Volume XI, Issue 37 ~ September 11-17, 2003

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Carr-Tunes ~ by Steve Carr

We’re Driving Ourselves Crazy

If I had to pick the one single thing that has most affected Chesapeake Bay in modern times, I’d choose the automobile.

Chesapeake Bay has carved a world of peninsulas, fingers of land that jut out into the water and provide countless inhabitants with their own little Bayside vistas. Human life around the Bay has always tended to congregate along the edges of these narrow points of land, better to have direct and easy access to the water from which so much of our livelihoods and pleasure have been derived. For the first few hundred years that was fine, because pretty much everyone got around by boat.

It wasn’t until the automobile burst upon the scene that we started to get ourselves into trouble. In the old days, it didn’t matter that your neighbor was on the other side of the creek or on the next spit of land over. If you wanted to visit, you just hopped in the old boat and were there in a few short minutes. But as the boat became a recreational luxury and the car moved to the forefront, distance began to change. Suddenly, that visit to the neighbor’s house across the creek involved a drive on a narrow dirt path out to the main road that led to the headwaters of the creek and then a tedious drive down the other side of the peninsula. What once had taken minutes now took much longer. Is it any wonder that we began to drift away from our neighbors?

Today’s roads follow the same country lanes originally laid down by the first settlers traveling by horse and wagon. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but most roads near the Bay are just wider, paved versions of the originals. Our ancestors might marvel at our multi-lane network of roads that crisscross the Chesapeake, but most of the time they would have a pretty good idea where they were going. Shady Side Road is still the way to get to the Shady Side peninsula. One way in, one way out. Our options are quite limited.

The automobile has made our lives immeasurably easier, but it has also turned us into its slaves. We are so inextricably tied to our cars that it would not be an exaggeration to say we can no longer live without them. We depend upon the car for everything we do. It literally puts the food on our tables. Without the car, we would be lost.

And that’s why it’s so ironic that the biggest problem facing us today is traffic congestion. Ask anyone around these parts what they hate the most about their lives and they will probably say sitting in traffic. Every land-use issue now boils down to traffic. Want to build something? What about the traffic?

As so often is the case, the enemy is us. We have fled the towns, chewed up the open space faster than God can create it and built our homes as close to the Bay as we possibly can without geting washed away in the next storm. And what happens? One road in, one road out. We can widen these old country lanes, but our sprawling land-use patterns have created a situation that never can be adequately fixed.

I’m not going to get into a rant about how land use and infrastructure must go hand in hand; suffice it to say that it’s a matter of 10 pounds in a five-pound sack. And we can’t make a bigger sack. All the necks, from the Northern Neck to Middle Neck, are too narrow to take any more roads. It’s really that simple.

We all hunger for the quick fix, but there isn’t any. We aren’t going to give up our sacred cars or move back into the city or stop having children. Most folks aren’t going to take the bus or switch jobs so they can work closer to home.

We are going to go to public meetings and tell anyone who will listen that we don’t want to see any more growth and development. We are going to continue bemoaning the fact that the State Highway Administration can’t seem to build us bigger and better roads to deliver us from gridlock. And, of course, we’ll demand more busses and trains that none of us will ever actually ride.

Eventually, we will tire of the struggle and either change our ways or simply get used to the problem. Technology may provide us with some interesting diversions, like smart cars that drive themselves so we can be more productive while sitting in traffic. Telecommuting holds another glimmer of hope. And we can always plan our lives a little better so we make fewer trips hither and yon, or at least time them so we aren’t on the roads during rush hour. We may even get on one of those busses or trains before it’s all over.

Because the simple fact is that traffic congestion is not going to go away. It’s going to get worse — much worse. Count on it. There are no magic bullets.

I will end with a little story. One Saturday a few months back, I needed to do some last-minute banking in Annapolis. I knew the traffic would be horrendous because of Naval Academy graduation. So I hopped on my trusty bicycle and headed into town. Traffic was bumper to bumper as I climbed the new Severn River Bridge. Nearing Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, traffic came to a screeching halt. Feeling clever, I wove through the stalled traffic, using the sidewalk when the road became too clogged.

But when I pulled into the bank, I was met by a long line of fuming motorists waiting to get up to the drive-in window that was about to close. I joined the line and waited patiently as we inched along. As I stood there on my bike, breathing car exhaust and feeling a bit foolish as the lone cyclist in a long line of cars, I noticed the license plate on the car in front of me. It was one of those Chesapeake Bay commemorative plates featuring the dancing blue heron. The words on the bottom of the plate suddenly caught my eye. Treasure the Bay is what it said. I guess I never noticed that motto before. In the context of my position near the back of the bank line, it made me chuckle.

And so, the next time you’re stuck in traffic somewhere, remember that little phrase. Treasure the Bay. It may not get you where you’re going any faster, but it just might help you better realize why you put up with all the traffic just to live here near Chesapeake Bay.



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Last updated September 11, 2003 @ 1:42am