Stuck in Traffic: The Story of Civilization

by Bill Benzon

8195168460_b6fc53e992One day several years ago I waited an hour in traffic to go a quarter of a mile so I could enter the Holland Tunnel and cross under the Hudson River to my home in Jersey City. While sitting in the queue I kept thinking why why why? Why?

After saying a bit more about traffic to and from Manhattan, I answer the question with a boiling-frog story, a parable about Happy Island. I conclude by suggesting that the world is happy island and we’re stuck in traffic.

Tunnel Traffic

At that time I was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan (I’m now living in Hoboken). Whenever I go to Manhattan I use public transportation, which is reasonably good, though just a bit inconvenient from my present location. But driving my car through a tunnel or over a bridge and parking it on Manhattan, that’s VERY inconvenient. And so I avoid doing it.

But I had to go to rural Connecticut to meet Charlie for a trip to Vermont. I could have taken public transportation to a point where Charlie could pick me up. But that’s a longish walk and four trains, or a longish walk and three trains and a long walk or a cab. Which was a hassle. So I decided to drive. Yes, I’d have to cross the Hudson River, but the Holland Tunnel is nearby and I could avoid rush-hour traffic on both trips, too and from. Driving in Manhattan would be a bit of a hassle, but not too bad on this trip because I’d be mostly on the West Side Highway.

So I drove. I left on Thursday morning at, say, 9:45 AM. By 11:30 I’d crossed off the northern end of Manhattan and was headed toward Connecticut. That’s an hour and forty-five minutes to go the first 15 miles, and probably an hour to go the first four miles, from my place in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway headed North.

And that wasn’t rush-hour.

Nor was it rush-hour mid-afternoon on Saturday when I made the return trip. It took at least 45 minutes to get from West Side Avenue and 12th street into the tunnel, and traffic was unusually slow inside the tunnel, for whatever reason.

I’d be very surprised indeed if tunnel traffic was that bad when the Holland Tunnel first opened early in the 20th century. Nor do I have any idea when traffic began to build-up at the tunnel. It was opened in 1927 and the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel followed a decade later; the second tube took another eight years. Was it built in response to traffic build-up in the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge? Seems possible. A third tube was opened in ’57, a response to increased traffic.

These days local news has regular reports on traffic delays at all tunnels and bridges crossing to Manhattan. The information is, of course, readily available on the web. Rush-hour delays run between half an hour and an hour. It’s crazy.

Several years ago the Governor Chris Cristie of New Jersey killed a project to build another railroad tunnel under the Hudson. It would have doubled the number of passenger trains at peak hours. Meanwhile the mayor of New York City at the time, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire, wanted to change zoning in Midtown Manhattan so that higher office towers could be built. You know what that means, don’t you? More traffic on the already over-loaded bridges and tunnels.

Of course, that traffic had no direct meaning to Mayor Mike. He could afford to live in Manhattan, along with his executive cronies. When he crosses the Hudson or the East River he can fly his helicopter or he can sit in the back of a nice limo, with his laptop Wi-Fied to the world, along with a wet bar, pool table, squash court and whatever else he needs to pass the time while the limo waits in traffic. Bridge and tunnel traffic is just numbers to him; it’s not a reality that hits him directly.

Sure, build taller office buildings in Midtown. You know what that meant to Mayor Mike, Billionaire? More business for his company, that’s what it meant. His company and the companies of his buddies. That’s the reality that’s most immediate to him. Not all the hassle more traffic will cause for the people who work in those bigger buildings, but can’t afford to live on Manhattan.


More recently, the last few years have seen thousands upon thousands of new apartment units appear, especially along Manhattan’s West Side. Now we have housing for people working in those taller office buildings. But the people who live there are not going to spend all their time on Manhattan. Nor are they going to helicopter in and out. They’re going to clog the tunnels and bridges. As are the people living in the new apartment buildings in Jersey City and Hoboken.

No one would ever design a system to have so many transportation bottlenecks. But that is how the system has evolved over time. And it’s going to get worse. And if another hurricane should come though and take out one of those tunnels…

How could sensible people possibly get trapped like this?

The Story of Happy Island

Once upon a time, perhaps in a land far away, but maybe right next door, or even under your feet, there was a wonderful island in a protected bay. I wasn’t a large island, but large enough. People lived there, grew crops, hunted rabbits and deer, fished the sea beyond the bay, and occasionally crossed over to the mainland, perhaps to hunt, or maybe do a bit of traveling. Life was hard, but it was good.

The island’s population grew, and grew. In a few generations things were getting tight. There was no longer enough land to grow the crops, nor enough wild game. The forests were beginning to thin out as people used wood to make houses and shops.

And a ferry. People now went to the mainland everyday to trade with the villagers there, for a village had grown up across from the island. The trip back and forth took up a bit of time, but not too much. Thus the islanders were able to meet the needs of their growing population. Life was hard, but it was good.

Maybe life was even better. More people, more festivals and celebrations. More parties. With better music, and the wine they traded with the villages was better than their homebrew beer.

As the population grew, so the ferry had to make more trips for trading. In time it became necessary to build a second ferry line. The fisherman had to go further out to sea to catch enough fish, both for the islanders, and to use in trade with the mainlanders. Thankfully the fish were plentiful. And so the island continued to prosper. True, there were sometimes lines at the ferry docks and people had wait longer to get on. To tell the truth, life was perhaps just a little harder, and it was getting harder to make it really good. Though the best festivals were very fine indeed.

But things, as time moved on, things began to get really tight. Farms had to be broken up to free land for more houses and businesses. The wild game was gone, the remaining forests became enclosed as parkland, and fishing was no harder and harder; larger and more powerful boats had to go further out to sea. They needed larger dock facilities. Prescient people could see the shoreline beginning to crowd up with ferries—several more had been built, and docks. They could see more time lost to waiting getting to and from these facilities.

Tighter and Tighter, but It Feels So Good!

And so they built a bridge to the mainland. That helped a lot. The mainland was now more accessible. Life eased up, but just for a bit, a generation or maybe two. Because that better transportation brought more people. And more people made it more difficult to maintain the good life on the island. The buildings became taller. More people could live in them. Requiring more shops to service them. And more time lost just to getting around on the island and off it too, for more people spent more and more time off the island.

But the music at it’s best was very good indeed. Not to mention the movies. And the theaters, all the little art galleries. For some of the islanders life was better than it had ever been. For many, though, it was not so good. Mind you, it was not actually bad, and it was nice to go to the occasional show, or look at the art galleries. But things really were getting tight.

And it’s not like they could just up and move to the mainland. Things were getting tight there as well. The prosperity was widespread and general. That meant there were more population centers people could move too, but fewer places to put new centers. So many islanders decided to stay put.

The fact is, with the best art and entertainment in the world, and the best parties, many mainlanders actually wanted to move to the island, crowded though it was. Or, if not actually move there, work in the shops and the clearing houses for the port facilities. So the island got more and larger apartment buildings and office buildings.

And more bridges and tunnels. The cycle continued. First things improved a bit, enough to make folks feel good about the last bridge, or the most recent building. And then things began to tighten. More time lost to just getting around. More people came on to the island just to shop or take in a show. More people would leave the island just to go to a park or down to the shore — for the island’s beaches had long since disappeared to commercial development. Life continued to get better for a few, more irksome for the many. But the many really had no choice, because all the major decisions were made by the few. And the few liked things just the way they were.

The island continued to construct more and bigger buildings. It had more and more jobs. And more traffic not only on the island but also moving to and from the island. For the many, it meant more and more time eaten up just getting from one place to another. Life wasn’t all that good any more, but what could they do? You had to have a job to buy the goods that allowed you to eat, and there were jobs on the island. Not so many jobs on the mainland, which, at any event, was getting a little crowded as well.

What to do? There didn’t seem any choice but to build build build. If the ancestors had seen this coming, would they have built that second ferry? Or the second bridge? The whole set-up didn’t make much sense any more, except for a few. But there didn’t seem to be any way out.

Like Boiling a Frog

At every point in history of Happy Island it was possible to make an improvement by building more, and during the early years that’s all there was, improvement. But then things started closing in. The improvements were real, but short term. The improvements brought growth, and growth brought the squeeze. And the squeeze brought the need for more improvement. Another bridge or tunnel, another immediate improvement, but then growth, the squeeze, and things are worse.

Over the long-term, things slowly get worse, with intermittent improvement. Just enough to keep trying to make more improvements. But it never really works.

It’s the old story of boiling a frog. At first the warmer water feels good. Increment by increment, no harm, feelin’ good. But then, wham, the frog’s dead. Too late. (I’m told, BTW, that this isn’t actually true. Frog’s aren’t dumb enough to sit still for it. I’m not so sure about humans.)

The World: Stuck in Traffic

So that’s Happy Island, an imaginary island in a little parable. And that’s Manhattan Island, a real island in a real-life mess that’s getting worse. The rich people will be able to live above it all, though they’re going to have to go higher and higher. But the rest of us, we’re going to spend more and more time stuck in traffic.

And that, I submit, is where the world is today. In one way or another, the whole world is stuck in traffic.

No one planned it that way. Lots of good things were done with the best of intentions. But the earth, as a whole, is an island in the universe. And there’s no mainland out there we can go to.

We’ve got to decouple and downsize. If we don’t, the traffic’s going to become a permanent jam. And then it’s going to explode. Perhaps not physically—though that, of course, is possible. But explode it must. Or, what amounts to the same thing, implode.

There’s nothing else for a traffic jam to do. The world’s not going to end in a bang, nor a whimper, but a universal traffic jam.