“Stuck” by Keith Gessen first appeared in The New Yorker. In this article he wrote about Moscow’s traffic gridlock. He says, “…the movement of cars through the circular maze of Moscow was incredibly frustrating” before he tells about a collision involving a Mercedes and a Citroën that resulted in a scandal. His story reminded me of an old blog of mine from 2011, “Riga’s Auto Museum”, in which I told about Leonid Brezhnev’s involvement in a Rolls-Royce totaling accident that embarrassed both the Kremlin and the car manufacturer. At the time Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Soviet Union.
This incident occurred before Moscow gained a 21st century reputation for insane traffic. Keith Gessen tells about when he first became aware of Russian gridlock. He recalls witnessing Moscow’s 12 to 18 lane Garden Ring Road completely clogged with stopped traffic. In the cars were Russian citizens who had moved to Moscow to escape poverty and find jobs. All of them soon wanted cars like those who live in Beijing, Bangkok, London, etc.–all those cities known for constant auto congestion.
The east and west coasts of the United States are known for traffic tie-ups that now defy time of day. Rush hour in Seattle, Boston, Washington DC, etc. is not just a 7 to 9 am and 4 to 6 pm weekday proposition anymore. One can easily sit in traffic at 10 pm and 6 am now. Visiting the Midwest and non-coastal West today is made more pleasurable because of one’s relative freedom of movement, as long as Chicago is avoided. I’ve heard that it has gotten so bad on LA’s freeways that the wealthy are investing in $500,000+ motor homes that they can go into for work and pleasure when caught in traffic that can immobilize them for hours. The last time I was in LA, I spent more time inching forward in our rental than at attractions.
Keith Gessen writes about a traffic engineer from Japan who was brought to Moscow to see if he could help with gridlock. This expert said that there are 3 main factors that cause urban traffic congestion: driver behavior that compels people to enter situations knowing they will get stuck, the flawed organization of roads, and, in Moscow’s case, a feudal structure that allows the elite, like Russian General Secretaries, to alter the traffic system to favor their movements. I live a few miles from a lift bridge over the Columbia River on Interstate 5. Boat traffic can close this critical bridge any time of the day. In the past few years Ruth & I have gotten into and out of taxis in Mexico City, Sydney, and Istanbul because it was faster to walk than ride.
And the sad fact is that this kind of urban gridlock will get worse before it gets better. Self-driving cars may help.