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 acquisto viagra. 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.

A Bicycling Manifesto

With the price of gas where it is, along with my own desire to get more exercise, I’ve adopted a set of rules regarding bicycle usage, and encourage everyone to do the same.  I think it represents a distinctly different attitude towards bicycling than we’re used to.  See what you think.

  1. Ride a bike for a reason, not just for recreation; while riding a bike for recreation is fine, the idea is to promote replacement of cars with bikes where possible.  Make a point of choosing trips where you actually are replacing a car trip.
  2. Don’t wear funny sports clothes. They preclude your ability to partake in normal society.  If you’re going to a lunch meeting, no one wants to see bikerman in spandex.  Furthermore, wearing sports clothing promotes the image that bikes are for ‘cyclists’ and not normal people.  Do wear a helmet, and lock it to your bike when you need to go in someplace.
  3. Go where you need to go, including busier roads, if that’s what’s necessary to reach your destination. Bikes will never be used as replacements for cars unless they can truly substitute.  By making yourself visible on major roads, you increase the visibility of bikes as a whole and help raise awareness of problem spots. Obviously use common sense and avoid limited access roads and unsafe situations.  But DO go where you need to go to complete your trip.
  4. Obey traffic laws and signals. Being on a bike doesn’t give you a free pass to act like a maniac.  Be courteous, intelligent, and follow traffic signals and laws.  This puts cars on notice that bikers (even slow, non-athletic ones) deserve their fair share of the road, but you need to reciprocate by acting in a predictable, lawful, and measured way.
  5. Replace time at the gym (or other exercise efforts) with time on a bike as part of your daily routine. Isn’t it nonsensical to use a car to rush through your day so you can get home at 5 and then go to the gym (or bike or run) for an hour?  If you slow down and use a bike for some tasks during the day, you won’t need to spend as much time doing mindless exercise.  And you’ll save on gas (and carbon emissions), and get better connected to your community.

This week, I used my bike to go to three lunch meetings, a doctor appointment, and two trips to buy groceries.  I put in over 60 miles just between Monday and Thursday, and it took only a few minutes more time than it would have to drive.  I am sure I’ve lost weight doing this, though I don’t care how much.  I feel better and that alone is worth it.

And two of the best perks about biking: you’re never stuck in traffic, and second, you always get a top-notch parking spot.  Plus, you’re not circling around trying to find a place to park.  More gas and time savings.  Being on a bike in many ways is faster and more efficient than being in a car, especially when the distances you’re talking about are under 30 minutes of bike time (8-10 miles).

Anyone who lives in the Annapolis, Maryland area knows it’s a congested, frustrating experience to try to get ANYWHERE on a weekday afternoon by car.  Why not try it on a bike and see how much quicker it can be?