I was driving to Massachusetts yesterday from New Jersey. It’s always a fun trip, and I typically take a longer route across the Tappan Zee Bridge to avoid New York’s traffic. This time I wasn’t in much of a rush, and I hadn’t been across the George Washington Bridge in years, so I figured, why not? New York was scenic as always, which I had ample opportunity to enjoy as I crawled at a snail’s pace across the Hudson and into the Bronx. I always expect New York to have too much traffic – vertical populations, aging infrastructure and limited room for expansion make a surefire recipe for gridlock.
Headed north on Route 15 into Connecticut is a different story. Scenic woods line either side of the narrow roadway. Gently rolling hills and regular turns ensure that drivers are always tapping on their brakes. This action leads to traffic waves, a phenomenon that involves human error compounding between drivers of vehicles which results in each driver progressively tapping their brakes harder until someone slams to a complete halt, forcing everyone behind them to also slam on their brakes. I always expect this type of traffic on such roadways – too many cars, too many turns, and too many hills make a surefire recipe for brake checks.
I was stuck on this road in very slow-moving traffic for about twenty minutes and would find that the cause was a disabled motorist in the right lane. Since there was no shoulder on either side of the road, all northbound vehicles had to merge into the left lane to get around them. Hundreds of people at a standstill for a single disabled car! After passing through the Heroes Tunnel in Connecticut, I saw a disabled motorist in the left lane of southbound travel. Stranded with no shoulder on either side of the road to push the car, and no on-ramp within a reasonable distance, the driver had no choice but to wait for help with bottlenecked traffic all around them.
I always make a point in these situations to watch my odometer and measure how long the backup is. It was over 2 miles. I began running the numbers in my head, how long is the average car? About 12 feet? If we assume, 8 feet are stopping distance between cars, and 2 miles (10,560ft) of 2 lanes of traffic, call it 21,120ft, divided by 20 feet per car. Over a thousand cars stuck in traffic! If we assume that the traffic jam held up the average car for about 15 minutes (I know, I’m an eternal optimist!), then we can state that there was a loss of 15,000 minutes of productivity. Further assuming just one adult per car and if we assign a value of $10 per hour, then over $2,500 was lost in that traffic jam. Okay, admittedly this is rough math but running the numbers keeps me occupied on long drives. Really what I was thinking about was why the heck they don’t have shoulders in Connecticut.
On a roadway with no shoulder, any disabled vehicle or accident becomes an instant traffic jam. The lack of shoulder also means that emergency vehicles and tow-trucks can not quickly reach the scene to remove the obstructions and render aid as necessary. High concrete barriers on either side of the road prevent even the largest vehicles from seeking an unorthodox workaround. When a road is at capacity, it has no room to deal with such issues. But anyone driving down Rt.15 can vouch for the fact that such events are hardly unexpected. So why don’t they plan for them? Why do they allow vehicles to occupy 100% of the pavement when they know that it will create problems and that the problems will be harder to fix due to lack of excess capacity?
I remember the first time that I had read about structuring work with a focus on maintaining a sustainable pace. To be honest, I thought it was silly. Sustainability! Who cares about that? In a forty-hour work week, you should only be working for 32 hours. If you are true, gainfully employed for all forty hours, then you need an assistant. How could a pace of 100% be sustainable for the long-term? This is no different than having 1,000 cars on a two lane highway with no shoulder. The likelihood of at least one car overheating, breaking down or getting into an accident, and obstructing traffic is not in your favor.
When we work at 100% capacity, any overage will result in working through lunch, staying late, working from home or missing weekends. When this happens once, it’s not a big deal. When this happens regularly, it becomes problematic. There is something inherently wrong with an organization that cannot manage its resources to prevent such issues. The easiest solution is to actively encourage people to slack off at the 80% mark. Support social media use, a longer lunch or maybe an hour to exercise in the middle of the day. If we do this and a work-related emergency occurs, they only lose their FaceBook time for the day rather than missing dinner with their families.