A Brief Portrait of the American Highway System at the Point of Breakdown

I drove back to Albany from Sharon yesterday with my partner G and G’s sister. While we were making the obligatory stop at the local dairy, I checked my phone and noticed the photo embedded above making its way around Twitter. By the time we hit the road, of course, what had begun as a two-mile backup stretched for fifteen miles, and seriously blocked our way. We ended up exiting the Mass Pike and taking US 20 around the jam. With all of the diverted traffic, of course, 20 became seriously jammed as well; what is normally an easy trip of 2:45 took us over four hours. I checked Google Maps several times after we did get home, and it appears as if the delays lasted long into the night. And this was on a non-holiday Sunday, heading away from major urban areas.

Despite years of declining Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita, the American road system remains in crisis mode, thanks in no small part to political cowardice about raising the gas tax. We’re at the point where even a relatively small accident (again, no injuries, though I’m not exactly sure how!) on a critical artery can destroy the flow of traffic not only on that road, but on smaller roads around it for hours. And the worst part? There’s no real way around it. There are very few places, and certainly almost none in the Northeast, where we can add more highway capacity. Technologies like self-driving cars may help highway capacity, but that is probably decades in the future. In the meantime, we’re left dependent on a vulnerable transportation system whose reliability is always at risk. And this, in short, is why people need options in transportation. The state of our highway system isn’t going to change, at least not for the better. The state of our rail and bus systems can.

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