Sarah Goodyear tells an amusing—and relatable—tale of traffic woe over at CityLab. She usually avoids driving in New York City, but in this instance, decided to use a car. Alas, it didn’t take long for things to go awry:
Already I had been honked at by other drivers twice, once for yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk (the honker zoomed around me and through the intersection, just behind some people on foot) and once for no discernible reason.
Very consciously, I try to approach urban driving with calm and deliberation, following all the rules, proceeding within the speed limit with due care, and never honking unless there’s danger involved (that’s the law, by the way). …
But here I was, quickly reduced to cursing at the world outside my metal and glass bubble and honking myself, trying to get the attention of the guy who had left his car like a piece of used Kleenex in the street. The time it took me to become a monstrous ball of impatience: about 10 minutes. Just add car.
Many (if not all) of us who live in or around a large city have been in a similar situation. On the few occasions I’ve ventured to drive into Washington, D.C., I have regretted the decision almost as soon as my wheels hit George Washington Parkway. It’s not just the claustrophobic congestion or unbearably long intersection lines: it’s the demeanor of those around you, and the demeanor which seems to be thrust upon you as you drive. Because we are all in separate bubbles, encased in our own worlds, it becomes almost impossible to be polite, empathetic, understanding. In the car, each individual reigns supreme—and the road becomes a warring battlefield of selfish sovereigns.
Why is this the case? Goodyear believes that it’s largely the fault of the car itself: “The car is often—let’s say even usually—the wrong tool for the job in a dense urban setting,” she writes. “Using the wrong tool makes you frustrated and impatient. It can quickly turn you into a jerk, even if you are a decent human, as indeed most people are.”
I can’t help but agree: though there isn’t anything wrong with driving per se, driving in dense urban areas creates a whole host of perils and frustrations. Washington, D.C.’s streets are densely packed with pedestrians and bicycles. Streets are often narrow, leaving little room to change lanes or make turns.
But making streets larger won’t help fix the problem in cities like D.C. or New York City. Wider roads, with more lanes, only encourages more drivers and greater speed. This atmosphere can be exceedingly perilous in dense areas, when you mix pedestrians, buses, and bikes into the equation.
Some of this can be fixed via law enforcement: when speeding or careless drivers get tickets, they’re reminded to be more careful. But some of it may also need to involve the careful designing of a conscientious developer: Zainab Mudallal notes that Sweden has drastically cut road deaths by building different sorts of roads—roads that prioritize safety over speed. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” Matts-Åke Belin, a government traffic safety strategist, told him.
How could we apply these lessons to the realm of driving in the city? Washington, D.C. continues to build more protected bike lanes in the district, in hopes of encouraging a different sort of traffic. The protected lanes have already had a good impact in other U.S. cities, encouraging a safe and segregated means of travel for cars and bikers. The biggest challenge is, it seems, in the implementation period, during which time there are segmented pieces of protected lanes interspersed with normal traffic lanes. “They create a strange dissonance for people riding on them,” writes Goodyear in a post for Next City. “One minute you are pedaling along feeling relaxed and calm, the next your adrenaline shoots back up as you get spit back out into traffic, often without much indication as to where you are supposed to go next.”
But it also seems that the narrow cobblestone roads of years past may not be a bad option for many portions of the city: they encourage pedestrians, streetcars, and bikers—the slower sorts of traffic—but discourage a heavy amount of car traffic. And this may help drivers learn to use the right tool in the right environment: picking metro cards over car keys.
I don’t condemn the use of cars for commuting across the board—by no means. When I worked for an Idaho newspaper, it took me 35 minutes to drive the 35.6 miles to the office (it would probably be even faster now, because they just increased the freeway speed to 80 mph). There’s no metro system in Idaho, and it isn’t needed.
But it takes me an hour and a half to navigate the 9.5 miles from my Alexandria residence to our D.C. office, with endless frustrations along the way. So I’ll continue to ride the good old metro—and trade gray-hair-inducing moments for a book and some music.