Most of us don’t think about traffic. We just deal with it as best we can. It’s part of modern life. Whether it’s trying to find a decent parking space or patiently sitting in endless bumper-to-bumper traffic on a holiday weekend, traffic is everywhere.
I don’t usually think about traffic because we don’t have much of it here. This is the country. A traffic jam is a tractor and two cars waiting at an intersection, or road repairs that slow everything down as we take turns using one open lane.
Sometimes, a bridge washes out and we realize how hard it is to get from one town to another without the bridges. In a river valley, it’s impossible to go far without crossing over water, so the loss of a bridge can force you miles out of your way.
Until we moved here, though, traffic was on of the top two or three biggest issues in our lives. It controlled when we got up in the morning because we had to leave enough time to get to work, taking traffic into account. Road work in Boston could and did make it actually impossible to get from one side of the city to another. Gridlock before and during holidays could close the whole city. I once tried to pick Garry up from work. It was less than a mile away. Normally, he walked, but he had things to carry and so asked me to come get him.
I left the parking lot, drove a block, and had to stop. Nothing was moving. An hour later, I was in the same place. I finally made a u-turn and went home to the apartment. This was before cell phones, so I had to call the guard at the front desk at Channel 7 and ask him to go outside and tell Garry that I couldn’t get there. The next day it was in the papers and on TV: the entire city of Boston had been gridlocked. It was the Friday before Christmas; everyone had decided to go shopping at the same time, so no one went anywhere.
A year later, we moved from Government Center to Roxbury, about 4 miles outside the center of Boston. It was much less congested than the area around Charles River Park. There were trees, and empty lots.
You could park for free on the street, of course remaining ever mindful of alternate side of the street parking regulations. It was a much more convenient location for getting onto the Mass Pike without having to navigate through the permanent traffic jams downtown.
Then came the Big Dig.
The Central Artery-Tunnel Project, which everyone called the Big Dig, was a monstrous project involving rerouting and redesigning virtually every road in, out, around, and through the city of Boston. There were no areas unaffected by it either directly or indirectly, though it was worse some places than others. It turned the main artery (Route 93) — an exceptionally ugly stretch of permanently clogged elevated highway — into a permanently clogged, very long tunnel.
It didn’t solve the traffic problems, but it made the traffic invisible, leaving everyone to sit in their overheating cars trying to breathe carbon monoxide and hoping they will live to see the other side of the city. This was apparently sufficiently important to warrant a breathtaking price tag, not to mention massive inconvenience to absolutely everyone who worked, lived, or tried to visit the city.
Garth Brooks was scheduled to give a concert at the Boston Garden during the height of the Dig. He never made it. He couldn’t get there with all the detours, roadblocks, closed exits, and such. He wrote a letter that was published in newspapers and quoted on television to the effect that he’d come back to Boston if and when we finished building it.
The project straightened out some of the worst intersections and made getting to and from the airport easier. It certainly made Boston look nicer. It was an artistic success, but it sure did cost a lot of money.
The Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in history. To absolutely no one’s surprise, it was plagued by cost overruns, scheduling disasters, water leakage, collapses of ceilings and other parts of roads and tunnels, impressive design flaws, blatantly poor workmanship, nepotism, corruption, payoffs, the use of substandard materials, criminal arrests for a some of the aforementioned offenses (but not nearly enough), and four deaths.
The project was scheduled for completion in 1998 and was supposed to cost $2.8 billion. I am certain that not one single person in Boston actually expected it to cost that or be finished on schedule and we were right. It took an additional nine years and was finally finished in December 2007 It cost more than $14.6 billion. The Boston Globe estimates that when all is said and done, including interest and fines, lawsuits and so on, the project will total more than $22 billion and won’t be paid off until sometime around 2038. Maybe not even then. I might add that things are still falling apart so not all the bills are in yet. I’m just glad I don’t live in the middle of it anymore.
The Big Dig drove us out of Boston.
One day, I had to go grocery shopping. The supermarket was a mile away. It took me two hours to get there and another hour and a half to get home.
“Garry,” I said that evening, “Let’s get the Hell out of here!” And we did.
We did not leave Boston. We fled. The traffic had taken control of our lives. We couldn’t go to a restaurant or a movie. We couldn’t shop, park, or get to or from work. People trying to visit us couldn’t find our condo because the exit to our neighborhood kept moving and was often closed, leaving motorists to find their way through the city using poorly or completely unmarked detours. Out-of-town visitors roamed helplessly through the streets of Dorchester looking in vain for a street sign or marker to give them a clue where to go. Although most of them eventually found their way to us, they never came back. We could hardly blame them.
Sometimes we couldn’t find our way home either. It was unnerving.
As a commuter, I probably spent the equivalent of years of my life sitting in traffic. Late in my career, audiobooks turned commuting into reading and took some of the sting out of it, but still … when you added the time actually spent in the office (usually 9 or 10 hours) and then included commuting time (2 to 4 more hours), my life was consumed by driving and traffic.
There was no time remaining in which to have a life. That’s probably why, though we are retired and poor as dirt, it’s still better than those last years of commuting. It turns out that poverty trumps traffic. Who’d have guessed?
If this sounds petty, it isn’t really. The stress of traffic, not to mention the expense and physical problems that directly result from hours locked in a car, unable to stretch or change position, are incalculable. By the time we slouch exhausted and beaten to the finish line called retirement, we are wrecks .. and now, we are poor, too. It’s still better than all that driving.
Do I have a solution to this? Nope. I’m just saying. Sometimes we seriously underestimate the wear and tear caused by the perfectly ordinary things we do because we have no choice. It adds up and takes a serious toll on our minds and bodies.
Eventually, we wear out, not because we are lazy or defeatist. One day, something just snaps and we know that no amount of pushing is going to keep us going. We can’t do it anymore.
Traffic has a lot more to do with it than you think.
- Boston Traffic: Before And After The Big Dig (wbur.org)