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Message chuck hillestad

Or, Alternate Ways to Eliminate Traffic Jams

The May 7, 2007 US News & World Report cover story was entitled “America’s Worst Commutes.” The article bemoaned the nation’s growing traffic jams and how people were wasting valuable time stuck on the roads trying to get to work.

The traffic jam problem is serious, but it is a self inflicted wound. Unfortunately, the reporter on the topic spent his column space merely repeated the usual homilies (mass transit, special lanes, etc.) while belittling some promising, while admittedly partial, solutions and choosing to ignore others entirely or was negligent in uncovering them.

For instance, there are primarily only two city models in the US - the “LA model” where housing and business are widely separated and the “San Francisco model” where they are not. Sadly, the former with its freestanding houses, each surrounded by large lawns and cul-de-sacs going nowhere, has been declared as well as promoted by publications like US News over the years to be the American dream. Zoning laws now expressly forbid usage mixing in most of the country. In other words, residential zones are here and the places where they must go when they wake up are way over there. Consequently, people cannot walk to work, restaurants or entertainment. A potential elimination of a major chunk of the resulting vehicle traffic problem would be to change the zoning laws and/or provide incentive for workplaces to be near home much like groceries and schools are (or at least used to be).

There are other, more subtle, ways to discourage the sad LA model we have spent the last six decades building. A massive tax on gas, second cars, and parking spaces would provide a market incentive. (If the new revenue generated was used to fund alternative energy sources, that would be a bonus.) There would surely be hardships and dislocations with those who chose unwisely to live in the barren ‘burbs, but perhaps less than feared and assuredly it would be better to do it now before permanent grid lock develops. (Rationing works too, but there are more possibilities for favoritism, cheating and corruption with that type of approach.)

There are also better and cheaper techno fixes too than the ones the US News reporter bothered to mention. For example, encouraging new ways to work and shop at home helps. Is going to the office from 9 am to 5 pm five days a week the only practical way to produce? Surely not. What about supervision, you say? Hard to see if a worker is sleeping on the job if he is at home? That is where new and even off the shelf technology, such as keyboard monitoring, might be useful. If you can monitor your pets from the office over the internet and if customer service can be provided from India, why can’t home workers be appropriately supervised using some of the same techniques? Although, the real test ultimately is, or should be, what and how much the worker produces rather than where and how it is done.

About thirty years ago, I was caught in traffic stalled in a snowstorm watching a ski tourer pass me on the way to work at Downtown Denver. The normal half hour one way trip was increased to two hours. I vowed never again to live further away than I could walk to work. The unintended consequence of that decision was that over the decades it has been almost like finding an eighth day in each week. I suddenly had use of ten to twelve hours per week, 500 hours a year or more I could devote to other things thanks to not being forced into a car, breathing fumes that same length of time. And, that doesn’t count the small fortune unspent on gasoline, not to mention keeping that money out of the hands of oil producing counties and companies who seem to hate us.

The next time an investigative report is done on the subject, it would be nice for the country if the investigators dug deeper. They should interview those innovating rather than just those wringing their hands.

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current attorney/ former 101st Airborne infantryman/ occasional writer (a birth defect no doubt)/ permanent gadfly afflicted with a sardonic sense of humor/ unabashed human rights liberal/ abashed fiscal conservative/
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