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.