On November 8, the American Automobile Association (AAA) published a news release entitled AAA: More than 54 Million Americans to Travel this Thanksgiving, the Most Since 2005.
The article goes on to state that of those 54.3 million planning to travel, 48.5 million would do so by automobile. I was one of those 48.5 million this Thanksgiving, traveling from Virginia to New York to be with family. And while the drive up was relatively smooth, the ride back offered up some traffic jams.
As I headed south on I-81 near Winchester, the map was showing pockets of “red” in the direction I was headed. So I did the logical thing and exited onto Route 11, which parallels 81, as an alternate to bypass the traffic. Many other drivers had the same idea. My detour worked out well, until I reached one of the smaller towns north of Harrisonburg through which Route 11 passes. Vehicles stopped at a traffic light were queuing back at least two miles, and traffic was moving perhaps five or six car lengths each minute. I subsequently joined many other drivers who turned around, and followed them through gravel-and-mud surfaced farm roads to bypass the jam. After enduring stop-and-go traffic on I-81 for a short while thereafter, the road eventually opened up and I arrived home with little further delay.
This experience was profound, in that it demonstrates – in dramatic fashion – what happens when a transportation system with finite capacity becomes overwhelmed with traffic all at once. I endured a similar experience about two weeks ago when I left Nashville at the height of rush hour, following a conference I attended, after which traffic moved at a snail’s pace.
These experiences reminded me of the value of Transportation Demand Management (TDM). Had I chosen to take an extra vacation day and get home Monday instead of Sunday after Thanksgiving, not only would I have avoided these stressful traffic jams, but there would have been one fewer automobile on the road for other drivers to contend with at the height of the post-Thanksgiving travel period. Similarly, when employers implement flexible work schedules (or even telecommuting options), employees have the option of getting into work at, say, 8 a.m. or 10 a.m., rather than everyone competing over the same asphalt to get into work at 8:30 or 9. Furthermore, carpooling can let us rest or be productive in other ways (catch up on work prior to getting into the office, for instance) while someone else drives. While Thanksgiving traffic and rush hour traffic could be considered apples and oranges, Thanksgiving traffic is akin to what many commuters contend with each workday in their respective metro areas.