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Gridlock

Ian O’Brien
Do It Green! Minnesota

You are not in a parking lot, but you may as well be. It is five-o-clock in the evening. Interstate 394 is packed with vehicles, stretching past the bend in the road far ahead. The red brake lights of the stationary stream of cars ahead flash intermittently, suggesting only occasional movement. A woman next to you is fuming behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer and laying on her horn. “Sure lady, that will help,” you think. Try to breathe and relax. You are going to be here for a long time.

If you drive in the Twin Cities you have undoubtedly found yourself in this situation before. Traffic jams such as these are becoming more common every year, despite (and often because of) constant road construction to add lanes to existing freeways.

The June 14, 2001 issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has reported that residents of the Twin Cities overwhelmingly express their frustration toward traffic congestion in the metropolitan area. Indeed, according to the recent survey conduced by the Metropolitan Council, traffic congestion is noted as a major social concern over crime, housing shortages and other social issues. People are clearly fed up.

Rising stress levels among commuters, however, is not the only impact of the growing transportation problem. Since 1960, the number of available vehicles per person has almost doubled nationally. An excessive number of cars on the road have led to a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions and smog-causing particulates. In 1998, fossil fuel energy-related carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 81% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Over 482 million metric tons of carbon was poured into the atmosphere from automobiles alone, which amounts to more than any other energy sector. We can no longer place the blame on industrial factories and power plants as the sole proprietors of global warming.

Locally, we have experienced increased temperatures and poorer air quality. Summers seem to be getting hotter and stickier. The result of all of this heat is increased humidity in the air, which causes the already high amounts of smog particulates to remain close to the ground. On hot days the Air Quality Index can rise to over 120 or more, the level at which at-risk people such as those with respiratory conditions, children, and the elderly are instructed to remain in air conditioned shelters.

To make matters worse, people on the average are driving farther to get to work every day. In the Metro Area, the outer ring of suburbs has experienced a steady population boom, yet many of these people continue to work downtown or in other suburbs across town. The land development of suburbs further increases the reliance upon automobiles. In many areas, main thoroughfares are limited to those that feed directly onto highways or freeways, thereby effectively forcing motorists to use them exclusively.

Reliance on automobile transportation compounds the land development problem since it implies that more land space will be used for freeways, roads and parking lots. It is not uncommon to find over 60% of the land used for these purposes in communities that lack any form of public transportation. The consequence is a far-reaching suburban sprawl, such as that of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. To be sure, since the city is more spread out, people need to drive even father to their destinations. The vicious cycle, hence, continues.

Some people suggest that the solution to the problem is to build more freeways. Unfortunately, this only increases the amount of land committed to automobile use. They are expensive to build and more expensive to maintain, especially because of damage left by our harsh winters. The last decade has seen major undertakings, such as the construction of I-394 and the widening of 35W and I-94. Yet, these remain the most congested roadways in the Twin Cities.

When Twin City residents were asked in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune poll if they thought transportation alternatives, such as light rail, exclusive bus ways and commuter rail are necessary in the metro area, a staggering 79% answered yes. Clearly, there is increased public awareness for the necessity of public transportation.

Public awareness is not enough, however. We need to rid ourselves of our total dependence on automobiles. Certainly, the benefits of owning and driving a car, the freedom to go anywhere we choose, the very American ideal of individuality and independence, are very persuasive. By allowing ourselves to rely solely on automobile transportation, we have made ourselves the antithesis of independent individuals, and we have damaged our environment in the process. None of us wants to be stuck in the infuriating stagnancy of highway gridlock. There is a simple solution: divorce your car! (as Katie Alvord’s book title reads).

What You Can Do

Do:
* Consider alternative transportation
* Walk
* Support the development of public transportation

Don’t:
* Drive to work every day
* Buy a large automobile



American Public Transportation Association:  www.apta.com


End of the Road: The World Car Crisis and How We Can Solve It, Wolfgang Zuckermann, 1991

The Elephant in the Bedroom: Automobile Dependence and Denial, Stanley I. Hart, 1993

The Car and the City: 24 Steps to Safe Streets and Healthy Communities, Alan Thein Durning, 1996


Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan Council
Metro Transit Division
560 Sixth Avenue N.
Minneapolis, MN 612-349-7510
www.metrocouncil.org/transit

University of Minnesota – Center for Transportation Studies
200 Transportation and Safety Building
511 Washington Avenue SE
Minneapolis, MN 612-626-1077
www.cts.umn.edu

Gridlock

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