Free Me from Freeway Gridlock

Free Me from Freeway Gridlock

by / October 2, 2007

Over the summer, my wife and I had to make a trip from Sacramento to San Francisco. She was forcibly dragging me to her high-school reunion - though it turned out to be slightly less miserable than I was anticipating.

I've made the 90-mile drive more times than I can count, yet stupidly chose to take the most direct route - Interstate 80. It was a Saturday afternoon, I said to myself, "How many people could possibly be on the road?" Sadly as we approached the aptly nicknamed "Berkeley Crawl" - a section of "freeway" that leads to Oakland and the Bay Bridge - I realized my costly mistake. I hadn't anticipated the thousands of people battling to get to downtown San Francisco in hopes of seeing Barry Bonds inject himself into baseball's record books.

The Berkeley Crawl is a hellish bit of interstate. It always works the same way. When approaching from the east, traffic is light and all seems well. One is lulled into a sense that this time, finally, there won't be the sort of soul-crushing gridlock there was on the previous trip. The freeway gently slopes upward and swoops to the left, affording grand views of the bay.

Upon cresting the hill, however, I was confronted with a nightmarish vision of things to come. Laid out before me was what seemed like millions of cars crammed together in some parking lot designed by Satan himself. I felt as though I was looking directly into the eyes of madness.

For 90 minutes we inched along in our metal coffin, the Bay Bridge a mere mile away. I could clearly see the great span, our salvation, beckoning in the afternoon sun. But I could not reach it. I calculated our average speed as somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.7 mph. My mood deteriorated quickly. The fact that we were headed somewhere I didn't want to go in the first place made being part of this slowly, snaking steel conduit even more unbearable.

Finally, after high tension and raised blood pressure shaved at least a year off my life expectancy, we reached the tollbooth where a silent employee dutifully extracted $4 from me. Meanwhile, I watched as a few cars with FasTrak whizzed through their gilded, beautifully empty lanes. I cursed myself for failing to possess one.

With tens of millions of new Californians expected over the next few decades, I shudder to think of what traffic will be like in the future. It should be clear to anyone that simply adding more lanes to freeways is a shortsighted solution. Are high-speed trains the answer? Perhaps. Does anyone with the power to build them have the political will to do so? Probably not. Since we are already sliding toward a nanny-state, maybe we can force everyone to have FasTrak, you know, for their own good.

I am but a lowly writer - a man with neither the know-how nor resources to change the future. I don't even get paid real money - I get paid in cured meats. While sad, I am looking forward to next week's honey baked ham - if only I could afford an appliance on which to cook it.

But you, dear readers, you are the ones with the power. You are the innovators, the technologists and the change agents. I beg you, use your powers to change transportation's currently bleak future.

Change it before the Berkeley Crawl ceases to be the exception and becomes the rule.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.