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Improving the Traffic Report

Every environmentalist has been flabbergasted when a sixty degree spell happens in December or January, only to see the local news go out for a stroll to talk with all the happy residents about how great it is to have such nice weather. There have apparently been improvements to at least the online written coverage of some Philly area stations, but I remember during this same period of winter warmth seeing lots of puff pieces interviewing people in their shorts at the park. Isn't it great?! 

I'm sure Rhode Islanders can think of the same.

The complaint has often been put forth that local weather forecasters do little to inform the public about climate change, despite the fact that local weather updates would be the most logical and streamlined way to get information to the public. Studies have even shown that weather forecasters--who may or may not hold scientific degrees but who in any case do not participate in peer-reviewed scientific studies--are less likely than their more highly credentialed peers at universities and in research institutions to believe in human-caused climate change, or even that any change has happened of any kind.

But what about the traffic report? I must confess, as someone whose television watching is fairly low, and especially as a non-driver, I all but never pay attention to traffic reports.

I caught a glimpse of one of these reports on the TV at a family member's house, and was oddly transfixed. Here before me was a report outlining the most dysfunctional stroads, state highways, boulevards, and interstates in the region. It occurred to me: Just as it's a wonder that people can get a more and more severe weather forecast each year, with warmer winters and more absurdly sweltering heat waves, and somehow not understand the connection to carbon emissions, shouldn't it also be obvious what's wrong with these roads? If your eyes are opened to the meaning of road planning, you might think so. Look! The Blue Route is still blocked! Should've never built that! Schuykill Expressway a parking lot? Maybe we should have enhanced biking on the Schuykill River Trail better, and increased the frequency of Regional Rail trains along that corridor instead of building an ugly interstate along the west side of the river. An accident on the Roosevelt Boulevard? Cottman's jammed? No surprise--Northeast Philly is largely a cesspool of post-1950s design.

What if between reports of shootings the Philadelphia press kept a tracker of how many people had been killed by cars in the city? It would be fewer than those who are shot, and that's a function both of the fact that many parts of the city are well designed for road safety and that gun control and poverty harshly affect many others, but the contrast is closer than I think many ordinary people would imagine.

What if the traffic report talked about the 24 foot streets carrying traffic slowly but smoothly at high capacity using protected bike lanes? What if it named the number of people who took the El into the city this morning instead of speeding down the unfortunately widened portion of Chestnut Street (and what if it noticed the fact that Walnut & Chestnut are an unusually sharp boundary line separating the most blighted portions of West Philly from the most gentrified, and drew conclusions about what such unsafe streets might mean for development)? When's the last time the traffic report took its microphone out of the helicopter and stuffed into a trolley stuffed into the stairwells with people, and asked questions about how many people could move down a narrow trolley-served street as opposed to one of the city's stroads?

What's hard as a transit and bike activist is the difficulty of explaining counter-intuitive ideas that go into street design. Why wouldn't it make sense that widening a road would improve traffic flow (and why would such widening not improve safety if it gives drivers more room to maneuver)? Why are transit and bikes such a market-oriented and fiscally conservative approach to moving people, if all appearances point to the more apparent vision that they're a socialist hobby upheld by top-down subsidies? What makes some streets have so many accidents, and others very few? 

A clever newscaster could give these questions five minutes a day, and over the course of time the voting public could actually start to understand what goes into making their morning and evening commutes so frustrating. It would be a great step forward.

The Rhode Island press would also do well to include this in their television traffic reports. This is one area where I have infinitely more faith in Providence than in Philly. I never felt like I could affect events nearly as quickly and fully in Philadelphia as I do in Providence, however frustrated I may feel with the current situation our city is in. Philly is huge, and institutional inertia is correspondingly overwhelming, but our stations could quickly educate the Ocean State's public to make us a leader on the East Coast.


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