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Traffic: Symptom of an Obsolete Economy?

Nearly every weekday between 4:00 and 7:00pm, eastbound US Route 50 in Annapolis, Maryland comes to a standstill. It typically happens near the westernmost edge of the city, and for a distance of roughly 7 miles, traffic inches along at a speeds often less than 10 miles per hour.

Yesterday it took me 30 minutes to cover these 7 miles (5:30 to 6:00pm).

It would be one thing if it was just me that was inconvenienced, or if this was a result of an accident or some unusual circumstance, but not so: this happens every day and there are tens of thousands of people affected by it. There is nothing unusual about it. We can only infer that this is how the road was designed to operate.

It would also be one thing if it was just this stretch of Route 50 that was affected by this kind of thing, but we all know it’s not. The Washington Beltway, to take one well known local example, is also apparently designed to fail spectacularly every morning and afternoon (and sometimes in between).

What does it say about a society that has its citizens sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, day in and day out, spewing CO2 and other pollutants and wasting their time?

To me, it’s a sign of contempt. Anyone that would knowingly have people spend their time (and fuel) this way, day after day, must be filled with utter disdain for those so effected. Who’s to blame for these designs?

Surely there are some highway planners and road builders that could take the blame, but I have to think that any changes to the roads themselves can only yield marginal improvements — however needed those improvements may be.

The real issue boils down to us — the citizenry — and where we invest our financial and political capital. We are to blame.

We are the ones who have repeatedly failed to fund public transportation initiatives. We are the ones who have lacked the foresight to discourage long distance car commutes. Annapolis residents famously rejected the extension of the Washington DC metro along the US 50 median because it would “bring crime” from the big city. Now Annapolis is its own capital of crime, and DC is further away than ever by car. And the median strip that once could have accommodated the metro has been sacrificed to ineffective additional lanes. Opportunity lost.

So, there you have it: we’ve locked ourselves into an economic model that provides long term competitive disadvantage. While other countries make good use of public transport and respect people’s time by moving them around efficiently, lowering pollution and making people more productive in the process, we’re stuck in the 1970′s, with people killing 2-4 hours per day in their cars spewing gases. Nice.

Severn River Bridge Backup, US 50
Miles 7
Lanes 5
Hours in Backup 0.5
Average Car Length (ft) 20
Number of Cars/Lane 1848
Number of Cars 9240
Number of Cars/Hour 18480
Number of Hours/Day 3
Number of Cars/Day 55440
Idle Fuel Consumption/Hr 0.5
Gallons Fuel/Car 0.25
Fuel Cost 1.6
Fuel Cost/Car 0.4
Total Cost/Day $22,176.00
CO2 Generation/Gallon (lb) 22
Total Gallons Gas 13860
Total CO2 Output 304,920.00
Tons CO2 Output 152.46
Man Hours 27720
Average Hourly Rate $15.00
Lost Value $207,900.00

 

So every day, by design, this SINGLE stretch of Route 50 causes at least $207,900.00 in lost productivity for people, costs $22,176.00 in fuel (at $1.60/gallon — try it at $3.99), and generates 152.46 TONS of CO2 output. And that’s when it’s working AS DESIGNED! This is what it’s SUPPOSED to do??!?

Go ahead and add in every other backup in Maryland — the DC Beltway, the Baltimore Beltway, I-95, I-83 for starters — and you’ll have an amazing amount of lost time, energy, and productivity! It’s staggering what a drag this is on our economy. And the first instinct we citizenry has is to expand the current roads and build new ones. And this won’t help!

The only things that will really help are to 1) work closer to where you live, 2) use public transportation or bikes to get there, 3) improve the design of the roads we have.

The inability (er, unwillingness) to make this happen in suburban America is why places that have better public transportation (and the vibrant work/residential communities that invariably build up around it) will outpace us in the long term.

We simply can’t compete in the world economy if we’re locked up in our cars.

  • http://trickybits.com Gyuri

    Well thought out post… sad to think about the waste that goes into a traffic jam like that: time, money, resources, health.

    Beyond being self employed, moving closer to where you work is probably more realistically about finding work closer to where you live considering the average years spent employed at a single company is dropping rapidly (the longest I’ve been at a company is 4 years, and that was about a year too long). Otherwise you’d be moving every couple of years; not very practical unless the job is really worth it.

    I really think the future will lie with people working remotely more & more where possible. Unfortunately companies are STILL afraid of releasing that mythical “control” over workers by having them be at the office. Probably the companies that readily accept a flexible and spread out workforce will be quite successful in the coming years.

  • http://openid.aol.com/popvoxdave davetroy

    We absolutely need more people working from home and more coworking; I’ve been beating that drum for 10 years and insisting that companies need to get smarter about how they manage remote workers.

    Employee effectiveness must be gauged based on output, not on any perceived sense of “control” gained by watching over their shoulders.

    Regardless, spending time in cars, and trying to solve all the related problems, is certainly not the answer. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://billmill.org Bill Mill

    or 4) get the government the hell out of the transportation business, since they’ve clearly failed at it in every way possible, and even invented some of their own ways.

    As you’ve pointed out, there’s an unimaginably enormous economic incentive to build a better transportation system. The reason it doesn’t happen is that we’ve put it in the hands of a government that is largely unaffected by the economic and environmental incentives of the people it governs.

    The result is predictable, and I sit in it on 83 on the way home every day wishing there was a sane, safe system of public transport in Baltimore.

    Living closer to home is a partial answer, but until we fix the incentive structure the way we build our transportation infrastructure, it will only treat the symptoms, not the underlying dsease.

  • http://openid.aol.com/popvoxdave davetroy

    Bill – Any implementation that will work is fine with me.

    For the last few years I’ve spent the summers in Berlin, Germany, and their remarkable, multi-modal public transport system is operated by an entity called BVG.

    Consisting of underground, above-ground trains as well as trams and buses, you can get anywhere quickly and cheaply; everything runs on time and the system just works.

    I am not sure how they are funded and if it’s strictly a government enterprise or some kind of private-public partnership, but I guess my feeling is that I don’t much care how a system is implemented as long as it’s economically efficient and in line with comparable world-class systems.

    Clearly it’s time for a re-think as we hurtle towards what appears to be a looming crisis in transportation and its accompanying economics.

  • http://billmill.org Bill Mill

    Some brief research seems to show that the BVG is definitely a private company[1], although it appears to receive significant government funding[2]. ISTM that instead of acting as a regulated quasi-government agency like a utility does here, it acts as a private company that sells goods to the city at a competitive price, as well as collects profits from its passengers.

    My (very unresearched, I should read all of that first link) guess is that BVG is exposed enough to the profit motive that it results in a much better transport system there than any that we have here. Fascinating!

    [1]: http://books.google.com/books?id=8zpM3wPb3v0C&pg=PA155
    [2]: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berliner_Verkehrsbetriebe&sa=X&oi=translate&resnum=1&ct=result&prev=/search%3Fq%3DBerliner%2BVerkehrsbetriebe%2Bsite:de.wikipedia.org%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG

  • http://www.joegrossberg.com Joe Grossberg

    Not to nitpick, but your math is wrong:

    “Yesterday it took me 30 minutes to cover these 7 miles (5:30 to 6:00pm); so that’s an average speed of 3.5 mph.”

    If you covered 7 miles in 60 minutes, that would be 7.0 mph.

    But since you covered that same distance in half (not double) the time, it’s 14.0 mph (i.e. if you’d gone another 30 minutes at the same pace, you would have covered 14 miles in 60 minutes.)

  • http://openid.aol.com/popvoxdave davetroy

    Thanks for the correction. I was in writing mode, not in math mode, and that slipped by. :) Let me say it certainly felt like 3.5mph!

  • http://www.joegrossberg.com Joe Grossberg

    Yeah, 14 mph on a highway is still pretty damn slow and, unfortunately, a common occurrence in DC rush hour. Fortunately I have walked or Metro’d to work, for the past three jobs.

  • Ray Mitchell

    Dave, you must be getting old. I did not think you made math mistakes!