On the phantom traffic jam

Today I was victim of a phantom traffic jam on interstate highway 35. By phantom I mean there were no wrecks, no single lane road construction detours, no weather hazards, no breakdowns, nothing. Nothing, yet south of Salado all three lanes of traffic came to a dead stop. The reason, of course, was the shear volume of traffic, the loss of a lane in Salado, and the narrowing of the final two lanes through an area of construction where some lane shifting occurred. It only takes one driver who slows down just a bit, maybe 2 or 3 miles an hour, which causes a wave to form in the following traffic. This ripple effect, which is characterized by stronger and stronger breaking by cars coming up from behind. The final result of this wave is that the traffic will eventual crawl to halt, and it can’t start up again until the cars that are stopped, start up again and allow a bit of space between themselves and the cars they are following. Overly aggressive driving and random lane changing only aggravate an already horrible situation. I was stuck in about ten miles of stop and go traffic that never got above five miles an hour until it left was just outside of Temple, Texas. After that, there were several slow downs at the traffic passed other construction areas, had to climb hills, cross bridges or navigate curves. All of these obstacles create hazards in the minds of drivers even when the lanes do not narrow and climatic conditions remain the same. Drivers perceive hazards even when there are none which causes them to slow down just ever so slightly, which is how a slow-down wave begins, ending in stopped traffic when the volume of cars is high enough. Traffic on a four-lane highway flows in a similar fashion to an actual fluid, so the backwards wave acts as interference in the flow of traffic, backing traffic up until it stops dead in its tracks. Today, Labor Day, was a bit of a perfect storm with everyone out on the road today, returning home, to school, or back to work on Tuesday. Part of the problem with I35 is that there is no other fast north-south artery between San Antonio and Dallas. The secondary roads are slow, filled with little towns, and plagued by a number of speed traps. If you are traveling north and south through central Texas, you will probably be on I35. Ergo, the volume today was very high, too high for the highway to handle in any serious way. Today’s traffic jam, which had nothing phantom to it at all, was very real and another symptom of an overused route that needs an alternative. The state keeps rebuilding and adding lanes, but today all of that construction was actually a part of why it became so dangerous and slow to all involved. The construction covers miles of highway, and all of it goes forward at a snail’s pace because in Texas you can work all year around–you aren’t trying to beat old Man Winter to the punch. The state of Texas will never be able to build enough highways to carry all of the traffic in central Texas, one of the fastest growing population centers in the entire United States. I don’t see planning, only patching. What barely carries the traffic today will be completely inadequate ten years from now, and phantom traffic jams won’t be a holiday weekend phenomenon, but an every day sort of thing, which means driving in central Texas will be exponentially that much more difficult.