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Traffic as an Economic Indicator

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I recently returned from a trip to Southern California and spent four days commuting between north San Diego County where my sister lives and southwest LA County where my daughter attends college.

Although my friends and relatives in California bemoan a sluggish economy, there is one fact that still rings true: the freeways of SoCal are as busy as ever.

I’ve driven many places in my lifetime, starting out with the transcontinental running away from my home in Colorado at age 18 to the three-week trips with small children in the minivan to Mexico. I have rarely stopped since. Perhaps having a father who got such a kick out of road trips is what engendered the same bug in me. I’ve made so many road trips all over everywhere that getting out a road map or GPS is rather redundant. I have an excellent sense of direction and can find my way around just fine on my own, thank you very much.

Michigan has some of the worst freeway systems in the United States. With only three lanes going north and south on I-75 and sometimes only two lanes going east and west on I-94, potholes in spring, road construction in summer and single lanes carved out of the snow in winter, it’s sometimes faster to use the surface streets to get around.

I’ve driven hundreds of freeways, from the Spaghetti Bowl in downtown St. Paul to the scary speedway that is the New Jersey Turnpike to I-75 through Atlanta during an ice storm. Driving in Southern California is a piece of cake, or at least a smooth piece of asphalt.

First of all, there are plenty of lanes, from four to six to eight, all the way from San Diego through the Valley. One might view traffic with dismay, but if there are a multitude of lanes to choose from, cars tend to move and keep moving. For the environmentally conscious, there is the carpool lane, although sometimes using it is slower than the using the other six.

Most drivers in Southern California are courteous. They know when to use their signals and pull over to the shoulder when they have accidents. The slow cars seem to stay in the slow lanes so more aggressive drivers can get around them.

What is amazing is the sheer number of vehicles careening north or south at any given time. I made the trip at various times of the day and night, on weekdays and weekends and it was crowded… always.

Contrast that to the Detroit area.

At one time (coincidentally, when we lived in a far northern suburb and had to commute to get to work), freeway traffic was always contentious. Back in the day it would take a good hour to get from home to office, and that was if all went well. If there were an accident, construction project, a snowstorm or blinding morning light, the commute could take considerably longer. I was once trapped in the van during a bad storm for three hours trying to make it from school to home, normally a 40-minute ride. With no viable exit, the kids did their homework in the car.

But it’s been different the last couple of years. My husband and I used to complain to each other how short-sighted the state was in constructing a narrow, three-lane freeway when there were so many commuters. There used to be a morning rush hour to Novi, to Ann Arbor, to downtown and one going the other way for the return trip in the afternoon.

Not anymore. In the ensuing years, traffic has thinned out considerably, likely because 100,000 more people have moved away from the state than have moved in. With no snow or construction, I can make it to Ann Arbor in 45 minutes, and that’s doing the speed limit.

Those who complain about traffic should look at the other side. Those drivers likely have jobs. They have money to fill the gas tank. In California, we are talking some serious cash for that. I have no idea what their stories are, but those drivers have somewhere to go, and they are going.

When the economy suffers, the traffic dies.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.