Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It

Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It

Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It

Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It


Americans are the most mobile society in history, yet their transportation system is on the verge of collapse. O'Toole explains how the nation got itself into such a mess and offers solutions for improving methods of transportation that will benefit everyone.


In 1811, the state of New York laid out much of Manhattan on a grid, with most streets meeting at right angles and blocks as narrow as 200 feet. One hundred and sixty years later, this grid became a source of apprehension among the city's traffic managers. Too many auto drivers ran yellow lights, only to block intersections because of standing or slow-moving vehicles in the next block. If enough drivers blocked cross traffic at enough intersections, traffic managers realized they could end up with a situation in which no one could move. Two city engineers, Sam Schwartz and Roy Cottam, called this fearsome possibility “gridlock.”

Urban freeways are very different from city street grids. Because freeways do not form a grid and lack intersections to block, by definition they cannot become gridlocked. Even so, the term gridlock is now commonly applied to all serious traffic congestion. the technical term for such traffic is “level of service F,” with F clearly representing “flunk.”

Millions of commuters and other travelers suffer level of service F every weekday. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, congestion in American cities wasted 4.2 billion hours in 2007. This figure is nearly five times as much as 25 years before. the institute's numbers focus on commuters and don't even count the costs to businesses, such as the cost of operating more trucks to deliver products in congested areas than would be needed if roads were not congested.

Why do we put up with this? If our cell phones refused to put calls through because the network was busy, we would change carriers. If our high-speed internet service stopped working because too many other customers were using it, we would change internet providers.

One reason we accept congestion on highways is that the government has a monopoly on roads: we can't simply decide to use another highway provider's roads. Some of us can decide to ride transit . . .

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