Global Gridlock: Traffic, Opportunity, Public Health, Weeds and A Road Not (Yet) Taken…

If cars and trucks could reproduce, they would surely rank as the planet’s dominant species. From the tiniest Tata Nano to the most massive of monster mega-trucks, guesstimates for the the global fleet now approach, if not exceed, one billion. By mass and weight, humans were left in the CO2-laced dust a long time ago. Nothing in the history of history, short of an asteroid, has ever had such a speedy and profound global impact. It is a car & truck world. And we have to live with it.

Or at least try to make the best of it.

Jakarta, from "The world’s 20 cities with the worst traffic jams"

Jakarta, from "The world’s 20 cities with the worst traffic jams"

  • In Jakarta, where “total traffic” (all rush hour, all the time) is expected by 2011, some have found a bit of gold in the gridlock. Passengers-for-higher called “jockeys” hustle for pick ups from drivers needing to fill seats to qualify for slightly speedier high occupancy lanes.
  • In Cairo, the Egyptian Horatia Alger is Nasser Sedky, a budding valet parking tycoon who had some business cards printed up for $10 and now runs a mini-empire of 50 professional parkers.


Making the most of a bad situation still leaves a bad situation. According to the United Nations Road Safety Collaboration, more people die each year from traffic accidents (~1.2 million) than from malaria (~1 million). Millions more are injured and maimed, which is several orders of magnitude more than are killed and wounded by land mines. Not surprisingly, most the carnage is in the developing world where vehicles tend to be older, roads worse and health care systems beyond overburdened. 85% of the deaths are in low and middle-income countries, leaving a trail of wrecked lives and nicked GNPs (estimate: 1% to 1.5% of gross national product). Young people are particularly at risk, with traffic injuries listed as one of the leading causes of death for between the ages 5 to 25 years-old.

In short, traffic isn’t just inconvenient, but a full-out, top-tier global public health disaster. If nothing is done, the numbers are expected to double by 2030. Does the World Health Organization have a scale for that?

George Robertson, chair of the U.K.-based Commission for Global Road Safety (CGRS), points out the irony of spending millions in development aid while ignoring things as basic, if mundane, as building better roads and investing in traffic signs:

Our overseas aid is devoted to improving life chances for education, for health. Dangerous roads damage this effort, killing the young and productive, disrupting commerce and trade. They impose a high burden on under-funded health services. They make the daily journey to school a high-speed life or death lottery for millions of children. Worse, many of these dangerous roads are being built with our taxes. Roads are being funded by our governments’ international development agencies, the World Bank and EU with one objective; to speed traffic and increase trade flows, but without sufficient attention to road safety safeguards or the needs and views of local communities.

“The killer we know too well: roads” / The Guardian

A new report by CGRS, “Making Roads Safe,” proposes a UN-sponsored “Decade of Action for Road Safety” to start in 2010, with the goal cutting the death rate by half. The cost – $300 million to save 5 million lives – is positioned as a bargain. By comparison, the annual cost of traffic deaths and injuries is tallied at $100 billion, “equivalent to all overseas aid from OECD countries.”


But roads are only part of the problem. To the extent they contribute to the urban heat island effect, they are a problem all by themselves. Dark hard surfaces soak up heat, making cities several degrees warmer than surrounding areas. This local warming, seasoned with CO2 from the city’s million-plus tail pipes, has given scientists a way to see into the future.

In 2002, Lewis Ziska, a scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, planted three plots of weeds: one on a farm, one in the suburbs and one near Baltimore’s inner harbor. Not only was the temperature at the Baltimore plot 3 to 4 degrees warmer, but CO2 levels averaged 450 parts-per-million – roughly the middle-case scenario projected for the planet as a whole in 30 to 50 years. The city weeds dwarfed their suburban and country cousins, producing more allergy-inducing pollen in the process.

As much as the weeds may have reveled in the smoggy muck, it hasn’t been all that good for us. Air pollution from cars and trucks has been linked to childhood asthma and other respiratory illnesses.


Two words: Drive less. Even an electric car requires urban-warming roads, so it is not just a question of trading up to a cleaner power source, but of rethinking the entire transportation equation. A billion cars and trucks, and the massive infrastructure that supports them, are not (short of an asteroid) going to disappear overnight. We have built our world and designed our cities based on their existence.

But what if we didn’t have to drive so much? Could we begin to chip away at some of the 12,000 pounds of CO2 each car adds to the atmosphere each year? (U.S. figures) Are there ways to better mix and match transportation options?

  • More and bigger garages near commuter train stations can make it easier for drivers to split commutes, dramatically reducing the number miles spent in stalled traffic. For extra green points, build garages using  CO2-negative cement and landscape with green roofs that help keep cities cooler.

No matter how we wriggle out of global gridlock, benefits will be dramatic and immediate. Fewer traffic deaths. Healthier air. Improved prospects on the climate change front. Insti-savings from reduced fuel bills. Quieter, cleaner, cooler cities. Not being stuck in “total traffic.” Blue skies (an unexpected bonus for Mexico City during the recent swine flu shut-down). Now wouldn’t that be something?


“Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us” by Tom Vanderbilt (book website)

NPR Science Friday and Fresh Air interviews with Tom Vanderbilt (audio)

“Transportation Futuristics” (web exhibition)

“The Lincoln Park Pirates” by Steve Goodman (for all the Chicagoans / ex-pat Chicagoans out there….)

"Invisible Car" by Artist Sara Watson

"Invisible Car" by Artist Sara Watson

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