Wednesday, January 26, 2005

My Hands Are Numb / From Hanging On That Steering Wheel

Raleigh's epic-proportioned traffic jam last Wednesday made the national news (or at least the Washington Post, where my dad read about it). We had an unexpected snowfall (not huge, about an inch), then Wake County schools abruptly announced early closing. The snow seemed to turn to sheer ice almost immediately. And then it was automotive Armageddon. My personal tale of woe was that my drive home, 27 miles from Durham to Raleigh and normally about 35-40 minutes, took six hours. On the whole, I'd rather have driven to Philadelphia.

It was, quite literally, hard to believe. All this for about an inch of snow? Three interstate highways turned into miles-long parking lots at the same time--I never dreamed there were that many cars IN Raleigh.

A frenzy of blame-slinging ensued. Dumb Southern drivers came in for their share: we were going too fast, except for when we were going too slow. Some people blamed the TV weatherpeople (which pissed me off--don't mess with my man Greg Fishel). Some people blamed the mayor (which really pissed me off--don't even mess with my man Charles Meeker).

A letter-writer to the News & Observer made the insightful comment that there sure are a lot of people who drive their kids to school every day. He's right, and that explains a lot about the bazillion cars that suddenly materialized on the roads last Wednesday. (We're part of that problem. Though with magnet schools, lots of kids have a long commute, by design, so the system invites it in a way... )

Upon reflection, I think you can boil the blame down to a single word: Sprawl. Driving 27 miles each way to work (alone in my car) causes problems. Sprawl makes us vulnerable, if just one or two little things go wrong, to a transportation nightmare. I knew that Raleigh rated high on the lists of Most Sprawling Cities, but the problem was kind of abstract. Now it's pretty concrete.

Then on Friday, I heard Joe and Terri Graedon do a radio show about obesity in children, and one factor they cited was all the children that get taxied to school every day. Very few kids walk to school nowadays. Even if a kid rides the bus, he does some walking to and from the bus stop. And then he burns a lot of calories fighting gang bangers and dodging drug pushers... sorry, parental paranoia struggling with urge to connect public policy dots...

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