Death by traffic jam

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.

Main Street, downtown Uxbridge in front of City Hall.

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.

A walk downtown.

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.

It was like this for more than a decade. It also filled the air with dirt.

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.

Big Dig Bye Bye

Big Dig Bye Bye (Photo credit: Steve Garfield)

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.

Looking southbound on Main Street. Much better. And the air is clean, too.

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.

Traffic Congestion

Traffic (Photo credit: freefotouk)

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.

Categories: Health, History, Humor, Life, Travel, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Nowadays, when I have to go get something, I just use the golf cart. Ah, retirement. I love it!


  2. You have just reaffirmed why I am so happy with our move to rural Georgia! Hate the traffic!


  3. In my area, we call commuting “combat driving” because a lot of people are tailgaters. Using the Metro is helping somewhat, but not enough.


    • Here, we have solved the public transportation problem by not having any. We don’t even have a taxi. When I was commuting, nobody had thought to NAME it combat driving, but that is what it was. 90+ mph bumper to bumper. It took nerves of steel. I always wondered how many cars would crumple if someone sneezed!


  4. Ouch! Painful memories, some very recent, come flooding in as I read your account of traffic. It definitely takes a toll on you both physically and psychologically. When I was still working I would leave my apartment ar 4:30 a.m. to be at McDonald’s before 5:00 when they opened the doors. I did this to avoid rush hour traffic in Portland, OR.

    90% of the population of the state of Oregon lives and works in only 10% of the land. People are migrating here in huge numbers because of what is known as Silicon Forrest, a more modern version of California’s Silicon Valley. I can count on one hand the number of roads that link Portland with the coast. On holidays or weekends when the weather is sunny I’ve been in bumper to bumper traffic jams 65 miles long. You see there are no interstates to the coast, just two lane highways, all 3 of them. One accident will shut the whole system down.

    I’ve lived here over 6 years now and the insanity of drivers has grown exponentially in that time. No passing zones mean nothing. Speed limits are a joke. I own two vehicles, a SmartCar and a Piaggio scooter capable of doing 75. I try to drive at around 5 mph over the posted speed limit on either vehicle. I feel like I’m standing still most of the time. In one 70 mile drive to the coast 3 dozen nut cases pass me doing 75 or better in a 55 mph zone. All three coastal highways are 55 mph max. What a joke! Where are my tax dollars going for troopers on the highway? If they claim a budget deficit all they need do is enforce the speed limit and they’d have a surplus of cash. It’s NOT safe out there.

    Because of medical care at the Veteran’s Hospital I can’t move out to the boonies to escape. Most of Oregon is wilderness with no development. So, with the price of gas too high even for my high mileage vehicles I sit at home behind this stupid computer, listening to traffic blowing by my apartment complex at 2 in the morning. It’s not going to get any better and I’m not getting any younger. More times than I can count I wish it would just end, for me.


    • Sounds, sadly, like home. Drivers around New England are notoriously aggressive (in Maine, they are called Mainiacs for a reason). Drivers consider traffic laws mere advisories. When we drove to Montreal, we realized we weren’t even in the running for most insane drivers of the world. And Israelis — wow — all drive as if each is a tank commando and every other driver is the enemy. Is it any wonder I don’t like driving anymore? Locally it’s okay, but once we get out of our little bucolic corner of the world, there are crazy people out there and they all own big SUVs!


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