I had a chance to get away from work this weekend and take a short fishing trip in central Minnesota. Getting to the destination meant traveling through the Twin Cities…on Friday…very close to rush hour. As was the case back in June when I traveled to L.A., I was amazed at the amount of traffic on the road. Because of the high price of gas, Americans are driving a lot less nowadays. During the past year we have seen the amount of miles driven decrease by 1 to 2% according to some surveys. This might not sound like much, but this is a nation which rarely, if ever, has seen a decrease in miles driven throughout it’s entire history. If the amount of miles driven is going down, I didn’t really notice much in the Twin Cities. There were traffic jams galore. The interesting thing is that this happens day after day, year after year, and people keep putting up with it. It boggles my mind how so many people can waste so much of their lives tied up in traffic. We are talking about a couple hours per day in many cases. Why do they do it? It seems, because they want to live in the suburbs instead of the inner city. People want a house and a yard and some space. They want to live in a low crime area and have good schools for their kids (inner city schools are notoriously sub-standard). So I guess it is a trade-off. Putting up with the headaches of travel, in order to enjoy other benefits.
Given the high price of gas, the trade-off might start tipping away from the suburbs and back to the inner city. I know that the price of oil has come down recently, but we aren’t heading back to $2.00 a gallon of gas any time soon. If we are lucky, it might drop below $3.50 later this year or maybe even get close to $3.00 (if we are REAL lucky), but the long term supply/demand ratio would indicate high (and higher) prices are here to stay. Not only does this make commuting expensive for the individual, it makes infrastructure repair and development more expensive. Each new mile of pavement is more expensive than the last. Add in inflation and the picture is even worse. The rapidly increasing cost will end up breaking the bank of local, state, and national funds dedicated to roadways (in my opinion). We see stories of this popping up already and it will only get worse. (Ok, here is where an optimist would mention some new whiz-bang technology that would rapidly reduce the cost of building roads, and there could be some improvements on the way, but nothing in the near term – let’s say the next 5 to 10 years).
So what is the easiest option? Break the cycle. Stop building roads. Easier said than done. Building roads is a vicious cycle that begets more roads, and I am afraid it will affect the Wausau area very soon as well, bringing big city gridlock. I was a part of this cycle back in the late 1990s. I lived on the west side where 17th Avenue was being expanded. The house I lived in was demolished (as well as several others) in order to make the street wider – to allow more cars and reduce traffic congestion. Well, it worked, and now more cars are able to travel on 17th avenue and more cars are leading to more plans for expansion. Removing a handful of houses doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but those people (including me) had to find a new place to live and with less real estate available in the city center, the logical choice for most people is to move to the outskirts. The same thing is happening with the Thomas street expansion plans. Houses will be removed and replaced with an expanded road, which will bring more traffic and force more people to move away from the city center. With more people living on the outskirts, it makes sense for some businesses to locate closer to the people on the outskirts. This results in paving over more land and creating more roads and more congestion. Big freeway interchanges also displace homes and businesses, such as what is happening on the west side of Wausau. Pretty soon you end up with a situation such as the Twin Cities where you are driving on a 6 lane freeway and you are so far away from the city center (at least 25 miles) that you can’t even see what was originally responsible for the vast concrete arteries on which so many people waste so much of their lives. The amount of land that is covered by concrete is so large that it boggles the mind, and if you think the Twin Cities is bad, you should see L.A. We end up with cities that are truly designed for automobiles and not for people. This vicious cycle has happened in every large American city and no one has yet been able to stop it. Well, perhaps the price of gas will finally out an end to it. Nothing changes ingrained attitudes quicker than the prospect of being destitute. So where do we go from here? How do we break the cycle? That will have to be the topic of a future blog post, since this one is already getting rather long. Check back on Wednesday for a continuation of the "Concrete Life".
The main concern in the weather is the recent dry trend. The last 2 to 3 weeks have been below normal on precipitation and it doesn’t look like much is on the way for the next 4 to 5 days. The situation isn’t as bad as the last 5 years, but it will stress the crops a bit this week. We have a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms tomorrow and Wednesday, but it doesn’t look like anything too heavy. A storm system moving through the Midwest this weekend is showing some potential for more widespread and heavy rainfall, but it is too early to guarantee anything. At least it is not dry AND hot. High temps will range from 75 to 80 from today all the way through the weekend.
The big news for today is Cassini’s very close fly-by of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It will be flying within 30 miles of the surface and taking a detailed look at the fissures on the south pole of Enceladus that are ejecting plumes of water into space. Even before official images and scientific data are released, you can keep track of the action at the official Cassini blog.
On the Martian front, Phoenix continues to experience trouble getting soil samples into it’s thermal gas analyzer. Who knew scooping an dumping soil would be so difficult. I know that designers of this equipment typically go through many simulations to replicate the conditions they will encounter on other planets, but they seemed to have missed something with regards to Martian soil, because the equipment is sure having trouble with such a seemingly simple task.
Meteorologist Justin Loew
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This post was written by jloew on August 11, 2008