“You’re not stuck in traffic.  You are traffic.”  -source unknown

Thoreau is purported to have said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Women, too, for that matter. This is not to question Thoreau’s  inclusiveness.  Times were different.  Some things change.

Others, not so much.   Both men and women seem pretty desperate these days, especially when they’re crawling down the road in their automobiles.  You see it etched in their faces and, truth be told, it’s not always quiet.

Traffic is costly and stressful. The solution is not to create an environment where there’s more of this. The solution is to opt-out to the fullest extent possible.

The folks at the Transportation Institute  at Texas A&M University (TTI) in College Station have a lot to say about this.  I’ve respected their work for a long time, mostly because they’re all about safety and they don’t seem to have some hidden political agenda driving their findings like so many other folks seem to nowadays. The Aggies just gather data and then slice and dice it in various ways. What you see is what you get.  You don’t have to dig too deeply to come to the unmistakable conclusion that:

  1. Congestion is bad and…
  2. It’s getting worse.

The average urban/suburban American spends over 40 hours (one work week) per year stuck in traffic.  This compares to 18 hours back in 1982 shortly after I graduated from college.

So it makes sense that people in cars are stressed out.  What doesn’t make sense is the “not-so-quiet” desperation part.   Why do they continue to put up with it?  There’s always an alternative to just about any problem we face, so why don’t they figure it out?  Many motorists complain to high heaven about the lack of roads and yet most don’t want to pay the freight required to get the few that actually do exist fixed….never mind building more.  If you build them, you have to maintain them.  Where’s that money for that going to come from?

That’s the crux of the matter right there.  It is yet another of life’s great paradoxes that we don’t have too few roads…we have too many.  Most of these roads sit empty most of the time.  We build for peak demand, those two or three hours per day when traffic is the heaviest.  If we could somehow reduce that peak demand, we’d save billions of dollars and have more livable communities to boot.

Then there’s this.  Most new roads are not even built for the convenience of motorists.    I’ve been wanting to say this publicly for a long time and now I have.  It’s true.  It’s the proverbial Big Lie that sways public opinion in favor of more roads.  In reality, roads are built to unlock raw land for development.  It’s obvious from a bike.  Then, once that land is developed, we call it sprawl.  Nobody likes sprawl but everybody with a car likes new roads.  Go figure.

This is why it is so important to live consciously rather than sleepwalk through life.  The solution is not more roads.  The solution is to choose to opt out of the destructive “all-car-all-the-time” culture.  The solution is to tie the costs of human mobility to the benefits…something most of us don’t ever do.  If we did, we would choose to move smarter and that, in turn, would lower peak demand.

Fortunately, more and more communities are giving people the option to leave the car in the garage.   It’s not just big cities, either.  Suburbs and even small towns are becoming more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.  Many are taking unorthodox approaches.   It’s not about pavement.  It’s bigger than that.  Nor is it social experimenting as some cynical naysayers claim.  What it is, is common sense.  It’s a way forward.  It’s a solution in a way that doing more of what we’ve been doing for the last sixty years isn’t…

…and never will be.