We Are Traffic



Waiting for a light to change. Waiting for a parking spot. Waiting for your road to clear. Waiting for a left turn. Waiting.

What is traffic? Is it waiting? The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has a system of categorizing roads by the "Level of Service" (LOS) they provide, rated A through F, from 'free flow' to 'at capacity.' They aim for roads to rate B or C in most scenarios and often recommend infrastructure improvements for roads rated E or F.

But discussing traffic like this makes it sounds like we are discussing the weather. This morning is sunny with clouds expected this afternoon.  This morning the roads are clear with traffic delays expected this afternoon.

The thing is, traffic is not like the weather.  It does not happen to us.  We create it.  Traffic is people.  Without people there would be no traffic.  With people behaving differently, we would have different traffic. We are traffic.

There is a whole discipline of psychology dedicated to the study of behavior in traffic because of the serious community impact driving behaviors have on society. That's why we have laws like seat belts and no cell phone use.

Consider this list:

  • how long we are willing to wait
  • how quickly we drive
  • how distracted we are (phone, food, kids)
  • how confident we drive
  • how defensively or aggressively we drive
  • how often we drive
  • how many errands we combine vs. taking individual trips

These are behaviors, characteristics and choices of each driver on the road.  Each has consequences for how many cars are on the road, how fast they are going and how carefully and respectfully they are considering other drivers - which in turn has consequences for congestion and accidents.

If we are traffic then we need to look no farther than our own nose for solutions to traffic.  While million dollar projects may offer some opportunities for transporting ourselves from one place to another, thinking about how and when we move ourselves as a community may have a far greater impact.

One WSDOT engineer said that as soon as they build another road or another lane, it is full of cars.  People change their behavior to fill up the new road because they see it as an opportunity to drive more often. When they may have avoided the road or combined trips, they now have no incentive to do so. Traffic is no better off than it was before the new road.

I traveled to Bogota, Colombia in 2007 to study transportation and water issues.  A professor turned politician, Antanas Mockus, had been mayor a few years before. He implemented a series of often hilarious strategies to change the behavior of drivers in his city, reducing traffic fatalities by 50%. The tactics used were specific to Bogota, but the idea that traffic can change through behavior modifications alone is well understood.

One modification we can consider is how we think about traffic.  Traffic is pretty specific to cars on the road, but there are many diverse ways to think about travel.  If we re-frame our conversation from "traffic" to "transportation" we can talk about freely moving to where we need to go the most effectively.  We can talk about buses, bikes, walking, trip patterns, and systems to organize these. When we just talk about traffic, we stick ourselves in a box with much fewer solutions.

Our own Link Transit is paving the way, (re)defining travel.  They 'Connect Communities' by thinking about how people want and need to move around the area. Their definition has nothing to do with cars (if you have them or don't or use them or don't). They are providing transportation options and hope to serve as many diverse groups as possible.  These efforts relieve traffic, reduce carbon emissions, provide opportunity to move all people, and reduce costs to individuals.

We Are Leavenworth

The City of Leavenworth is working on two big tranportation projects this year:

I hope through both of these projects we can work with our community to determine ways to move ourselves and think about transportation that is outside of what we are used to.  Perhaps we can define new modes, better flows and more effective habits to improve our experience moving in and around Leavenworth.

This will be hard.  It is difficult to change habits and think about structures (like how you drive through town) in new ways.  But it will be worth it and I know working together, we can do it.  And when we do, we will have easier travel and better experiences for our whole community from visitors to school children.