Smithsonian Magazine April 2001
We're in a Jam
Easing the nation's growing traffic congestion has experts all backed up
Consider how traffic bedevils modern America: we collectively waste more
than 4.6 billion hours stuck in traffic and burn enough gas to fill 134
supertankers each year. One study suggests that parents spend twice as much
time behind the wheel during the week as they do with their children. Viewed
merely as a physical flow, a traffic jam seems as simple as water moving
more slowly through a constrictiona problem that appears easy to fix. But
even adding a lane to a highway, for reasons no one quite understands,
sometimes creates new tie-ups. For decades, the behavior of heavy traffic
has stymied a think tank's worth of highway engineers, city planners, fluid
dynamicists and social scientists. Traffic, like weather and the stock
market, turns out to be surprisingly complex and devilishly unpredictable.
To learn about the cutting edge weapons in the battle against traffic
congestion, writer Doug Stewart travels with a police aggressive-driving
patrol, installs the latest traffic jam avoidance software in his car, flies
over Atlanta's infamous Spaghetti Junction and visits the Los Alamos
National Laboratory in New Mexico, where scientists have developed a
simulation program that will be available to city planners in the near
future. High-tech improvements may indeed help reduce traffic congestion
somewhat, he learns, but it appears that congestion is an unavoidable part
of modern life.
Perhaps, suggests the author, we don't even mind traffic tie-ups that much.
"The car is less a form of transportation now and more an extension of the
living room," says Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic
Abstract of an article by Doug Stewart, originally published in the April
2001 issue of Smithsonian.