Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A car nightmare become real

Remember in the movie Independance Day when the aliens are attacking New York City? There's a scene with a zillion people in cars trying to evacuate NYC, but they're stuck in a traffic jam as the aliens turn on their death ray.

I've been thinking about that scene a lot. The "car" is a wonderful thing in many ways, offering great freedom and fluid travel anywhere you want to go. That is, until the traffic is tight or until the world runs out of gas.

How Rita drove Texas crazy Exhausted drivers are returning to their homes with horror stories of the gridlock -- and ideas on how to prevent the highway from becoming hell next time. (By Katharine Mieszkowski, Sept. 27, 2005, salon.com)

This story comes from Texans who escaped the recent hurricane Rita. It was a massive hurricane, closely following Katrina which basically destroyed New Orleans. Therefore the officials in Texas were quick to evacuate their citizens, and the people were understandably anxious about being caught by a city-destroying hurricane. And, evacuate they did, displacing some 3 million people.

The story they tell is of traffic jams beyond belief. Trips that normally take 3-4 hours took 22 hours or more. Cars driving, on the highway, so slowly the kids could get out and walk the dogs. People desparate to find gasoline, but none to be found anywhere. All this happening in the context of a hurricane striking the mainland.

I live in Silicon Valley and while we don't have massive storms, we do have earthquakes. You might have heard of them. And I don't mean the soccer team, but real honest to goodness earth shaking events. Fortunately while they're few and far between, the famous San Andreas fault is less than 10 miles from my house.

Here's how this plays in my mind. Say we have a massive earthquake that really hampers delivery of supplies, and the government wants us to leave the area. Our escape route is hopelessly inadequate.

The geography of the SF Bay Area is that we're surrounded by mountain ranges. To the west is the Peninsula, with a mountain range down its spine. To the east is at least two mountain ranges. To the south these mountain ranges meet somewhere around Gilroy. To the north is the bay, and beyond that another mountain range.

Through each of the mountain ranges there are a small number of passes. The Sunol pass leading from the bay area to a small valley where Pleasanton and Livermore are located. Beyond that valley is the Altamont Pass leading to the Central Valley. Further north is the river leading between Sacramento and the SF Bay. To the south is a pass leading south from Gilroy, and another leading east into the Central Valley. Four passes, with a total of around 15 lanes of traffic heading out of the SF Bay Area.

15 traffic lanes to handle the exodus of 2+ million people is a scary thought.

But as we can see from the experience in Texas, it doesn't even matter when the land is flat for as far as you can see.

What I've thought for years is that we are victims to the success of cars. We are fooled by the glitz cars offer, the convenience and luxury that is. Fooled by the luxury, we are instead trapped in clogged roads, the air slowly poisining all of us because of the nasty carcinogenic chemicals in car exhaust.

It's not just times of emergency like this story from Texas. It happens to us every day of the week.


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