On the traffic issue, we’re our own worst enemy


It’s the other guys.

People speeding on neighborhood streets don’t live around here. It’s outsiders who run red lights and roll through stop signs and take curves too fast. We local residents are decent, law-abiding folks.

We always observe posted limits and consistently adjust our speed downward if conditions dictate.

We always plug meters and never park more than 15 minutes between signs.

We always wait for pedestrians to clear the crosswalk before starting through the intersection.

We never tailgate someone we think is driving too slow.

We never curse the bicyclist we think is intruding on our lane.

We are models of propriety, caution and politeness. Why can’t everyone else be like us?

One can demonize outsiders for all sorts of social ills, but drivers are an especially convenient target. There’s nothing like traffic to bring out the hypocrite in us.

Not only do we want to believe that it’s other drivers who cause all the problems, but we sometimes talk as if we have a proprietary right to the roadways in our own neighborhood. Why do other people have to drive down my block to get somewhere? Can’t they find another route?

Driving is the source of many paradoxes, but none more nettling than this: We want to live somewhere with easy automobile access to wherever we might choose to go, but we don’t want other people clogging those conveniently located thoroughfares.

We’re lured by the open road but, increasingly, no roads we actually want to drive on are open. The car commercials peddle an ever-more improbable fantasy: the lone vehicle speeding down an unoccupied highway, its driver unencumbered by competing motorists.

In the real world, the time we spend idling in traffic increases each year, with accompanying increases in blood pressure and road rage. The Texas Transportation Institute reported that in 2001 the average driver spent 51 hours in traffic — four hours more than five years previously. Just think what you could have done with those 51 hours.

The solution? We can build more roads, of course, but then the trick is to keep other motorists from using them. That’s the maddening thing about access: If it’s convenient for you, it’s convenient for other people too. So we end up with congestion that makes roads inaccessible. One is reminded of Yogi Berra’s observation about a popular bar: “The place is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore.”

Of course there’s always mass transit. But that works better for other people, those who live or work closer to a bus or LRT line. Just think though: If more of those people would use mass transit, there’d be more room on the road for us drivers.

Cars — can’t live with them, can’t live without them. And another thing we can’t seem to live without is inconsistency. We agree there’s too much traffic, but we don’t want new roads built through our neighborhood. We think more money should be spent improving the highway system, but we don’t want the gas tax raised. We wish they’d make cars with better gas mileage, but we don’t like driving smaller, lighter vehicles. We decry the blight of parking lots, be we complain if we have to walk more than 50 feet to our car. We worry about the effects of global warming, but we keep spewing exhaust.

It’s hard to find a metro-area elected official who’s not gung-ho about LRT, but one wonders how many of them actually ride light rail after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies. It’s fashionable to be in favor of bike lanes — even if you haven’t dusted off the old 10-speed in years. It’s nice to be able to walk to the store, but why is it rarely convenient to do so?

We are enslaved to automobiles while refusing to acknowledge our complicity in that enslavement. We reap a vehicular whirlwind while conveniently forgetting having sown the wind. We see the mote in the other guy’s windshield while studiously ignoring the beam in our own.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.