August 09, 2006

Bay Area Traffic Can be the Worst

In the dot-com heyday, it wasn't uncommon to expect commute times of over an hour, just to go ten to twenty miles or so up and down the San Francisco Peninsula. Traveling highways 101 or 280 between San Francisco or San Jose in either direction could be a life-halting event, as, in what seemed to be a good thing, there was a vast surplus of jobs and people with automobiles needing to get from one side to the other, more than the highways had been built to handle. When that was coupled with skyrocketing housing prices, commuters were often compromising on their distance to travel to work in order to save a few hundred thousand dollars.

When the stock market bubble burst, hundreds of thousands of jobs were seemingly erased overnight, and some of these commuters similarly disappeared. Traffic got better, even as the economy was getting worse. So there was an upside. And while the economy showed signs of revival and has picked up again, we haven't seen the out of control hiring and resulting traffic to make up the difference - which makes today's experience especially frustrating.

With a 9 a.m. meeting in San Francisco, the plan was to take Highway 101 to catch BART, the Bay Area's Rapid Transit system, and coast into the big city in time to make the appointment. But it was not to be. The freeway system in the Bay Area is built without room for error - meaning a single accident anywhere on 101 can dramatically stop the traffic flow - and leave its remnants for hours afterward, even if the glass has since been cleared and the cars dragged off to that great big scrap heap in the sky. And without warning, I found myself in this mess today, as only two or three exits north of home, I found nothing but brake lights as far as the eye could see - without police or fire engines anywhere in sight.

I watched the minutes creep by, and even told my appointment that things looked VERY bad. Since my car wasn't moving anyway, I could punch out a coherent message via Blackberry and take phone calls without any concern that I was making the problem worse. Half an hour went by and I hadn't moved. And even after we started to creep along, it was no picnic. After having "enjoyed" this for about an hour, we found a cohesive collection of glass in the middle of the road - where some traffic architect genius had conspired to have five lanes merge to three. Undoubtedly, some more-aggressive drivers had decided to share a lane with another vehicle only to learn about the physics behind what happens when one object in motion attempts to stay in motion, but is brought to a stop.


Needless to say, the schedule has been blown to shreds. I didn't even make it onto BART until 15 or so minutes after I was already supposed to be in San Francisco, and we'll need to be creative on how we now put our heads together.

I'm not one to lobby for any kind of economic downturn, or wish ill will on those who are creating the traffic surplus, but if the Bay Area expects to grow further, and expects to be a world-class city (or group of cities), as we keep hearing when the San Francisco mayor makes bids to host upcoming Olympic games, the basic essentials of providing people a reliable system of getting to and from destinations on time has to be achieved. I for one can't trust that I'll get anywhere outside of a 5-mile radius in a given time. There are simply too many variables and not enough trust in the system. And I really, really would like my morning back.

Listening to ''Animal'', by The Neanderthal (Play Count: 3)