Most every city has traffic problems. Do any cities have the foggiest idea of how to manage traffic or do officials just pull potential solutions out of hats and hope no one sitting in all these traffic jams notices?

For many people, there are more important issues than getting stuck in another traffic jam on the way to work or while doing an errand for your job. Many have problems finding or holding a job in the first place and making enough greenstuff to pay the bills.

Many don’t have healthcare or access to higher education or clean air or clean water. Many deal with sexual and familial abuse. For many people, traffic is among the last issues on their minds — until they are late for work or an appointment due to a traffic jam.

I’ve lived in several U.S. cities or their burbs— Washington, D.C., Dallas, Chicago — and visited most of the rest extensively. And I have yet to encounter a city that has dealt with the issue of traffic management effectively.

Some say this is not necessarily negative, that traffic jams help display how well local economies are working. “Peak-hour traffic congestion in almost all large and growing metropolitan regions around the world is here to stay,” researchers at the Brookings Institute say. “In fact, it is almost certain to get worse during at least the next few decades, mainly because of rising populations and wealth. But this outcome should not be regarded as a mark of social failure or misguided policies. In fact, traffic congestion often results from economic prosperity and other types of success.”

The way cities deal with traffic congestion varies. In the Dallas area, motorists are mostly free to do what they want, except run red lights and stop signs. They can turn right on a red light after stopping and left without a green arrow after yielding at most intersections. Many signals employ smart technology where the light doesn’t change until the smaller street actually has some vehicles waiting. The DART rail system is relatively easy and cost efficient to use — at least compared to many cities — with ridership growing despite grumbling among some about the public price tag.

And still, Dallas ranks among the ten worst U.S. cities for traffic.

The D.C. area seems to go the opposite way. Traffic engineers in D.C. believe most drivers are beginners who cannot manage to look for themselves to make sure they can turn right on a red light when there is no traffic the opposite way. Or navigate a basic U-turn. Or turn left when the center lanes still have a green light.

I can’t begin to count the number of minutes I have waited in the left turn lane, as the center lanes have the green light, motorists piling up behind me, with no traffic coming the opposite way, nothing stopping me from turning except that idiotic sign stating, “Left turn on arrow only.” I could easily make that turn and have almost in my sleep.

But the D.C. area traffic engineers treat us all like kids. The relatively few inept drivers who have made hazardous turns and caused accidents affect those engineers’ decisions, hurting the overwhelming majority of motorists who can make a turn just fine. And traffic problems mount.

In the D.C.-area burb where I live, the symbol for inept traffic management in my neighborhood is a series of concrete barriers that has blocked a perfectly good four-lane throughway for more than a year. I don’t believe I live in a war zone, but these barriers tend to say otherwise. That street even has a median, but officials have refused to open it to through traffic. The concerns of the relatively few residents there of not wanting more traffic in their neighborhoods — even though the street is a four-lane boulevard with a median that has few homes on it — outweigh alleviating traffic on other throughways.

Chicago and New York City are even bigger traffic nightmares than D.C. Their solution to most traffic issues is to issue more traffic citations, somehow believing that will automatically make vehicles disappear. I don’t know what they smoke there — it isn’t the best of the stuff you can buy with a prescription in many states now. Few actions they take make the situation any better.

So what can help?

Many officials and think-tank studies these days believe that building more tollways, toll lanes, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes will help. The latter is probably most effective; most toll roads are not used to capacity since people naturally don’t like to pay more, especially when their taxes foot much of the bills for infrastructure for those projects in the first place.

A $2.6 billion tollway in Maryland called the ICC that opened in 2011 has grown in use, but it still feels like you are riding on an airport runway, even during rush hour. Other tollways in the D.C. area face declining use.

Though it will never be done because of the money to be made by private toll operators and public coffers, making such tollways free highways would do more to reduce traffic congestion than spending billions more on still new toll roads and lanes. Doing relatively simple things like synchronizing traffic lights better so you can get through more than one light at a time, allowing left turns when center lanes can still go after yielding and right turns on red after stopping, building more turn lanes, and opening up more neighborhood thoroughfares will probably help more than tollways in the long run.

Installing smart traffic-signal technology in which lights only change when cars are waiting on the smaller street is another good idea. More sensory technology is being employed to communicate between vehicles and signals, as well.

Traffic officials have encouraged people for years to carpool and take public transportation in hopes of that helping to alleviate traffic. Working from home and flexible work hours can also help. I wouldn’t mind campaigns to encourage people to buy smaller vehicles, which can help with motorists’ visibility and unclog roads of huge cars and trucks, not to mention save fuel.

There are competing factors at work — the ads run by auto companies to entice people to buy cars vs. the campaigns to get people out of said cars, the oil companies’ drives to get you to use more gasoline vs. the need to conserve resources. The bottom line is most people need vehicles to get to work or even use for their jobs. It’s time that ways to alleviate traffic better address that reality, rather than just hope that more people suddenly stop using vehicles.

Closer view of the concrete barriers that have blocked access to a four-lane boulevard in a D.C. burb for more than a year. [Shay photo]

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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