Not Yet Backed Up: How Soon We Forget the Gnarly Gridlocks of Yesteryear

In case anyone has forgotten, during the years 2005, 2006 and 2007, in the midst of the great rise before the fall, we had so much business and prosperity that traffic snarls were everywhere. The “trade parade” on the Sunrise Highway sometimes backed up for four miles. There was so much traffic on the Montauk Highway that left turns on or off it were impossible. People would go out of their way to avoid them. You’d go right, then left at a light, then a K turn, and then a right again to get back to going the other way. I recall traffic jams entirely blocking County Road 39 as you inched along going past the car dealerships— such irony—in Southampton. Traffic jams on Hampton Road in Water Mill were beyond belief. Traffic jams through Amagansett were beyond belief. Even the shortcuts were backed up. There were people in Southampton who—if invited to a party on a Saturday night 15 miles away in Amagansett—would consider going to it little more than an impossible dream.

And there was often no parking whatsoever in our downtowns. I recall more and more, particularly after 2006, people talking about not coming out here anymore because of this, speaking a sort of high tone variation of Yogi Berra’s admonition “This place is so busy no one comes here anymore.” By the time the recession hit, it seemed our network of roads were just so close to catastrophe that all we needed was one further racheting up of the summer and we would be looking at gridlock. Then the economy collapsed.

I know, I know. We seem to be in some sort of upturn and if it continues it will bring a whole lot of joy to this nation in so many ways—jobs, housing, food, clothing, furniture, medical care, new cars to buy, vacations, family outings, parties and business successes—that my speaking so outrageously about this one thing seems sacrilegious.

Nevertheless, there it is.

My only hope is that in these five years since the big downturn hit, there have been enough changes in how people get around to not have all this happen again, even in an upturn.

Here are some obvious and subtle things that could keep a repeat of this at bay in a new upturn. We have widened County Road 39, adding a lane to it, between North Sea Road and the Lobster Inn. We have gasoline hovering at $4 a gallon, which in itself is a deterrent to unnecessary driving. We have a growing reliance on Internet shopping, which means fewer people out in their cars going to the stores. We have cars that are physically smaller and getting higher gas mileage on average. And we have a social networking system which has caused a trend downward in the mobility of the population. People see it on their computer screen with Skype and on their TV screen in 3D in stunning color. And so they stay at home more. And spend less time driving.

It’s true that each of these changes by themselves will not fully alleviate the traffic problems the country had up until 2008. But together, they might hold off a traffic disaster for awhile. So I say hooray for the upturn. But I say this looking up and down the street each way for signs of gridlock. So far so good.

I am not exaggerating and you know it.

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