When I was six years old and obsessed with dump trucks, my parents found me an excellent babysitter: the construction equipment building Interstate 95 through Connecticut. I was captivated by the huge earthmoving machines, little realizing that in later life I would be in thrall to the "ribbon of hope" they were creating.
"Ribbon of hope" was the name bestowed on their 111-mile section of the road by Connecticut officials when it opened to the public in 1959. Four years later, the entire Maine-to-Florida tollway would be inaugurated by President John F. Kennedy, then just a week away from assassination. He called it "the most modern Interstate highway system in the world." Kennedy had just signed the Federal-Aid Highway Amendments Act of 1963, which required that planners take into account future traffic volume. Anticipating the crowded roads of 1983, it called "for at least four lanes of traffic" on all federal highways.
John F. Kennedy opens I-95 in 1963.
Those far-sighted planners imagined that at peak periods I-95 would carry 50,000 cars a day; instead, in 2007 my part of the road carries 150,000, most of them inching forward in rush-hour traffic. The phrase "rush hour" has actually ceased to resonate, because I-95 carries large volumes at all hours on weekdays. I've seen plenty of traffic jams at noon and at 3 p.m.
Since traffic woes place highly among voter concerns, politicians have offered no shortage of plans to address them, but all have been bandaids. One governor, subsequently jailed for other indiscretions, memorably proposed to induce commuters to take the train or carpool by offering 10 percent-off coupons to area restaurants. Others have tinkered with improvements to on- and off-ramps, or proposed preposterous "double-decking" plans.
Even if I-95 was widened or double-decked, it would soon be as crowded as ever because of the smart growth truism that "you can't build out of congestion." When new capacity comes online, previously discouraged commuters hop back on and developers build along the corridor. Soon everything's crawling again.
So what does work, then?
Traffic on I-95 grows by more than one percent a year.
While I'm stuck in traffic on my morning commute, I think of little points of light. For my book on traffic problems, Breaking Gridlock, I visited Orenco Station in Portland, Oregon, where a thriving community was built a short walk from the city's Tri-Met light rail line, with ample shopping within walking distance. And then there's the example of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the once-desolate downtown is now sprouting artists' lofts and affordable apartments-again, just steps from rail and bus lines. Just upstairs in the attic is the desk of my telecommuter wife, whose rarely visited office is 150 miles away. We really can outsmart gridlock!
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.