Traffic Report

You name your mess, and Bruce MacLeod has seen it. He's spent 23 years flying this circuit, hovering above the crystalline blue swimming pools of suburbia and the yawning green void of Fenway Park and the rooftop gardens of the Back Bay, where nude sunbathers sometimes provide their own special kind of scenery. He can map this region by sight, by the gray tops of west suburban mansions and the clumps of swans on secluded lakes. So when the report comes of a spill slowing traffic on I-93, MacLeod's leonine mustache does not even ripple.

“Popcorn,” he says. “Spilled popcorn.”

This is nothing unusual. This is a city where geese flop out onto the roadways, where signaling a turn is a lost art form, where one intoxicated Canadian truck driver spilling a cargo of lumber has been known to back up traffic halfway to Ohio. This is a city that has built its reputation on inexplicable signage and incontrovertible gridlock, on tailgaters and rubberneckers, on a system of roadways that, to the average visitor, compares unfavorably to a ball of twine.

A decade ago, there was a multitude of traffic helicopters in Boston. Now, media outlets have fused into sprawling conglomerates and there is just one that covers traffic full time — WBZ radio, which employs MacLeod. And so the region's eyes in the sky this afternoon are his and those of a fill-in reporter, Larry Burnham, both of them belted into their chairs at 500 feet, peering out the window at ribbons of roadway and knotted cloverleafs, scanning the stalls and crashes and the pulsating heartbeat of stop-and-go traffic in Boston.

MacLeod grips the stick, turns sharply, and soars over the Massachusetts Turnpike toward the tie-up, circling above what turns out to be nothing much at all, just a wave of cars slowing to pass over a mosaic of shiny globules and cardboard slivers.

“This is the best you can do?” he says to no one in particular. “This is your popcorn?”

Today, this is the best they can do. Today is what they call, in traffic parlance, “not bad,” which means it is not good, because a good commute in Boston is as oxymoronic as the Red Sox and October baseball. The Central Artery is one perpetual mess. The Braintree split is a constant slowdown. The Tobin merge is an incessant muddle. Volume nearly everywhere, morning and afternoon, is consistent and heavy, because while there are cameras monitoring and police patrolling and eyes in the sky relating up-to-the-second, real-time information, there are still only so many lanes to handle an ever-swelling array of lone drivers. And all the technology on earth can't stem the tide of human nature.

Although this likely comes as a surprise to most commuters, Boston has more highway lane miles per capita than New York or Los Angeles. Yet out of every 24 hours, its highways are congested more than 111/2. Boston, which is the 20th-largest city in America, is the 6th most congested, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The institute calculates that the typical Boston commuter spends 42 hours a year in traffic, wasting 63 gallons of fuel. We also boast the highest auto accident rates, and double the national average of accidents involving bodily injury and property damage. Paradoxically, we have the lowest rate of fatal accidents, but the National Safety Council chalks that up to the fact that we literally can't get going fast enough to kill ourselves.

The cause of all this traffic is not a mystery. We are a nation of two-car households. We have grown from the inside out, crawling like fingers from the city to the distant suburbs, so that highways like Interstate 495 — “It used to almost be a country road,” says SmartRoute Systems general manager Jeff Larson — are as cluttered and annoying as the roads that wind through downtown. This traffic follows us each spring and summer to the bridges on the Cape and the tollbooths in New Hampshire and the exit on the Mass. Pike leading to New York.

Our cars have become more durable and more affordable, so that even low-income families — those who crowded onto buses and subway cars in previous decades — can afford a used Impala. (The average age of our cars is almost eight years.) In our ever-diligent attempts to secure our places on the tree-lined streets that embody the American dream, our nation added more cars than people in the 1980s. By 1990, we owned more cars than we had licensed drivers.

Massachusetts equals and exceeds these trends. Forty years ago, one in eight Massachusetts workers walked to work; today, the number is 1 in 25. While the state's population has inched up a modest 10 percent since 1970, the number of annual vehicle miles driven has increased 75 percent. The number of registered vehicles statewide has grown by an extraordinary 23 percent in just the last 10 years.

Boston still has a relatively high percentage of commuters who use public transportation (up 22 percent over the past decade), but it's not nearly enough to stem the explosion of lone drivers fighting their way in from the suburbs. There are inconveniences to riding the commuter rail, to catching the T, to using the carpool lane; we are crowded into buses and train cars, we are restricted to a timetable, we are stripped of our privacy. The fact is, we prefer being alone in our cars. “Primarily, the problem is the volume of traffic,” says state police Lieutenant Paul Maloney. “Our highways were only designed to carry a certain volume. So there are certain places where the volume is heavy at almost any time of day.” The Southeast Expressway, for example, which was built to carry 70,000 vehicles per day and now handles 190,000. Or Route 3 on the South Shore, which is more than 60 percent over capacity. Or Route 128, which is congested for an average of nine hours a day.

The national tally: $78 billion a year in wasted time and gas. And yet as simple as the solution may seem — more cars require more roadway, hence more roadway should be built — there is nothing simple about it. First, roads cost money, and wherever there is money involved, there are politics involved. And second, how much road is enough road when demand continues to rise at an exponential rate?

“We have to look at the choices people are making,” says Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute. “People are not choosing to live in a certain area because of traffic problems. They're choosing to live there despite the traffic problems.”

“They,” of course, means us.

Eleven-thirty in the morning on a Friday, in a curiously dark room on the eighth floor of a Cambridge office building, and the sensory cues are fractious and jarring. Phones ring incessantly. Police radios belch staticky messages. A 10-foot-high bank of cameras fronts the room, shifting between views of skylines and snaking lanes of traffic. Maps dangle from walls like hieroglyphs. The People's Court plays on a muted television near the break room, not far from where a Natick firefighter and part-time employee named Chris Collins sits behind a computer, clacking updates into the SmartRoute Systems Web site (

Four thousand people have called the SmartRoute traffic hotline already this morning, according to a monitor in the corner; on the average weekday, it can pull in 15,000 calls. These are people looking for a purpose to the endless slowdowns that define their mornings and afternoons. These are people looking for something to make them feel better.

“At least if they know what's going on, they don't feel as bad,” says Larson. “We can get people comfortable with the conditions if they know what's up there.” And there is almost always something going on, in part because it does not take much to stop traffic in Boston. One anomaly, one deviation, and the entire system ties itself in knots.

Shortly before lunchtime, a disturbance appears on Camera Six, on the Central Artery northbound, in the center lane. Behind it, cars begin to slow, then ease to a stop, forming a narrow ruby tongue of brake lights.

There goes the afternoon.

Northbound traffic is halted. Emergency vehicles toddle into place, lights spinning, and this slows traffic on the southbound side, because as much as we hate to admit it, as much as it is always everyone else who is guilty of rubbernecking, we are instilled with a primal urge to see what's going on. We tap our brakes for a second, and the person behind us taps his brakes for a second and — voilà! — instant soup. The day after the Texas Transportation Institute released its survey ranking Boston the sixth-most-congested urban area in the nation, six crashes occurred in the southbound lanes of Route 128 near Beverly, all while people slowed to check out a two-car crash in the northbound lane. Traffic was backed up for a mile and a half.

Today's jam will almost certainly be widely cursed by the many drivers stuck behind it. But it can also be explained in the simplest of terms, with the simplest of metaphors, by engineering professors like Mark Hallenbeck of the University of Washington, who has postulated what he calls the “Wile E. Coyote Theorem of Freeway Performance.”

Imagine, for a moment, your freeway as the blanched desert mesa in a cartoon. Now imagine that we are the coyotes, chasing each other toward that elusive target, that Road Runner we call work or home. These freeways, these mesas, can withstand high volumes, up to 2,000 vehicles per hour, without delays. And the number can keep going up, and the freeway can withstand it, until suddenly the coyote looks down. Imagine one person sees a clever billboard. Or a police car at the side of the road. Or an accident. Or a breakdown. All it takes is one vehicle, and the disruption cascades.

The coyote falls off the cliff.

We slow down. We have stopped ourselves, formed a dense block that slides up the freeway with us, that clenches and does not let go until the volume falls back down to an acceptable level. The road may open for a moment but then almost immediately contracts again. We spring forward, then slow down. We stop. We go. And we do not reach an acceptable volume level, most of the time, until long after rush hour has ended, when the number of vehicles entering the bottleneck finally becomes lower than the number of vehicles leaving it.

“Once the coyote has fallen off the cliff,” Hallenbeck says, “he can't recover.”

These are neat ways of cataloging a problem that is inherently complex. Many of them, Hallenbeck says, don't hold up as firmly when held to strict mathematical interpretation. They are simplifications, and unfortunately for us — the aimless pack of coyotes — the solution is not nearly as explicable.

In Massachusetts, traffic is given grades, from A (free-flowing) to F (completely stopped). The volume of traffic past a given point actually increases as congestion moves from Level A to Level C. That's because while the speed of the traffic decreases, so do the gaps between the cars. From Level D through Level F, as traffic slows still more, capacity falls off the cliff. And then, says Ken Miller, deputy director of planning for the Massachusetts Highway Department, “any slight disturbance — somebody changing a tire, somebody putting on their brakes — creates a shock wave that works its way back. Any little thing can interrupt the equilibrium.”

The Central Artery traffic visible through SmartRoute's camera lens is now almost completely stopped. It will be nearly noon before the accident is cleared and the blue lights glide away and the southbound lanes begin to creak forward again. But northbound, the clog will take more time to remove. And for every minute there's an incident like this marring the road, Larson says, there are likely to be eight minutes of additional congestion. By the time one clog is cleared, there are more incidents, more delays, more strands of red and blue lights. And then it will be Friday afternoon rush hour, the worst part of the week, and the WBZ traffic reports will drone on like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Traffic will compress, then release, like a spring, forming the pulsating sensation known as stop-and-go.

“It's still backed up on the Central Artery,” Larson says when he calls a few hours later. “It'll be that way through rush hour.”

“One inevitable consequence of how we have come to organize our lives spatially,” wrote Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone, “is that we spend measurably more of every day shuttling alone in metal boxes among the vertices of our private triangles.”

We seem to prefer it that way. One survey showed that 45 percent of all drivers — and 61 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds — value their commute as a “time to think and enjoy being alone.” We sing along to Motown. We drink four-dollar grande lattes. We listen to books on tape. We call Uncle Stanley in Rhode Island. We have factored it into our lives by now: longer trips to work, longer trips to the supermarket, longer trips to Home Depot on Saturday afternoon. Each additional 10 minutes of commuting, according to Putnam, reduces our involvement in community affairs by 10 percent, which is one of the central issues behind Putnam's theory as to why society has become so fractured in the last few decades.

None of this additional commuting time, of course, means we have become better drivers. If anything, our SUVs are extensions of our own neuroses, thinly disguised Freudian contraptions of rubber and steel. But then, we in Boston have a reputation to uphold, a storied tradition of terrible manners and obscene gestures. We actually seem to be proud of it. The typical afternoon on a Boston highway is a study in the dark side of humanity, and it's been that way for generations.

“You drive like a maniac,” Ali MacGraw says in the 1970 movie Love Story.

“This is Boston,” Ryan O'Neal replies. “Everybody drives like a maniac.”

Sure, we can place some of the blame on infrastructure problems. There are the road signs that don't make sense, for instance. This is in part because so many of our highways are constrained by the narrow geometry of the city, and there is no room to explain things more than once, which leaves confused tourists and visitors making curlicues on Storrow Drive. There are also the endless mazes of orange construction barrels and nonsensical traffic patterns in the multibillion-dollar shadow of the Big Dig. “We're really limited,” says University of Massachusetts engineering professor Don Fisher, who is helping to design new signage for the Big Dig. “You've got to get it right all in one sign. There's room for maybe one or two lines of text.”

But the overwhelming issue remains the prominent and unpredictable element known as human behavior. Noting that, at its creation in 1956, the federal interstate highway system was pitched as a speedy way to escape from cities in the event of an atomic attack, journalist Steve Rushin wrote: ” Bostonians still drive as if they are doing just that.”

It's true. Just ask the cops. They watch us fly along as we butter our bagels, finish our Sunday crossword, listen to sports-talk radio, and shift gears, all at the same time. They watch us put on our makeup in the rearview mirror. They follow us as we change compact discs and tie our shoes and placate our screaming children. They've seen us immerse ourselves in what Maloney calls “amorous entanglements,” which is a disturbing thought if only because three out of four Massachusetts drivers commute to work alone.

“If you can think of it,” Maloney says, “we've seen people doing it.”

People especially like to watch what's going on in the opposite direction. They slow down to look at a police car with its lights flashing, or an accident scene, or plain old traffic congestion over on the other side of the median strip. Why? “That's the million-dollar question,” says David Noyce, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMass. “Who knows? It's human curiosity. But when people slow down to look, it creates a bottleneck. All it takes is just a little bit of a slowdown, just a few miles an hour to take a glance, to begin the process. It happens relatively quickly, yet takes a fair amount of time to dissipate.”

But the ultimate modern scapegoat for erratic driving is the wireless phone. Police say it's become common to see someone talking on the phone and taking notes while driving. In Amherst, Fisher and Noyce operate a state-of-the-art driving simulator, in the form of a 1995 Saturn surrounded by three huge screens, and test people's reactions to “cognitive loading,” a fancy way of describing distractions.

“One of the things I noticed about a cell phone in the car is that the velocity went to hell,” says Fisher. “It dropped from 70 to about 40 or 50.”

So we are a city of people who drive too fast and we are a city of people who drive too slowly, and neither of these factions has any patience for the other. And then the members of one or the other group get angry and tailgate, or lurch from lane to lane in an attempt to cut off the drivers who may or may not have maliciously cut them off a few minutes earlier.

State police have organized teams to target aggressive drivers and road rage. The explanations they hear are surprisingly innocent: The drivers were distracted, they were late, or they sat in traffic and then the road opened up and they wanted to make back the time. “Often,” Maloney says, “the person may be oblivious to their behavior.”

And here is where the cell phone is an asset. Because communication is virtually universal. Because the excuse of not being able to contact someone while driving has virtually disappeared. And, besides, traffic is perhaps the most airtight excuse for being late for work. Or for getting out early.

“I'm hearing stories of some companies where employees have permission from their bosses to leave their office an hour early,” says travel behavior analyst Alan E. Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. “They return their phone calls while they sit in traffic.”

That's arguably one small solution. Meanwhile, agencies like SmartRoute have begun working with the Highway Department and the police to help clear incidents faster. MassHighway sends out vans to aid disabled vehicles. SmartRoute alerts police to incidents it hears about, including hundreds of amateur reports each day from stranded drivers on wireless phones.

It didn't always work like that. But on May 1, 1996, a Canadian lumber truck driver with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit began spraying his cargo onto the lower deck of Interstate 93, damaging girders and rendering one of Boston's major arteries virtually impassable just in time for the morning commute. Seven lanes of traffic were forced into one. Drivers began to abandon their vehicles on the Tobin Bridge. A Greek immigrant was stuck for so long that he expressed public regret over moving to America.

“That was when we realized we had to communicate with each other,” SmartRoute's Larson says. “One incident can affect traffic for days on end. We've got to be able to respond quickly so the impact is minimized.”

Those of us trapped in gridlock have ample time to formulate our own hypotheses about relieving Boston's traffic. Last summer, after a newspaper columnist proposed that all major highways in the region become toll roads to alleviate gridlock, respondents flooded an Internet message board with alternate solutions, some involving complex engineering theory, and others evoking somewhat less complex Bostonian facetiousness:

“One word: rickshaws.”

“Encourage highway snipers.”

“Make everyone ride a bicycle.”

If there is an answer, it lies far beyond a fleet of Schwinns. It lies somewhere in the crux of sociology and psychology, engineering and math, computers and communications. These are the elements of the science of traffic, of the controlled study of chaos. So far, it can explain why the problem exists. Fixing it, controlling it, is another story.

Late morning in a computer lab near the Kendall Square T Station, and Tomer Toledo is playing God.

The view from above shows that traffic is flowing smoothly, tiny boxes of yellow and blue and pink and red shuttling among the wishbone of the Central Artery. There are boxes sized like tractor-trailers and boxes sized like Hyundais, each with its own individual license plate number and driver profile and route. It is all very orderly, a ribbon of color and geometric shapes, until Toledo, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presses a series of keys, closing two lanes. Then the boxes begin to funnel to the right and line up like hotels on a Monopoly board.

“I can generate an incident however I want and for as long as I want,” Toledo says, satisfied. “I can close as many lanes as I want.”

This is the advantage of a traffic simulator like MIT's MITSIMLab: Simulated drivers, of simulated automobiles, with simulated lives do not generally complain about two lanes of traffic being closed on a major expressway. By contrast, real drivers, of real automobiles, with real lives may incite riots. So MITSIM can aid in predicting patterns for a major project like the Big Dig without the distraction of dealing with real people, helping officials learn how to manipulate traffic in the tunnel's lanes using signs and ramp meters.

On the other side of the room, a graduate student named Srini Sundaram is using a red pen to draw a series of matrices in a reporter's notebook. What he is attempting to elucidate seems inexplicable enough without the abbreviations and arrows and percentages, and a diagram that looks like a crude outline of a gas grill.

What he is trying to do, he says, is predict the future.

This is something they call DynaMIT, a traffic estimation and planning system that plays on the basic notion that tie-ups can be calculated in advance, and that people will alter their behavior — and therefore alter traffic patterns — according to what an electronic sign tells them.

“When you give people guidance based on the weather, it's not going to change the weather,” Sundaram says. “But if you give drivers certain information, it will change their decisions.”

A solution to this solid wall of gridlock lies in changing decisions, changing patterns, changing habits. Like building pedestrian trails in the suburbs that encourage people to walk to their local convenience stores. Like major corporations moving to the suburbs so their employees travel opposite the traffic. Like more people telecommuting and more people carpooling and more people showing up and leaving work at off-peak hours.

But habits can be altered only so much. Volume must be accommodated, even if there may appear to be a certain futility in building roads that will only fill up again.

“If you double the size of the road, probably twice as many people are going to be able to use that road,” Pisarski says. “The fact that it simply fills up again over time shouldn't shock us. We shouldn't be building any highway that's below capacity all the time.”

There is little danger of that happening in Boston, where one stalled car can halt traffic for hours, where we leave our houses at dawn just to arrive at work on time. We are accustomed to shuttling alone in our metal boxes.

We like to shuttle alone. And for that simple luxury, we are willing to endure almost anything.