Don’t worry about traffic since there’s no solution
September 21, 2007
What if there is no solution to the traffic problem in Aspen? I’m serious. What if automobile overcrowding in Aspen right now is as good as it gets?
A few years back, when the traffic was starting to get bad, I had an awful feeling that there was a possibility that this was the case then. Now that the traffic is horrible, I look back at those days, and they seem pretty good by comparison. The possible has become probable. I don’t think we will ever do any better than today unless an economic catastrophe occurs and we end up having another period of quiet years, like we all wish for.
Enjoy the (slow) ride. These are the good ol’ days.
I remember a story in The Aspen Times around 15 years ago about an expert predicting that within 20 years Highway 82 between Aspen and Glenwood Springs would sprout enough traffic lights to begin resembling the perpetually changing forest of green, yellow, and red illumination on Colfax Avenue in Denver. Man, we had a good laugh over that one. He predicted that commute times would increase no matter how many lanes we added because of all the stop-and-go. Now, with 14 fully grown colored light stacks in place, two on order, and many more in the works, I’m crying all the way westward to Wal-Mart. Even the reverse commute is becoming a walk in the park, or so it seems at the average speed one can maintain anymore.
Thinking too much about it makes me claustrophobic. Soon it may be too much of a pain in the sleeping glutes to navigate all of the stoplights blocking our way out of the valley.
At some point we have to face the reality. We’ve grappled with this issue for more than 30 years! Aspen has only been the Aspen we know for a little over 50. In debates raging for more than half of our modern existence, we have not been able to come up with a solution. Traffic has only gotten worse.
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Take an inventory of some of the things we have tried so far to alleviate traffic congestion: We’ve developed gobs of affordable housing near town to get workers off the road ” traffic continues to get jammed. We built an intercept lot at the airport with frequent and free bus shuttles into town ” no go. We funded a far-reaching public bus system ” yawn. We widened the highway to four lanes all the way from Glenwood to Buttermilk ” nothing but a shattered dream. We constructed a roundabout at the busy Castle and Maroon Creek roads intersection ” not a factor. We expanded the paid parking program not once, not twice, but three times, so far ” duds each time. We block off side streets and paint “HOV” all over the asphalt ” ha! Gas is $4 per gallon ” so what?
Now, we argue about bringing a multi-lane straight-shot right into downtown. A growing contingency is gathering steam for a commuter train. Another expansion of paid parking in town is in the works. Some believe in reconfiguring the Cemetery Lane intersection. Every single one of these plans has detractors.
And you know what? They are probably right. I mean it. It is time to consider that the naysayers, all of them (i.e., all of us) might be correct! The reason that nothing meaningful has been done about our traffic problem in the past four decades might just be that there is nothing meaningful that can be done!
Think about this: There is apparently no solution to traffic congestion in New York City. They are out of ideas in Los Angeles. Most everything that can be done has been done in Boston. San Francisco has one of the most comprehensive mass transit systems I’ve ever seen, yet gridlock there is more common than the fog. Yes, all these places have far more people than does the Roaring Fork Valley. But, they also have a lot more roads. We only have one ” and a half, if you count McLain Flats.
I’ve come to the conclusion that traffic volume is not influenced by disincentives or incentives. Dangle a carrot from one or hit with a stick, either way we’re just sticking it. The sole determining factor for the depth of internally combusted back-ups is our threshold for pain in the driver’s seat, which we have demonstrated is incredibly high. Traffic will always be as bad as we are willing to put up with.
Visualization helps. I picture a giant pool of automobile commuters. The level of the pool rises until it fills to the top and then a small portion begins to overflow into alternative modes of commuting, working at home or saying to hell with it all and filing for welfare. But, guess what? The overflow is immediately replaced by those who still feel the camel can carry one more straw. Once filled to the threshold, the level never recedes. Never! Drip, drip, drip ” it’s like water torture.
A current study found that the typical American worker’s commute is about 22 minutes each way. My own from Snowmass Village is more than that. A good number of Aspen’s employees’ are much greater than mine. On average, our commutes are worse than average!
I am not an expert in this, I am only an observer; the difference being that nobody has paid me to watch helplessly as local traffic volume has grown unabated for all of my life. Also, since I’m not on anyone’s dime, I’m spared from having to give any suggestions for improvement. It’s a good thing, because there aren’t any.
About now, I imagine the environmentalist crowd is whooping it up anticipating that I’m going to end this column by excoriating all the stupid SUV gas hogs for being blind to their evil driving ways and causing all of our problems. Meanwhile, the go-to-hell-with-the-do-gooders crowd is ready for me to say “F” the worthless trains, buses and carpool parking because none of them do any damn good anyway.
I am going to disappoint everyone. The truth is that, given our fiscal and physical limitations, we probably have to accept congestion for what it is and focus our aggressions on other issues. Make yourselves comfortable. We’re going to be here a while.
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