If roads are gridlocked in rush hour, what happens when disaster strikes?

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If roads are gridlocked in rush hour, what happens when disaster strikes?
© Johnny Hanson / AP
If roads are gridlocked in rush hour, what happens when disaster strikes?
© Johnny Hanson / AP

Major roads which get snarled in rush hour or after a few inches of snow could be potentially deadly in the event of a terrorist attack or superstorm. So what should a more resilient transport system look like?

I was late for an appointment, sitting in traffic on one of the major arteries out of Washington DC. It was miserable, barely moving traffic of the kind that makes you whimper with frustration as yet another green light turns yellow, then red, as you inch along.

Then I happened to notice a roadside sign that read: “Evacuation Route.” And I tried to imagine fleeing from a major crisis – a terrorist attack, say, or climate-change enhanced superstorm – on a road that can’t even handle the daily evacuation called “rush” hour.

Here in DC, we claim the worst traffic in the US. Non-apocalyptic events, such as the lighting of the National Christmas Tree or a couple of inches of snow, routinely induce gridlock. An ice storm or rare earthquake can mean commuters spending the night in their cars.

Washington may be an extreme case, but it is not alone. In many American cities, transportation systems are dysfunctional on a good day, much less in a crisis. In a world that is increasingly prone to extreme weather and other disruptions, our transportation systems may fail us when we need them most.

That’s what happened when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005. Millions fled by car before the storm, creating monumental traffic and fuel shortages. But a quarter of New Orleans’s residents, including many of the poorest and most vulnerable, did not have access to cars. More than 100,000 people were left in the city when the levees broke, creating a humanitarian disaster that took nearly 2,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. […]

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