The Scourge of Traffic Congestion


Did you know traffic congestion in Columbus, OH is basically the worst ever? No? Well you'd be surprised, as I was. About a decade ago* I was at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field with my roommates when we lived just a few blocks away. Sitting behind us, we overheard a guy from Columbus, OH who was in town visiting friends. The three of us had gone to college near Columbus and two of us lived in Columbus itself for a year or so after graduating. We were pretty familiar with the city, so we found ourselves eavesdropping. This was also due, in part, because this dude basically would not stop talking. Loudly. We weren't so much eavesdropping as we just happened to be in his vicinity. He wasn't shouting or being aggressively obnoxious, but he lacked what you might call "situational awareness."

At some point, the guy went on a surprisingly long soliloquy about how he thought traffic in Columbus was such an unbearable nightmare until he drove into Chicago. He expressed bafflement that anyplace could have it worse than Columbus so driving in Chicago came as an utter shock to him. How do you people live? he seemed to suggest. I distinctly remember one of my roommates and I beginning to turn to face him with our faces twisted into confusion as if to say, "are you serious?" We did not, but we did nearly laugh out loud at his...analysis.

Traffic is in the Eye of the Beholder

All of this is to say, "congestion" is very much in the eye of the beholder, at least to a point. My experience in Columbus is that there is very little congestion apart from a bit at rush hours and before and after Ohio State football games. My experience in Chicago is that traffic is much worse than in Columbus, but still not nearly as bad as some would have you believe. You've got 10 million people trying to move around at generally the same hours of the day with loads of other people adding to the mix in the form of tourism, shipping, and travelers just passing through. Of course it's going to get crowded in places.

Traffic congestion and our perception of it is about expectations. It's frustrating getting stuck in a sea of cars passing through Chicago because thirty seconds earlier you were moving at 75 mph and probably had been for all of Wisconsin or Indiana before that. You know your car is capable of moving faster and so you're irritated that circumstances beyond your control have conspired to prevent you from doing so.

This is all top of mind because I learned that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is studying congestion relief along two major highways in the southern Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, I-494 and Hwy 62. Traffic along these corridors does indeed slow to a crawl, mostly during rush hour. There are ways we can improve this situation that don't involve building new, expensive roads we can't afford, and the good news is it seems MnDOT is exploring these options. But I wish they did not have this statement included among their goals:

Enhance safety and mobility by providing congestion free travel options

Though I understand the desire for this, I think it's silly and unrealistic. We should know by now that trying to eliminate congestion is a losing battle. Worse, if we ever achieve "congestion free" highways in MSP, it could be a sign of decline. I'm reminded of what I overheard at Wrigley Field. I don't think we have a congestion problem. I think we have a problem of unreasonable expectations.

*Observing that it has, in fact, been about ten years since this happened nearly made me weep into my keyboard for the fleeting days of my misspent youth.