People here in Austin are constantly whining about how bad traffic is, and I have to admit that I sympathize with those who commute north or south on I-35 and have to put up with an hour or more of delays during rush hour. However, after my recent vacation I have to say that I take their complaints a lot less seriously, because I’ve been to the Mecca of all traffic and lived to tell about it.
As part of our recent trip to the East Coast we decided to spend several days in New York City. It turned out to be cheaper to take our rental car into the city and park it for our stay than to pay to bring everyone in and back out to the airport in Manchester, NH by train, so we ended up driving into the city despite its reputation for bad traffic.
To do this we followed the directions of my New Yorker sister and her significant other, who we figured ought to be well informed, though we really didn’t take into consideration that as New Yorkers they generally don’t actually drive anywhere. My last personal experience of driving in New York City was over 25 years ago, and back then getting into Manhattan wasn’t the problem, it was the traffic jams on the streets themselves, so I was by no means prepared for what we encountered.
As we approached the city from the north, all the signs were telling us to exit and take Rt. 278 through Queens to get to midtown Manhattan – in fact they offered us 3 opportunities to take it. I was tempted to go with what the signs suggested, but our ‘expert’ advisers had told us to take the Cross Bronx Expressway (btw, don’t believe any of the nice things they say about this road on the website) and from there turn left into Manhattan from above.
The problem with this ironically named ‘expressway’ is that there are few exits and what exits there are take you into some of the worst neighborhoods in the city, where no one in their right mind wants to drive around looking for an alternative route or a gas station or a bathroom.
I should have realized immediately this was the wrong route to take, because of a vital indicator which seemed like nothing but a curiosity at the time, but which from now on I will always recognize. You see, as we were driving the early part of the CBE, we began to see bottles of refreshing Aquafina and Poland Springs and Dasani and other popular brands of water lying by the side of the road filled with a suspicious liquid of different shades of yellow and gold. What I now know is that when there are multiple water bottles full of urine lying on the side of a road – thrown there from car windows – this is NOT the road you want to take if you need to get anywhere in a hurry.
The full urine bottles mean that traffic on that road is so slow that peoples bladders fill to the point of bursting before they can get to an exit where they feel safe enough to leave the highway and look for a bathroom. That’s a very scary thought. The CBE is only about 9 miles long and it takes about 3 hours for a bottle of water to transfer itself to the typical bladder and cause discomfort. That means that the average speed on the Cross Bronx Expressway is about 1 mile every 20 minutes, except that I started seeing urine bottles after about 3 miles, which suggests a speed closer to 1 mile per hour. From my experience I can confirm that speed estimate. I certainly could have walked the 9 miles faster than we made the trip in our car. Probably much faster since I don’t think I’d go through that part of the Bronx at anything less than a fast jog.
One of the reasons why traffic is so awful on the CBE is directly associated with the urine bottle phenomenon. As people stuck on the road are filling up with urine their cars are running out of gas, and there are no obvious sources for more gas at any of the exits. So a major contributing factor to the traffic jams on the CBE is cars which run out of gas while they’re stuck in traffic. On our trip we saw at least three. Since the road is elevated there are no shoulders for them to pull off into, and emergency vehicles and tow trucks can’t get to them because there are no shoulders and traffic is so solid they can’t get through.
Once we got off the CBE the intown traffic was actually much better than I remembered, because by now most people know better than to drive in the city – which was apparently a secret 25 years ago. Of course, on the way out there was no question of what route we would take. We found Rt. 278, drove quickly through scenic Queens and covered the same distance we’d done in over 3 hours on the CBE in about half an hour at a cost of less than $5 in tolls.
Heed my words of experience. Unless you want to be like me and spend three hours in traffic with no urine bottle and a full bladder, when you start to see the yellow-filled bottles piling up on the roadside, take the alternate route and consider yourself lucky you were forewarned.