If you have a driver's license, you probably have a story or two about nightmare traffic. Michael Knies does.
A reference librarian from Scranton, Pa., Knies and his girlfriend planned to drive to Newark, N.J., to catch a flight to Prague a few years ago. That is, until their airline abruptly switched its schedule, detouring them to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. "Knowing New York traffic," he says, "we added about an hour to our trip."
Apparently they didn't know New York traffic well enough. With their clock running down to their departure, Knies did his darnedest to find his way to JFK. He tried the George Washington Bridge. But there was a one-hour delay. He tried the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Gridlock. And the Belt Parkway was "a parking lot," he remembers. It looked like they would miss their flight.
Been there before? Yeah, me too.
Traffic is one of those topics that motorists pay little attention to until they're stuck in it. Travel writers spend even less time worrying about it because they must obey the First Law of Travel Journalism: Only write about things with wings.
But let's break a few rules today. Traffic is important, because more people drive than fly. And you don't need me to tell you that the congestion is getting worse. Traffic siphons $78 billion a year from the U.S. economy by costing us 4.2 billion lost hours, according to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute.
Question is, which of our cities are perpetually clogged with cars and trucks? The government recently announced the winners of a competition for federal funds to fight traffic congestion -- yes, cities actually were competing for the honor of having the worst traffic -- and here are the results:
Knies' experience was actually pretty average, which is probably why Gotham was awarded $354.5 million -- nearly three times as much as the No. 2 city. "Out of sheer panic, we drove through Flatbush by the Hamilton Parkway and Linden Street," he recalls. "There were about 100 red lights, and I was pretty sure we were doomed." But he caught a lucky break and arrived at JFK with only minutes before boarding closed. The downside: Knies had to park in the $24-a-day lot in order to get to the gate on time.
It's impossible to understate how awful the traffic has become in and around Manhattan. Nor is a solution immediately evident. More mass transit? New York's subways and buses are already among the best in the world. More tolls? Try crossing a bridge or using a tunnel in the Big Apple, and you know that's not an option. The only reasonable fix is congestion pricing -- making motorists pay for using the roads during peak periods. And really, the only way to avoid the gridlock in Manhattan is to travel when no one else does. I have no idea when that is.
Drive anywhere in the Bay Area and your chances are pretty good that the freeway is going to turn into a parking lot at some point. But within the city limits of San Francisco, it's virtually assured. Traffic delays cost each commuter $1,121 in lost wages, according to the Texas study. The City By the Bay is also a treacherous place to drive when there are no cars. Just try negotiating one of Lombard Street's switchbacks or ascending the 30-degree incline of one of its other roads in a car with a standard transmission. I have. I wouldn't recommend it.
San Francisco's traffic woes aren't easily solved, either. It has a first-rate mass transportation system, and unlike other major U.S. cities, its residents actually use the buses and trains. The city this summer announced it would begin charging a toll on Doyle Drive, a major approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. But officials now want to start congestion pricing on roadways such as the Embarcadero, Van Ness Avenue, Broadway and Harrison Street, according to a recent report. The response from residents has been mixed. Some like it. Others think it's just another bad idea hatched by city bureaucrats.
Here's an interesting rule about driving in Seattle. If you want to go somewhere, and your favorite mapping program says it takes 20 minutes door-to-door, double it. That's not my personal tip -- it's a number devised by the Texas study to factor in stalled vehicles, bad weather or construction delays. Seattle's drivers spend 45 hours a year stuck on the road, plodding their way along traffic-choked corridors such as I-5, I-405 and I-90. Seattle residents seem to have a different attitude toward their congested roads than, say, New Yorkers or San Franciscans. They're embarrassed and apologetic about the delays. For example, when I'm meeting someone across town, they'll often say, "You better get an early start -- there might be traffic." And there always is.
What's the fix? Seattle hopes its new light rail system, which will connect downtown to SeaTac, will alleviate some of the congestion when it opens in 2009. It might. But even if the system works as expected, the city will need a lot more to untie its traffic problems.
It is impossible to mention traffic in Minneapolis without also talking about this summer's Interstate 35W bridge collapse, which killed 13 people and injured more than 100. That single event cut off one of the main access points to downtown Minneapolis, worsening an already dreadful traffic situation. The $133 million earmarked by the federal government to help ease gridlock is just about half what it will cost to replace the bridge.
I've driven through Minneapolis a time or two before the Interstate 35W incident and I remember being surprised by the traffic. Apparently that was a good day. A recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggested many residents face Los Angeles-like commutes (ah, you're wondering why we haven't gotten to L.A. yet. More on that in a minute). The newspaper blamed poor urban planning for the current mess, and recommended implementing park-and-ride programs and offering workers more flexible work environments. But something tells me that may just be a good start.
Unless you live in South Florida, Miami's presence on this list might come as a shock. But I used to live in South Florida. I am not shocked. Parts of Interstate 95 between Fort Lauderdale and Miami are a slow-moving mass of vehicles at almost all hours. You used to be able to bypass 95 by taking the Turnpike, but it seems everyone else has figured that out. The highways between the two roads are iffy, and the only things you can count on are lots of cars, more cars and construction. Don't believe me? Here's the latest list of projects. You might want to check it out before your next South Florida vacation.
Miami's traffic problems are no easier to fix than the other cities on this list. I don't know anyone personally who regularly uses its mass transit system. The roads can't seem to keep up with the area's explosive growth. And the delays are costly. South Floridians waste $2.7 billion -- about $903 per person -- in lost productivity and fuel, according to the Texas study. That's up from $847 per person in 2004.
Now, what about those other cities? You're wondering what happened to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, right? Well, some of them were listed as semi-finalists this summer. Incidentally, I also correctly predicted the winner on my blog.
I hate it when I'm right about these things.
Look, there's no major U.S. city where traffic can be described as good. There are only varying degrees of bad. So if you're planning a trip to a major urban area, use common sense. Avoid rush hour. Use mass transit, where it's practical (and safe). And take a few deep breaths.
Remember, you're on vacation.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.