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Road Rage

If you live near a major city in the world, or these days even a smaller one, there is one thing you can’t avoid: traffic. Even when you’ve set your alarm clock, done your due diligence by checking the traffic reports and sacrificed proper digestion by bringing your breakfast on the road instead of eating it at the table, you can’t avoid the “jam”. And forget about coming home from the office; the only surefire way to get home on time after a long day at work is to take the day off. That’s not such a bad idea; especially considering that studies have shown the stress of driving in heavy traffic is equivalent to, or even sometimes greater than the stress of working at the toughest jobs. Add road rage into the mix and you’ve got a highly combustible cocktail for a driving disaster.

If you live in North America, cities like New York and Los Angeles are notorious for ire-inducing and endless traffic jams. A well-worn joke in L.A. poses the question, “What is the biggest parking lot in the world?” Referring to the San Diego Freeway, the answer is “the 405.” Whether you think that’s a clever and hilarious witticism or a lame attempt at jest, the sad fact is that there is a kernel of truth to it. The 405 is certainly one of the most congested freeways in the United States and drivers have experienced some epic traffic jams while trying to get to LAX, hit the beaches or roll on down into Mexico.

But there is only a slim chance the 405 would be able to compete in the category of congestion with some of the “parking lots” that exist in the rest of the world.

Beyond Jammed

Head on down to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where people have the time do things in their cars that most people reserve for home – or the bar. While parked in mind-blowing traffic jams, you’ll see male drivers shave, floss their teeth, read magazines and ask girls in neighboring cars for their digits. Women tend to spend time putting on their makeup, doing their hair and fending off flirtatious men asking for their digits.

There’s really no such thing as “rush hour” either. In any given location, the streets can be jam packed 24/7, so in sense, there is no longer any rush. With 20 million residents and growing, and as one of the premier business centers in Latin America, it’s no wonder there is a traffic crush. With a growing middle class and plenty of new financing, around 1,000 new cars roll off the lots and onto the streets each day. The infrastructure and road design in Sao Paolo center is hardly suitable for delivery truck and throngs of taxis. During the worst jams, bumper-to-bumper traffic can stretch for dozens of miles out of the city. It’s gotten so bad that frustrated drivers have abandoned their cars to wait it out at diners and bars. As in any major city, plans to improve infrastructure, public transportation and carpool incentives only help so much.

In Moscow, traffic congestion has also been a long-term problem. However, in the last few years, the troubles have gotten far worse. The early bureaucrats of the city built the city as a series of walls, hardly planning for a future of explosive population growth. In 1991, there were 60 cars per 1000 residents. In 2009, there are more than 350 per 1000 residents. When the first snow hit the city last December, the roads got so jammed, that the entire city was paralyzed. Cars stood in line for 6 hours straight and snowplows couldn’t get through traffic to do their jobs. According to some, politics is part of the problem; there is a lack of communication between the city government and regional government in regards to synchronizing regional and city public transport. If that were in place, many people would choose to use trains and buses instead of cars.

There are plenty of parts of the world that could benefit from more efficient public transportation. Just ask the people who make the trip from Beijing to Zhangjiakou.

Worst of the Worst

The next time you sit in traffic and arrive home a couple of hours later than you had planned, don’t complain. Why? Because you’ve never had to sit in a traffic jam for eleven days like those on China’s National Expressway (110) recently did.

It’s not uncommon on the 110 to see traffic snarls caused by construction projects. But in recent years, the number of trucks on the road has rapidly increased, causing a massive gridlock. Commuters have gotten used to major delays, but nothing like what they experienced in September of 2010 when they got stuck in the worst traffic jam the planet has ever seen. A culmination of construction, trucks and broken down vehicles resulted in something akin to “the perfect storm.” For 60 long miles and 11 days, vehicles crawled and for long stretches of time, came to a total halt. Passengers exited their vehicles and played card games and chess on the side of the road to pass the time. Food and beverage kiosks had to be set up in order to keep the masses fed. People got fatigued, homesick and angry. A team of 400 police officers was deployed to roam the expressway 24/7 and make sure the situation stayed calm and peaceful. For the most part, it did.

All this in country that is leading the world in innovative transportation design and looking to the future to make sure there is enough room for a rapidly growing population.

Urban Planning Blues

During the industrial revolution, urban planners designing cities and building roads never imagined that populations would explode as they have and cars would hit the streets by the millions. Urban planners of today have the tall order of working to improve old designs with new thinking and technology. So far, there are not many good examples of radical transformations that have brought about positive change.

One thing is for sure; change takes time. If you live in heavily trafficked part of the world and you deal with gridlock on daily basis, plan on being gridlocked for many more years to come.