When a Highway Goes Bad

Why is there still traffic in 2015, and what can be done to fix it?
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(Photo: rudimentary/Flickr) 

(Photo: rudimentary/Flickr) 

I spent nearly a decade mentally willing myself through the stops-and-gos of the ever-expanding “rush hour” of Los Angeles. So when I say that I never encountered anything in all those years navigating the concrete jungle that was as bad as one particularly horrific stretch of Bay Area traffic, realize that my bonafides for discussing hellish driving situations are impeccable.

The section in question is part of the highway interchange monstrosity known as the MacArthur Maze. In freeway designer parlance, it's a “distribution center” that combines three major freeways—from the north, south, and east—and allows them to flow into and through each other, while also funneling a large portion of traffic into the main Trans-Bay artery, the Bay Bridge. If you're trying to get to San Francisco from North Oakland or Berkeley, one has to navigate past four lanes of congestion and then into a free-flowing lane where cars are whizzing at 50 miles per hour, due to the poor design. The merge stress is akin to playing an upper level of Tetris, when the tiles drop with force and Russian folk music kicks into frantic gear.

When I put out a call on Twitter about this section, one responder described this as the “world's worst shit show between the hours of 12 midnight and 12 midnight.”

Statistics back this up: According to data from Caltrans, the weekday daily average traffic for 2015 on that segment is 129,510 vehicles. Plans back this up: A $79 million program is moving into the final stages of solving this conundrum. Anecdotal quips back this up: When I put out a call on Twitter about this section, one responder described this as the “world's worst shit show between the hours of 12 midnight and 12 midnight.”

Clearly, this wasn't meant to happen. Highways are created with the purpose of allowing masses to move to distant places in relatively stress-free conditions. Yet this problem isn't unique. There isn't a city in the country that doesn't have some version of a congested stretch like this. So why does a highway go bad? And what can be done to fix it?

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The first reason for the crunch is easy to figure out: cars. That is to say, people in them.

“You're a living example,” says Blair Barnhardt, an expert in pavement management and author of the Book on Better Roads, after I told him of my own migration from Southern California. When masses flood into a metropolitan area—and the Bay Area is one of the fastest-growing population centers in the country—the infrastructure in place quickly runs out of room to accommodate the influx. “And now we've got three times as much traffic as the roads were ever planned for originally when they were sitting on a drawing board,” Barnhardt says.

“We can no longer build our way out of congestion.”

Which hints at the second, probably more causal, reason for the crunch. See, Barnhardt isn't being cute by using the phrase “drawing board” and ignoring the fact that engineers are currently using programs like Autodesk to build roads. Rather, a good portion of the roads being driven on were actually designed using low-tech devices like drawing boards simply because that's how long it takes to build new roads. “When you're driving in construction traffic tomorrow, and they're trying to build wider highways, those should've been built 25 years ago,” Barnhardt says. “By the time of its design, it's already out of date.”

This isn't to say highways were initially built with the asinine idea that population would remain static. “Highways are generally designed to accommodate traffic forecasts for a 20-year horizon,” says Sean Nozzari, deputy district director at Caltrans. They accomplish this by using models that take into account planned land use, zoning ordinances for development, and factors like population growth. But long-term projections have a way of going awry. “Oftentimes, highways reach capacity sooner because of accelerated or intensified development, faster growth in general population which often comes with a thriving economy,” Nozzari says.

One possible solution is to acknowledge that current projection rates aren't enough and, instead, build for further into the future—say, 50 years from now. Astute highway planners could construct four or five lanes where two would seem sufficient. “Granted, for five-to-10 years there's empty lanes,” Barnhardt says, “but those lanes will fill in.” But even that probably wouldn't be enough to get the job done.

In 2009, two economists—Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton from the University of Pennsylvania—looked into the relationship of available interstate highway space and the amount of miles driven. The result was a perfect one-to-one relationship between the two factors, meaning that if there were more roads to be driven, they were. “An increased provision of roads or public transit is unlikely to relieve congestion,” the paper concluded. Caltrans agrees. “We can no longer build our way out of congestion,” Nozzari says.

If building more roads isn't the solution, what is?

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Solutions are filtering in from the world of tech. Caltrans continues to tinker with its Traffic Management System, which includes “traffic monitoring stations, closed circuit television cameras, and changeable message signs” that monitor freeway speeds and detect accidents—to more quickly clear them out of the way. The system delivers information via electronic signs, media, telephone, and Internet; the I-80 SMART Corridor Project is basically an equivalent network focused on fixing the trouble section noted at the beginning of this piece.

Another possibility could be leaning more heavily on shifting the hours of those commuting. “Why can't half the staff work from 10 to six instead of nine to five just so we can ease the burden on these freeways?” Barnhardt says. But even that may be too little, too late. “We're in a world of hurt,” Barnhardt says. “There's not enough money to go around. Unless we have public/private partnerships, it's going to be a real world of hurt we're living in shortly.”

Which brings us to the most likely solution: pay lanes.

The aforementioned investigation by Turner and Duranton showed that the number of roads and miles driven had a one-to-one correlation both when lanes increased and when they decreased. Meaning that if fewer roads were available, it wouldn't necessarily lead to worse driving conditions, just conditions as bad as before. The explanation Turner and Duranton provide hinges on elastic demand, in this case meaning that demand for the roads increases when the population, which has been brought in by those new roads, grows. One possible reason that the growth doesn't plateau is the cost of using most American roads, which is negligible and mostly hidden in our taxes. “Because it’s free, people will misuse it and it will be full all the time,” Duranton told Wired last year. Maybe the fix, then, is making them not free.

Caltrans is already toying with the idea. “In cooperation with local and regional stakeholders, we plan to expand and close existing gaps in our High Occupancy Vehicle lanes network, including conversion of existing HOV lanes to High Occupancy Vehicle/Toll lanes when there is available unused capacity in the lane,” Nozzari says. Essentially, computers monitor carpool lanes, and if they're open—that is, if the cars are traveling at 45 miles per hour—the lanes shift to a toll-based system, allowing those with expendable income to utilize them and speed up their commute.

The positives of such a system are numerous. “The revenues generated will be used for transportation improvements in the corridors,” Nozzari says, “in turn providing even greater travel time savings and incentives for carpoolers.” But take this concept to its extreme—when driving on any road will cost money, just like commuting by bus, light rail, or metro—and it's easy to imagine the problems, such as a widening income gap caused by the poor being forced to pay to commute to their jobs while the rich can do theirs from home. After all, if you're the CEO, you can teleconference into whatever you want, but if you're the janitor, you can't sweep the floors virtually. Low-income jobs are virtually impossible to telecommute to.

When some politician inevitably runs on a platform to “take the free out of freeway,” we should make sure they don't plan on low-income workers picking up the tolls.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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