Tuesday, February 12

A Cure for What Ails Us

Traffic is a problem. Everywhere you go local officials want to expand existing roads or build new ones. In my new job I’ve seen this first-hand. There is little talk beyond expanding our landscape treatments of more and more concrete and asphalt.
Why is this a big issue? Well, for starters, cost. The more hard travel surface we have on the ground the more of our annual budgets get eroded away to fill potholes, resurface existing roads and study how to decrease what seems like (because it is) insurmountable congestion problems.
Let me drop the curtain by rephrasing my initial statement:
Population is a problem. Traffic is a symptom. In 1974, the year I was born, the US population was 213k. Today there are 315k souls living in the United States and we gain one new person every 15 seconds. Today there are just over 4 million miles of roads in the US. I can't find a hard number for the miles of roads in the US in 1974, but it might be interesting to compare population growth to the growth of our transportation network.
I’m going to run these (very) rough numbers to give you a little perspective. In 1974 there were 56 people per square mile in the US. Imagine the square mile around where you lived in 1974. 56 other people lived there. Now, in today’s world there are 88 people per square mile. If my atrocious math skills have not betrayed me that means that there are 57% more people in my neighborhood than there were when I was born. There are 32 more people sharing the local roads with me just in the square mile adjacent to my home than there were 39 years ago. Almost one new person per year. Maybe.
Anyway, regardless of the validity of my numbers, you get the picture. We can all see that there are just more and more people out there clogging up the arterials of our lives. Road rage is how we react to our transportational agoraphobia. We are being robbed of years of our lives while we sit stuck in traffic on the Man O War Boulevards of our respective home cities.
What are the solutions? Well, we can all see, with painful clarity, that building wider or newer roads does not solve the problem of population. Yes, this post is truly about population and not traffic. Remember, traffic is the symptom. More is not better, but unless we build more there is no room for the growing demand for roads.
There are two options to cure the symptom of traffic. First, we can reduce the demand for space on the roads. We can do this be encouraging walking, biking, carpooling, mass transit, supplying our needs from local sources and by condensing our lives. By condensing our lives I mean choosing to live, work, play and worship in a smaller geographic area. We must stop driving so far for every little need in our lives.
The second option is simple in concept but not so simple in practice: reduce the population.
 I see two possibilities. We can either allow nature to take its course, which means once we critically exceed the Earth’s carry capacity there will be a system (societal, environmental, financial) collapse followed by a massive die-off of the human population, or we can power down—as Richard Heinberg implores us to do in his book of the same name—and save ourselves from catastrophe. I’m not sure we still even have the second option.
No one wants to look at our symptomatic problems through this lens. Traffic could be solved by a die-off? Well, sure. Do we instigate said die-off through transportation planning? Definitely not. But perhaps we should be addressing our illness more holistically and look to the source of our malady instead of always trying to ease the symptoms.
Hubbert’s Curve changes drastically if exponential population growth takes a nose-dive. If the demand drops off to nothing then the graphic showing humanity’s supply of crude oil gets redrawn.
We should NOT hasten a collapse, but we should be cognizant and accepting of the fact that in the shadow of a crisis there can still be a silver lining. If things take a downturn, if nature starts culling the herd…well then, we won’t have as much traffic to deal with on the roads. Bicycle-pedestrian level of service will increase dramatically. At that point we won’t have to dedicate so much of our “budgets” to maintaining roads and aging bridges.
Please don’t take my tone as facetious or tongue-in-cheek more so than necessary. In no way am I suggesting euthanasia as a viable transportation planning tool. But I think in context we should begin coming up with solutions to transportation (population) problems that include reducing the number of people on the roads. If that means giving people reasons and options not to drive then we should strongly pursue those options.
What kinds of solutions would I propose? Truncated work weeks. Incentives and options to live close to places of employment. More options for alternate modes of transportation, especially in rural and suburban areas. More support and encouragement for businesses, schools and services to adopt broad telecommuting programs.
In this day and age of high speed internet and smaller and more powerful mobile devices is there really a deep need for each person to travel singularly in order to participate in the economy? If more of us could work from home then we could reduce a lot of our congestion and traffic symptoms and we could also look to building our own resilience by dedicating more time and money into building up our personal lives and spaces.


  1. We talk about this in an energy class that I sometimes teach. Personally I think we either get our crap together or Mother Nature will do it for us. The planet's history is ripe with species dominating, then not dominating any more.

    1. History shows us that great civilizations exceed their resource base and collapse. Its that simple.