Damn this traffic jam

What’s up with this traffic? It seems to grow exponentially by the day. All the cars on the road seem to be new, at least, newer than mine. Where are they coming from? Building in Chesterfield has been down significantly for five years. It can’t be all the vehicles coming out of the new developments.

Ah, it is all the new apartments. But the increase in backups at traffic lights are even worse than a couple hundred apartments here and there.

In the far east of the county, Singapore, I mean Enon, commercial building has gone haywire: Amazon, Capital One and soon, Medline now occupy the Meadowville site in Enon. During the holidays, the traffic was bumper on Enon Church Road due to holiday shipping and the extra employees needed at Amazon.

The presents that I ordered for Christmas arrived right on time even though the workers at Amazon had to be frustrated and their finger sore from the hillbilly salute.

It really doesn’t have to be that way, nor do our intersections have to get more clogged every day. I was amazed when I heard that just adding a gas-station/convenience store and a fast-food joint would add 10,000 cars to the intersection of Jessup and Iron Bridge Road. We need to think ahead and change our philosophy on transportation in this county and probably the entire region.

Bradley Steeg, of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) indicates that vehicle accidents cause 25 percent of traffic congestion. So the city installed flexible speed-limit signs and lane-change notification in order to reduce accidents.

But Steeg said people cheat. “For example, if a sign warns that a lane is blocked ahead; people use the lane right up until they are forced to merge to the open lanes. People also drive at maximum speed of traffic flow regardless of posted speed limit. The WSDOT scheme would be effective IF people cooperated. Fat chance voluntary cooperation will ever happen.”

In a Jonas Eliasson lecture, who is Director of the Center of Transportation Studies, “How to solve traffic jams,” Eliasson talked about traffic congestion in mid-sized cities with about two-million people.

“Road congestion is a pervasive phenomenon,” Eliasson said. “It exists in basically all of the cities all around the world, which is a little bit surprising when you think about it. I mean, think about how different cities are, actually. I mean, you have the typical European cities, with a dense urban core, good public transportation mostly, not a lot of road capacity. But then, on the other hand, you have the American cities. It’s moving by itself, okay. The American cities: lots of roads dispersed over large areas, almost no public transportation. And then you have the emerging world cities, with a mixed variety of vehicles, mixed land-use patterns, also rather dispersed. Traffic planners all around the world have tried lots of different measures: dense cities or dispersed cities, lots of roads or lots of public transport or lots of bike lanes – more information and lots of different things, but nothing seems to work.

“But all of these attempts have one thing in common. They’re basically attempts at figuring out what people should do instead of rush hour car driving. They’re essentially, to a point, attempts at planning what other people should do, planning their life for them.

“Planning a complex social system is a very hard thing to do [in a free country].”  Eliasson said.

“When you try to solve really complex social problems, the right thing to do is most of the time to create the incentives,” he said. “You don’t plan the details, and people will figure out what to do, how to adapt to this new framework.”

How can we capture this insight to tackle road congestion? Unimproved-narrow roads are a recipe for congestion. Even when the roads are widened to a sea of cement after a while the congestion returns.

Eliasson  said, that in his city, “Someone came up with the idea that, apart from good public transport, apart from spending money on roads, let’s try to charge drivers one or two dollars at these bottlenecks.” Although in other countries like the U.S., $2 is a little high. Just look at how many times Interstate 895 has either gone belly up or been sold to another sucker and their toll is only about one-and-a-half times as much.

“A couple of dollars was enough to make 20 percent of cars disappear from rush hours. Because you still have 80 percent of the traffic,” Eliasson said. “Now, that’s wrong, because traffic happens to be a nonlinear phenomenon, meaning that once you reach above a certain capacity threshold then congestion starts to increase really, really rapidly. But fortunately, it also works the other way around. If you can reduce traffic even somewhat, then congestion will go down much faster than you might think.

Eliasson said, drivers get used to having charges. Wrong ; It has been six and a half years since the congestion charges were introduced in my city, and we basically have the same low traffic levels still.

The trial eventual ended and things went back to its normal congestion. And, then an odd thing happened. As the traffic rate went back to normal, 70 percent of drivers wanted to reinstate it. Seventy percent wanted something that used to be free.

“All of these decisions are sort of nudged ever so slightly away from rush hour car driving,” They’re not even aware of this themselves,” Eliasson said. “After analyzing the answers, it turned out that more than half of them believe that they haven’t changed their minds [about the tolls.] They’re actually confident that they have liked congestion pricing all along.”

In Virginia when tolls became a Gov. McDonnell issue, maybe he should have considered the nudge. “It’s the power of nudges when trying to solve complex social problems, and when you do that, you shouldn’t try to tell people how to adapt. You should just nudge them in the right direction. And if you do it right, people will actually embrace the change, and, people will actually even like it.


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