Hating the Traffic Herd

by Chuck Rehdorf on 2018-01-23 11:41am

Image credit: geogaph.org.uk

Hate Traffic? You’re not alone. But is traffic congestion really getting worse or is something bigger going on here? Some heady and complex issue? Nope, it’s that simple, traffic congestion is getting worse.

 

Sammy Hagar once decried, “I can’t drive fifty-five!”

Sammy screamed that out in 1984, when America was staggering under the increased yoke of trying to match other parts of the world in decreasing our automotive emissions while paying MUCH higher fuel prices. Strangely, the 55 mph speed limit had nothing to do with easing congestion. In fact, it made it worse.

 

But as our fuel consumption leveled out and our vehicles got a little better fuel mileage, America got back on the road. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler changed with the times, and survived. Which meant the speed limit finally went back up and Sammy was happy. But you guessed it; there is more traffic on American highways than ever. And it doesn’t matter where a person lives or how much money they make, nobody likes traffic congestion. So what can be done about it?

How Moving are the Numbers?

 

In a 2016 study the US Census Bureau determined that more than three-quarters of us still commute to work alone. Worse still, only 9 percent of the commuters in America actually carpool. The only bright spot in commuting numbers is the growing number of Americans who don’t commute at all. In the past ten years, there has been an increase of more than 2.5 million Americans who work from home. But (there always has to be a but when it comes to traffic), on average our commutes have gotten longer by a minute and a half nationally. Trend in America is more people using the roads more of the time. So what can we do?

Signalling a Change

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Most of us con ourselves into believing we aren’t part of the problem, and if you live in Wibaux, Montana (population 600 give or take), or Happy Camp, California (population 1100 give or take), you may be able to say you’re not contributing to America’s growing traffic mess, but the rest of us just get to own it. This isn’t an ‘us’ or ‘them’ problem (unless you’re from Wibaux or Happy Camp, but then you have to watch out for deer, elk, or cows, so it’s a wash). The fixes for these problems are the same, it doesn’t matter where; the BQE, I-5, or the PCH. So the solutions will be the same too.

Making Changes to Traffic Flow

The simplest, most effective solution to our traffic congestion problems would be to substantially cut the number of vehicles on the road, wouldn’t it?

If you were around for the gas crunch of the late seventies, you’ll remember government wags throwing out solutions for congestion like raising road use taxes, vehicle taxes, and gas taxes to make it so fewer people could buy, own, or use vehicles. Then some down-to-earth normal human being pointed out that there were, oops, negative side effects that might go with that plan; like stalling one of the biggest economies in the world and creating a broader rift between the lower classes and the movie stars. Those plans disappeared faster than a wide spot in traffic in downtown Portland at five o’clock on a Friday. Instead of pricing Americans out of their cars, how about just expanding traffic patterns in general?

This sounds simple but it would take some serious urban planning. If you live on either coast, or in a metropolitan area, you’re acutely aware of the fact that it’s not always as simple as building more roads. It’s not even a problem of whether we physically can build more roads, but more, can we afford to?

In a 2004 Report by the Brookings Institution, author Anthony Downs put that idea down harder than hitting an L.A. County pothole by saying this about physically expanding the highway system to the point where it would help mitigate the traffic problem:

“Greatly expanding road capacity. The second approach would be to build enough road capacity to handle all drivers who want to travel in peak hours at the same time without delays. But this ‘cure’ is totally impractical and prohibitively expensive. Governments would have to widen all major commuting roads by demolishing millions of buildings, cutting down trees, and turning most of every metropolitan region into a giant concrete slab. Those roads would then be grossly underutilized during non-peak hours. There are many occasions when adding more road capacity is a good idea, but no large region can afford to build enough to completely eliminate peak-hour congestion.”

Enough Gloom Already!

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Considering America has grown more in vehicle population than in human population during the last twenty or so years (about 1.2 vehicles per human comparatively), we need solutions Americans can live with. While it’s impossible to fully eliminate vehicle congestion here in America, we can slow the growth of congestion, which at least might let us keep our hair longer.

Create High Occupancy Vehicle and High Occupancy Toll Lanes

In this world of pay-as-you-go, we might get a warm reception for more roadway dedicated to High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. HOT lanes allow drivers who want to move faster the option of paying for the privilege of the use of that lane, that is as long as they have a passenger (and no mannequins!). A lot of drivers would gladly pay a dollar more per day to get home fifteen minutes faster, and still be allowed to drive our personal voiture du jour.

Concentrate New Road Construction Toward High Growth Areas

While this might seem like a suggestion from Captain Obvious, many times in America today, new road construction and its location are governed more by legislative voodoo and back-pocket lining than by actual need. Okay, you’re right this one might be hard to do. You know politicians’ self-serving natures.

Altering Traffic Control Devices and Signage for Drivers

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The solution of using more prominently displayed and useful signals and signage is in the process of changing as we speak. Devices such as traffic-change warning signs and metered signals at on-ramps are having a positive effect in areas where they are being installed. While some drivers may not understand the dark magic of traffic coordination through signalling devices, this process works as long as commuters keep in mind that they are not alone on the road.

Enforcement of Traffic Laws

While this might not seem to be a popular method for mitigating congestion, ask any State Trooper his or her opinion and they’ll tell you point blank that bad drivers do more to increase congestion and negatively impact traffic flow than anyone can imagine. Tailgating, speeding, driving too slow, not signalling lane changes; while these issues get traffic accidents all the press, aggressive enforcement actually enhances traffic flow.

Fewer Commuters

The solution for traffic flow issues may never be fewer people using the highways, but decreasing the number of commuters might help. As stated earlier, more people than ever before are telecommuting, which positively affects congestion. But it will never be in the percentages that truly change things. Like many titanic problems, even a tiny step is a step. This is also the reason why mass transit is still a viable contribution towards mitigation.

Does Congestion Represent Societal Failure?

So congestion represents a fundamental failure on the part of our nation and culture to facilitate growth, right? Not necessarily so. Most economists and traffic experts actually agree that congestion represents a healthy economy (or at least one that requires mobility) so while it’s good to try to perhaps slow the growth of congestion, beyond that, it may be like trying to ‘fix’ the weather. But no, it’s not a failure of our society.

End of The Line

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For the foreseeable future, living with traffic congestion is part of our lives. Carpooling may help, a little. Mass transit may help, a little. See the pattern here? While we can achieve little steps toward easing congestion, it cannot go away. The best way for each of us to deal with it is to make the best of the time we spend in a vehicle. So we’ll drive our Tundras, Accords, or Mustangs and try to find some enjoyment from it. Some of us make the most of the time we spend driving by having a soft spot for our machines and turning it into a passion. That’s why traffic congestion is unlikely to go anywhere (all puns intended); Americans love to drive.

 

Chuck Rehdorf is a writer/researcher for At Your Pace Online, who is an automotive enthusiast; and who once had a seventy-five minute commute to work. Now he doesn’t.