Wouldn’t it be sweet if there was Sudafed for highway congestion? You’d just pop it from the foil and in a few minutes that jackknifed tractor trailer would be cleared from the lane. Sadly, however, there isn’t. And traffic isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s getting worse: A recent survey from Edison Research says average urban commuters spent about 42 hours a year stuck in traffic in 2015, up from just 16 in 1982. Anyone else having an existential crisis?
For many morning commuters and weekend warriors, traffic is an inevitability. But there are measures to make it a bit more tolerable — or avoid the bumper-to-bumper blues all together. Tom Vanderbilt knows the tricks better than most. The author of 2009’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What That Says About Us.) spent years studying gridlock, snaked roads, and all other forms of tangled traffic so drivers could better understand — and prepare for — the problem. Here, he offers some tips, tricks and general thoughts on the stalled state of America’s highways.
Yep, Traffic Is Making You Crazy
By now everyone knows that long, sedentary commutes are bad for your physical health. What Vanderbilt makes clear is that sitting in your car is also doing a number on your psyche (oh boy!). “Psychologically, traffic drives us over the bend because we’re in a car, so we’re supposed to be in motion,” he says. “It’s stressful because it isn’t even orderly, like waiting in line. Not knowing how long something is going to take makes it feel much longer.” A good tactic then is to manage your expectations and create a realistic, flexible ETA. All the better to prevent you from going car-azy.
Help Isn’t On The Way
“Traffic is like a piece of mercury,” says Vanderbilt. “You squeeze at one point and it comes out somewhere else.” For example, there is a ride-sharing pilot program at a New Jersey train station which subsidizes Uber rides in an effort to reduce parking congestion. But if it works, it might also mean more cars on the road.
In other words, traffic is an intractable problem, so try to account for as many variables as possible before setting out. Take the gridlocked nightmare that is Thanksgiving: Google Maps data found traveling on Turkey Day — before noon or after 2 PM — is the smartest play. And you’d be smart to turn around and head home on Black Friday. No free 20-inch LCD TV is worth the congestion that awaits you.
Waze Is The Means
When Vanderbilt first wrote his book, the community-based traffic and navigation app Waze didn’t exist. Today, he can’t live without it. “I’ve become addicted to it, constantly checking it on the off-chance something is going wrong right now,” he says. Many reasons why traffic stops can only be alleviated through situational awareness, which Waze provides in spades. The social updates alert you instantly if there’s a fender bender a couple miles up, so you can change your routes, which you won’t get right way from Google Maps or God forbid, “traffic on the ones.” Do cars even get AM stations, anymore?
Stay In Your Lane (Literally)
One of the biggest mistakes on the road is drivers’ need to incessantly change lanes. “It’s an optical illusion that the lane next to you is faster,” Vanderbilt says. The system runs, or should run, on an equilibrium and constant lane changes makes cars ping-pong past one another, and while you may win a point, the game never ends.
Pit Stops Are Your Buddy
If Waze informs you of a gnarly bottleneck up ahead and offers no feasible rerouting option, you have 2 plans: you can sit there muttering to yourself or you can pull off at the nearest exit and relax a bit. Grab a latte. Wander around the local gift shop with the kids (someone has to buy all that salt water taffy). Or find a local park — but a grassy median will work, too. Anything to reduce the stress of the incoming log jam.
Reposition Your Relationship With Gridlock
Vanderbilt has a 7-year-old daughter, so there’s one traffic upside he tries to keep in mind. “In a weird way, traffic is together-as-a-family time,” he says. So share in the experience of listening to family-friendly podcasts, play games of “I Spy”, or even — gasp — enjoy some old-fashioned conversation. Pew Research found nearly half of American dads want to spend more time with their kids. So, take it where you can get it. Stuck behind a 75-foot R.V.
Be Careful How You Handle Traffic In Front Of The Kids
Letting traffic get the best of you is also bad for young backseat driver. They model your behavior. See the world as you see it. Honk at the assholes you honk at. If their first driving lesson is that other drivers are morons, then you might just be responsible for their road rage when they get a license. Or it’s just all these morons on the road!
Remember The Golden Rule
“Time, information, and luck are your only real weapons against traffic,” says Vanderbilt. “And you still might come up upon an overturned tractor-trailer.” In other words? We’re all going got get stuck. Unless you’re a Night Ranger. In which case you’re just motorin’! Everybody now, “Sister Christian, oh the time has come …”