What if they held a traffic jam and no one came?

What if the predicted carmageddon is not? What if the expected traffic jam does not occur? I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d like to speculate that not only will the Fix50 project not be a big deal, but that it will result in a permanent change in driver behavior.

  • What if people discovered a lower-stress, lower-cost method of commuting? Bicycling? Light rail? Commuter buses? Car pooling?
  • What if employers realized that their employees are more productive if at least some of the time their employees telecommuted instead of sat in their cubicles?
  • What if people started to make different decisions about where they live and where they work? Many people say that this isn’t possible because people “have” to commute to work. But most people and families change work and housing locales many times. What if the next change brought work and home close together?
  • What if people started to value their time, realizing that there are more productive things to do than sit in traffic? Than sit in a car?
  • What if people started to question why we spend huge sums of money building and maintaining freeways for the benefit of those people who choose long commutes, and prefer to use personally owned vehicles, rather than spending money on those who want to live and work close together, and who want transit and bicycling facilities and walkable neighborhoods, to live car-free and car-light lifestyles?

And the most important question of all, what if the freeway re-opens, and the traffic has permanently disappeared?

There are many examples of magical disappearing traffic. The most recent and I think most interesting is the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. When parts of it were closed to address earthquake hazards, and to prepare for the tunnel that may replace the viaduct, about 2/3 of the traffic simply disappeared. It was not on local streets, it was just not there. People made different choices.

Though the focus of the Fix 50 media storm has been on commuter traffic, the fact is that commuter traffic as a portion of daily traffic has continued to decline. I don’t know the numbers for Highway 50, but nationally the number is down to 15-20% of all traffic. Some of the remaining traffic is commerce, the transport and delivery of goods, though even there a lot of options exist. Most of the traffic is what is called discretionary travel. Sometimes it doesn’t need to happen at all – a lot of people drive just to drive, to fill their time with activity that seems meaningful even if it is not. Sometimes it does need to happen, such as grocery shopping (though again, there are options: buy less at a time, walk, use a bicycle, get a cargo bike), but could happen at any time of day, avoiding commute hours.

In a few days, and over the next two months, we will see what actually happens. Here is hoping that the result is a more livable Sacramento.

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