009, with 520 miles of city streets and 182 miles of highway at a standstill. On the positive side, a woman reported meeting her future husband in the tie-up. The 1969 Woodstock Festival produced a 20-mile backup and some people just went home, but, hey, for the people who walked the rest of the way it was worth it.

You're entering the London congestion zone. That will be $15, please. (Mariordo/Wikipedia)

This post could be entitled “How to Break Gridlock,” because, after all, I did write a book with a title like that. But although many of the ideas I wrote about there have been realized—car sharing, bus lanes, traffic calming, intermodal connectivity, transit expansion (especially light rail)—and put in place in pockets around the country (take a bow, Portland, Oregon), we’re still only making a tiny dent.

The Brookings Institute gives one reason. According to 2000 census data, only 4.7 percent of American travelers used public transit. More than 60 percent of all transit commuting was in just nine metro areas. Much of America was then, and still is, nearly devoid of train options, and buses are badly scheduled, inconvenient, and lack connectivity to other travel options. “Even if America’s existing transit capacity were tripled and fully utilized, morning peak-hour transit travel would rise to 11 percent of all morning trips,” Brookings said grimly.

One idea I wrote about back in 2001, and still like as it catches on internationally, is the congestion tax. People should pay if they insist on driving into urban centers. The first city to do this was London, in 2003. These days you pay £11.50 ($15). Cities with congestion charging today include Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden; Singapore; Milan, Italy; Durham, England; Znojmo, Czech Republic; and Valletta, Malta.

Approaching the toll zone in Stockholm. (Holger Elgaard/Wikipedia)

The problem for the U.S. is that we sprawled with suburban growth in the 1950s and wrapped ourselves (for better or for worse) around the automobile. We tore up 150,000 miles of train tracks. There are vast distances between our cities, unlike dense Europe.

Some people believe that congestion will be solved via emerging technology. Self-driving cars don’t make the dumb human moves that snarl things up. They don’t need traffic lights. I’ve seen revelatory animation that shows autonomous vehicles zipping through intersections without stopping. And if the cars are shared, we can dramatically cut the number of cars on the road. That’s a theory. In reality, the stiff dead fingers law seems to be in effect when it comes to private automobiles.

If I were a betting man, I’d buy stock in traffic congestion. I think it’s going to be with us for a while.


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