In Australia there have been traffic jams up to 28 kilometres long. In New Zealand the end of the holiday period is likely to create “traffic hell“. Meanwhile, those of us who have stayed at home, have found the roads to be eerily empty.
Why do people rush away at Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere? Of course, it is our summer, and getting away from home for a few days is always attractive, but it is evident that if thousands of people try to travel the same roads at the same time there will be congestion.
I call those who join the exodus and arrival progressions lemmings. This is of course unfair to both the furry creatures and to the humans. Lemmings don’t really commit mass suicide, and the humans, in many cases, don’t have a lot of choice of travel time.
In the Garfield cartoon, Garfield meets a mouse who is half lemming. Garfield asks the mouse what a lemming is. The mouse replies “A gerbil with suicidal tendencies”. (This cartoon may be online, but I’ve been unable to find it. The Garfield strip for my birthday is quite funny, though.)
In our bigger cities, there will always be traffic problems, because of the sheer number of people that need access to the CBDs and who have to come, in the main from dormitory suburbs. If the roads were sufficient to carry all the traffic it is likely that there would be little room for the CBD itself.
The land of the automobile, the USA, has probably reached the best compromise between the needs of the car and the needs of those who live and work in the centres of cities. Special roads carry cars from the outskirts to the centres of the cities where special buildings have been built to house the cars during the day while the owners are working and shopping. Other special roads take traffic past the city centres and on to other cities. Other countries have copied or extended this model.
Humans often don’t have much choice of when they travel, given that they have to work and working days around holidays are pretty much fixed. Some places even shut down on certain days to avoid having to staff offices when few people will be around.
In the Southern Hemisphere Christmas falls in summer, so the natural desire is to go away from home at this time of the year, on a holiday or, as they say in the USA, on a vacation. So it is unfair, really, to call them lemmings. They don’t have a lot of choice.
The lemmings are unfairly tagged with the appellation of suicidal maniacs. The story goes that periodically the lemmings migrate usually as the result of population pressures. Geographical features have changed over the millennia and consequently the lemmings fall over cliffs (which didn’t feature in the ancestral environment) or drown in rivers and fjords which have widened since their ancestors swam them.
These theories were used to “explain” why numbers of lemmings are found dead at some times and dead lemmings are rare at other times. The Wikipedia article on the animals has some interesting theories on issue, such as the spontaneous generation of the animals in mid air resulting in their demise on hitting the ground.
While we may laugh at these theories, we must remember that in 1530s science was nowhere nearly as sophisticated as today. In 500 years time, it may be that our scientific knowledge may look just as silly.
I believe that people don’t have to all travel at the same time. Sure the dates are constrained and working requirements also constrain the dates that people can travel, but usually there is some leeway. People could travel a day earlier or a day later. Most employers are more than happy to accommodate such slight variations. If it is impossible for an employee to vary travel dates then a change of travel times would do the trick.
Frequently the call is for the roads to be widened or, as the euphemism has it, improved. This solution may well work in a country like the USA which has a large population which is concentrated in cities with little population in between, but is problematic in smaller countries. In New Zealand, not only are the main centres much smaller, but the population is a lot more dispersed than in the USA.
When these factors are considered, it may not make sense to continue to continue to build wider highways in smaller countries. A six lane highway that may be heavily used four times a year doesn’t make economic sense. A four lane highway that is heavily used much of the time does make sense.
I frequently hear people call for “improvement” of roads that I regularly travel with few hold ups and issues. This is because I travel at times which are called “off peak”. People travel to work at the same times every day, and consequently you can travel easily in the opposite direction to the majority and wonder if they could not slightly change their schedules to avoid the hold ups, and indeed some people do do so.
Some people travel in to work very early (and leave early too, of course). Some people “work from home”. This latter can be a euphemism for goofing off of course, but most people who work from home treat this option seriously and with the state that the art of technology has reached, people can usefully contribute from home.
There is an example of the pitfalls of merely “improving” roads near where I live. When I came to this city I recall sitting in traffic on a four lane (two each way) highway into the centre of the city. Subsequently a motorway was built into the city and the four lane highway is relatively lightly used. (The road I refer to is on the left of this picture).
Obviously in this case the motorway was not considered at the time that the four lane highway was built, but it does demonstrate that often the most obvious solution can often be less than efficient over the longer term.