Rush Hour: Navigating Our Global Traffic Jam
Rush Hour: Navigating Our Global Traffic Jam
London and Stockholm charge a fee, called a congestion tax, to drive into the city during busy times. This reduces traffic and pollution and encourages more people to take public transit, carpool or drive in off-peak hours. People didn’t like paying at first, but now most folks support the tax. The benefits are clear. One study looked at air pollution and asthma attacks in children in central Stockholm. Researchers compared data from before and after the tax’s introduction in 2007. They found that pollution from cars decreased by 15 to 20 percent thanks to the tax. In addition, the number of children hospitalized from serious asthma attacks fell by 50 percent. Now more countries and cities are looking at using the same kinds of fees to decrease pollution and traffic.
Rush Hour: Navigating Our Global Traffic Jam is a brief, yet informative, introduction to the health and environmental issues raised by the worldwide reliance on automobiles as a primary mode of transportation. Traffic jams and congestion on roadways are something that anyone living in or visiting large cities will recognize. All too often, people are honest in saying that they were late for a game or an appointment because the traffic was so bad. Too many vehicles, car accidents and construction projects that reduced roadways all contributed to what the author describes as the worst traffic jam in history: a five-day jam on the China National Highway and Beijing-Tibet Expressway in August 2010.
Silver’s short history of traffic in North America begins with canoes, followed by horses and buggies and ultimately the automobile in the early 20th century. Innovative assembly lines made for efficient construction of cars, and, as the numbers of vehicles increased, the need to direct and control traffic grew in importance. Drawing on examples from around the world, but with particular attention to North America, Silver notes that “Toronto made history in 1963 by becoming the first city in the world to use a computerized traffic-management system.” The sheer volume of cars and other motorized vehicles transporting people and goods has gotten so severe that people in many cities waste valuable time sitting in traffic. This could have been described as an economic catastrophe and source of frustration, but Silver instead focuses upon the pollution that is generated by all forms of transportation that burn fossil fuels. The gases emitted not only contribute to global warming, some emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, are toxic.
Stock photos illustrate the dangers of pollution as children wear masks in smog-filled environments or try to play sports when a haze of pollution hangs in the air. There are illustrative photos of congested streets in diverse parts of the world. Some archival photos illustrate more historic topics. Charts are used to illustrate numerical information in a visually appropriate way. One page-size chart shows the largest traffic polluters in Canada as of 2018. The largest category was passenger light trucks, including SUVs. This category, together with cars, accounted for almost 46% of all pollution from traffic sources. At the opposite end of the scale is urban transit that accounted for just over 1%.
The second, and perhaps best, chapter discusses ways that cities are tackling congestion and pollution. Some solutions are easy, such as turning off engines at pick up/drop off zones instead of idling. Intelligent transport systems are part of smart cities that use a variety of traffic sensors to control traffic signals in an effort to keep traffic moving efficiently. Some cities introduced alternate driving days or other restrictions to cut down on pollution. The examples noted are all from developing countries. Congestion taxes, low-emission zones, car pooling and car-sharing programs are other measures used to address the traffic congestion and pollution problems. Healthy alternatives such as bike sharing programs, car free days, and walkable neighbourhoods can all reduce reliance on automobiles. One option that is being tried in Barcelona is the creation of superblocks or car-free neighborhoods that route traffic around neighborhoods instead of through them. One side panel presents a brief interview with a traffic engineer. This would tie in nicely with a unit on careers as it provides insight into one possible role of a civil engineer.
One chapter considers driving in the future and focuses upon technological advances that may lead to things like self-driving vehicles and cars that can communicate with other cars in order to coordinate traffic flow. In Singapore, the city is using self-driving buses and on-demand shuttles that can bring remote dwellers to a transportation hub. Electric buses and rail are becoming more common in Europe, but China is the leader in the adoption of electric buses. Electric vehicles and other types of low-emission cars, such as hybrids, are becoming more commonplace. For inter-city travel, the superfast hyperloop train could play a role in getting people out of personal vehicles. When lockdowns caused by COVID-19 were enacted around the world in 2020, cities saw dramatic drops in traffic and air pollution. Many cities expanded space for cyclists and pedestrians, some reduced speed limits, and many commuters found that they could do much of their work from home. Post-pandemic, some of these changes may become entrenched and more widespread. An interview with an American entrepreneur whose micro-factory is manufacturing 3D printed autonomous electric vehicles examines a forward thinking operation while also encouraging kids to get a great education so that they, too, can join the ranks of researchers, business people and law makers that will be needed to keep moving forward on implementing solutions to our traffic, pollution and waste problems.
The fourth and final chapter addresses how kids can help “drive” change. Helping children understand ways that they can confront environmental and social issues is central to the “Orca Footprints” series to which this volume belongs. The strength of the ideas is that they are proven to have worked in the examples cited. Confronting idling, studying pedestrian safety and working with city staff and councillors to make streets safer, walking or biking to school with friends, carpooling or taking public transportation are all ways that children can model behavior for adults while helping reduce traffic and pollution. Silver ends on a positive and realistic note:
I’m not going to change rush hour alone. I’m not going to clean the air by walking or biking a lot. But if we all do a little more, drive a little less, change some of our habits and see transportation in a new way, we’ll make a difference together.
This reader would have liked to see some additional caveats incorporated into the text somehow. For example, electric vehicles are only “clean” if the electricity that they require is not generated by burning fossil fuels. More emphasis on city planning that counters urban sprawl would have been nice. As it is, Rush Hour introduces interesting facts, examples and vocabulary surrounding the topics of traffic, traffic management, and innovations in technology that may help reduce both congestion on the roads and pollution from exhaust pipes.
The final book will include a glossary and index. The list of resources includes websites, documentaries/TV shows/videos, and some age appropriate books.
Val Ken Lem is an academic librarian in congested Toronto, Ontario.