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Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

By , an affiliated research fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po.
In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.
In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.
In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm on Jan. 4. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When weather conditions and accidents locked motorists into a traffic jam on Interstate 95 in Virginia for more than 24 hours, most of the reactions claimed shock and surprise. The Virginia Department of Transportation called it “unprecedented.” But that statement ignores the many examples of dangerously long traffic jams that have happened globally, nationally, and even in Virginia not so very long ago. An event that’s an annoyance when it takes a few hours to clear can become a genuine disaster when it’s scaled up.

While that stretch of I-95 in northern Virginia might be particularly bad, the crisis, which left people stranded in cars in freezing temperatures with no access to food or water, is emblematic of the disasters that the United States is facing in increasing numbers—and with almost uniformly poor preparedness.

Sometimes, as on I-95, the danger starts on the road. But when disaster strikes a city, the roads can also worsen it. The difficulty of evacuating a city through the long bottlenecks of highways has been a concern for disaster experts for years. Contraflow arrangements, in which both sides of the highway move in the same direction away from the city, can help, but even a successful evacuation can take hours and expose people to dehydration—and that’s assuming that nobody runs out of gas or gets in an accident.

When weather conditions and accidents locked motorists into a traffic jam on Interstate 95 in Virginia for more than 24 hours, most of the reactions claimed shock and surprise. The Virginia Department of Transportation called it “unprecedented.” But that statement ignores the many examples of dangerously long traffic jams that have happened globally, nationally, and even in Virginia not so very long ago. An event that’s an annoyance when it takes a few hours to clear can become a genuine disaster when it’s scaled up.

While that stretch of I-95 in northern Virginia might be particularly bad, the crisis, which left people stranded in cars in freezing temperatures with no access to food or water, is emblematic of the disasters that the United States is facing in increasing numbers—and with almost uniformly poor preparedness.

Sometimes, as on I-95, the danger starts on the road. But when disaster strikes a city, the roads can also worsen it. The difficulty of evacuating a city through the long bottlenecks of highways has been a concern for disaster experts for years. Contraflow arrangements, in which both sides of the highway move in the same direction away from the city, can help, but even a successful evacuation can take hours and expose people to dehydration—and that’s assuming that nobody runs out of gas or gets in an accident.

The dependence of many U.S. cities on cars makes the situation worse. Cities without linkages to long-haul public transportation infrastructure have few planning options for getting their citizens out in case of danger or disruption; at the same time, cities without useful local public transportation essentially force their citizens to use cars, further crowding the roads in case of emergency. And places where most people are reliant on cars are less likely to consider or invest in options for people who choose not to or cannot drive, leaving them with no way out, as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Aside from their weaknesses as evacuation conduits, highways are dangerous in their own right. Road accidents are a persistently high cause of fatalities in the United States. And, as the traffic jam in Virginia shows, highways are not only bottlenecks but traps. With the right circumstances—an accident, a stopped tractor trailer, the wrong kind of weather—motor vehicles can move neither forward nor back, leaving people stuck unless they abandon the limited shelter their cars offer. Worse, most emergency response is also based on motor vehicles. Stretches of highway may become largely inaccessible to ambulances or buses for evacuation, making assistance that much more difficult. Families on I-95 were already hungry, cold, and sick by the time the jam was cleared.

It’s not insurmountable, of course. Authorities could airdrop food and water from a helicopter or use motorcycles—or, in warmer weather, bicycles—to go car to car identifying urgent needs and vulnerable people. But this didn’t happen on I-95: The focus was all on making the highway functional again, rather than dealing with the needs of the people who were stuck. In part, this is because of the assumption that highways work and any change in that is an aberration.

The U.S. highway network, like so many of the things that the public depends on without thinking too much about them, is a complex system of interdependent components, overseen and maintained by a patchwork of different agencies. A lot of systems in the United States are in even worse condition than the highways because they’ve been pared down to increase profits: think of the U.S. health care system, strained under normal circumstances and with no excess capacity for a crisis.

But even without that kind of capitalistic self-sabotage, these systems can’t be assumed to work flawlessly forever—or even often. In his 1984 book of the same title, Charles Perrow coined the term “normal accidents” to signal that “given the system characteristics, multiple and unexpected interactions of failures are inevitable.” In other words, in a system as vast and complicated as the U.S. highway system, mishaps will occur, and with the number of interacting parts in that system, some of those mishaps are likely to cascade into knotty crises that are disproportionately difficult to defuse. Meanwhile, with climate change speeding ahead, growing weather volatility and the increasing number of disasters such as forest fires throw more chances for accidents into the system.

Highways long symbolized individual freedom and the ability to drive, at speed, anywhere. But that’s a marketing deception: Highways only let you go where the paving is, and they only let you get there fast if the roads are clear. Under more common conditions, that so-called individual freedom turns into inefficiency, with each person taking disproportionate space and using disproportionate resources. Cars may offer privacy, but they are also isolating, which is the last thing you want to happen in a crisis, when social links can be vital for everything from early warning to psychological well-being.

In the face of an increasingly disaster-prone world and aging infrastructure, the United States—and other highway-dependent countries—needs to start taking a more proactive approach: rethinking transportation options, designing for the most vulnerable, making disaster response human-centered instead of asset-centered, and thinking and acting as communities instead of individuals. Otherwise, we might all find ourselves stuck on a freezing highway together, sitting in our cars alone.

Malka Older is an affiliated research fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po. She is the author of an acclaimed trilogy of science fiction political thrillers, beginning with Infomocracy, and a new collection of of short fiction and poetry, ...and Other Disasters.

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