- This is your life. (Photo: flickr/richardmasoner)
Rumor has it that Independence Day congestion around D.C. gets bad today. Like legendarily bad. A couple-hour road trip out of town can stretch into, I've heard, four, five, even six or more hours as all cars grind to a halt on packed highways. Perhaps this is karmic payback for all the Fourth of July parade decorations on our cars. Perhaps it's just inevitable. D.C. residents, ironically, often seem to choose any other destination than the District, our nation's capital, when celebrating our nation's birthday.
Take my household of four guys, for instance. One is flying to Wyoming, one to West Virginia for camping, another to his college town in the Carolinas, and I'm venturing east to Ocean City (my first time there — wish me luck). But our collective fleeing has its consequences. Look at these reports about Bay Bridge traffic! Jesus. Check out the traffic conditions online for yourself here.
Yet staying in D.C. has its own challenges. WMATA's doing Metro work for a couple days this weekend (see more details here). At least Capital Bikeshare is opening two corrals for bikes near the National Mall fireworks display, we learn from DDOT via DCist. Visitors will flock to D.C. from elsewhere.
This Fourth of July, let's try to stay sane by turning to the recent June TED talk from the great-grandson of Henry Ford. In the 16-minute speech, Bill Ford, executive chairman (and former CEO) of his family's car company, brings up many topics, including his well-publicized environmentalism and Ford's attention to electric cars, but he also touches a topic relevant to all of us in the packed DMV region: the future of congestion, that dreadful state that induces people to hair-pulling, cursing, and likely takes years off our life in frustration. The talk is titled "A future beyond traffic gridlock," which is a wonderful thought for all of us today. Let's hear what he has to say.
Bill Ford imagines a future in which every day feels as gridlocked as today. He brings up gridlock a little over six minutes into the talk and says that the problem all comes down to mathematics. The world's population will grow to nine billion by mid-century, and our transportation system won't be able to deal with it. He predicts growing prosperity and a growing number of cars as a result — between two and four billion by 2050. "This is going to create a kind of global gridlock that the world has never seen before," Ford says.
The data he brings up is compelling. He refers to how the average American spends about a week stuck in traffic jams already, which sounds terribly depressing as is. The problem is a global one, he says, and as a young city-dweller, it's scary to imagine how much worse commutes could become over the next 40 or 50 years. My trip to work on the Metro already takes about 45 to 50 minutes. Back in my Missouri college town, I lived downtown and could walk most places within 10 minutes or so, which seems idyllic now and especially compared to the vision the automotive leader describes. What Ford points to is how this gridlock could complicate many other fundamental aspects of how people live: productivity, access to healthcare, economic growth.
What's the answer? Not more roads. The answer Ford points to, interestingly enough, is telematics, real-time wireless technology connecting all our cars with road and traffic conditions. Such a future system can assess where cars are and how to navigate around traffic and other obstacles. Better integrated and smart technology is a way to tackle the problem. The moment he's excited about is "when our cars begin talking to each other."
At first, Ford seemed a little too excited about the wireless communications. Sure, it'll be revolutionary enough in several respects, but it won't eliminate the gridlock as an overwhelming transportation problem. I was ready to write in response that hey, pal, it's not quite a silver bullet, but luckily, he saved me the trouble. He brought a practical close to his speech, affirming (in that very language) that this was not a silver bullet, but a beginning. He's right. Smart cars will be a big part of our future, and one way we can avoid a congestion nightmare that might make every day seem like Fourth of July weekend around DC.
My real question — what's the chance these smart cars help the Bay Bridge be less crowded by July 4th, 2050? What a dream to consider. In the meantime, I'll need all the luck you can send me tonight on the ride.