Paved With Good Intentions: A Freakonomics Contest

Here’s a chance to win everlasting national fame, and, more importantly, a coveted piece of Freakonomics schwag. What’s better, all you have to do for it is complain — which, if you’re like me, you do all the time anyway. Welcome to the Freakonomics “Paved With Good Intentions” contest, in which we pay loving tribute to the most abysmal roads in America.

Here’s how it works. Write a brief homage (no more than 150 words) to the worst stretch of road you know of. You have broad latitude in your definition of “worst.” It may be the most congested, the most poorly maintained, the ugliest, the most dangerous, the most confusing, the worst integrated with adjacent land uses, or any combination of the above. You may also devise a standard of your own. Tell us why your road is the best example of the worst in American transportation, toss in a bit of wit and literary flash, and post your entry in the comments section.

Bashing America’s blacktop may be fun, but an awesome responsibility like the presentation of Freakonomics schwag is no laughing matter. Hence we will employ only the highest ethical standards. I’ll have nothing to do with the judging; instead, I’m bringing in a couple of celebrity judges from the outstanding transportation program at UCLA’s crosstown rival, the University of Southern California. (PS: Don’t tell them we think so highly of them, we don’t want them getting big heads.) USC professor Genevieve Giuliano and her doctoral student Mohja Rhoads (with a name like Rhoads, how could she not be a judge) have kindly agreed to select the finalists; you the readers will vote on the winning entry.

The judges will be looking at the intelligence of the standards you choose, the extent to which your road matches up to them, and the style you bring to your description of your entry. Good luck, and enjoy your chance to vent about the stretch of asphalt that really “drives” you crazy.


Frankland

North Ave near Milwaukee/Damen in Chicago: Pot holes + heavy traffic + Congestion + Bars/Resturaunts = Bumper-to-bumper traffic all around the clock

Thomas Clancy

The Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, NJ has the stupidest merge in the world. The driver has 20 feet to go from a dead stop to 60 mph, while cutting off traffic fleeing NYC, all while hovering 100 feet above the ground.

Matt

The 405, in west Los Angeles, from LAX through Westwood is the worst.

Of course, it's the most congested. Worse, the carpool lane ends just before LAX. Meanwhile, the 110, merging with the 405 a few miles south, is hardly an alternative route, as by the time it crosses the 10, just a bit north of LAX, the distance between the 110 and the 405, especially given traffic on the 10, is substantial. Also, with congestion comes smog. LA's coastline is beautiful. The mass of brown sky is worst near the mountains northeast of the city, but it all begins, and reasonable speeds end, with the 405.

Vicki

The on-ramp to the Beltway near the Woodrow Wilson bridge headed out of Alexandria, VA into Maryland made me meditative. This scenic two-mile stretch of the on-ramp to I-495 has been a favorite place to while away an hour or two in my car pondering Buddhist philosophy as I watch a caterpillar crawling past me and 300 other cars stuck at the same intersection. Green light, red light. A fleeting chance to pass through three intersections. Another light change. Now the ethereal cacophony of honking drivers hoping to enter the on-ramp, into I-495 rush hour traffic at a rate of 5 miles per hour. Life is random and beautiful. Construction workers on this stretch of road also lean to zen Buddhism as they examine the weather, the car dealership across the street, and each other, slowing the rhythm of their months of work.

Michael

On I-95
somewhere just south of Philly,
sitting in traffic.

Look out the window
Not forests, beaches or birds
Just suburban sprawl

Why all this traffic?
Seventeen lanes for cars, but
nowhere worth going.

Fifty-five limit
is not nearly fast enough
to get somewhere else.

Stop at the airport?
Take the first plane out of here?
Can't - going to work.

Mike

I don't recall the name, but it's a small stretch of road immediately West of I-25 by Palmer Lake (a ways south of Denver). Last year, I was out on a long bike ride, and this stretch was under construction. A little asphalt and a lot of gravel, road base, and potholes. It wasn't great. I was just back there this past Sunday, and while construction is finished and the road is paved, it's somehow rougher and more miserable to ride over than before.

Tzipporah

While the confused navigation of former cow-paths-turned-asphalt in Boston and Cambridge are excellent fodder for this contest, I must claim Willow Ave in Somerville, MA as "the worst."

It is straight (mostly), which is always a plus.

It has few potholes, or at least HAD few, years ago, when I traversed it regularly.

It had relatively attractive houses alongside it, so the eyesore factor was minimal.

Yet, in all my years of driving around Boston, it was on Willow Ave that I most often clutched my steering wheel in sheer terror that I was about to meet my end.

Why?

Parked cars.

Cars, hundreds of them, parked on both sides of the street, within 4 feet of intersections all up and down this street.

Trying to turn onto Willow was an excercise in bravado. First, following Boston-area protocol, you do not stop at the 'Stop' sign, but come to a halt ONLY when you can actually see whether there is traffic coming, which (given the parked cars), places you roughly in the middle of the intersection.

Occasionally, less experienced or out-of-town drivers would attempt to inch out into the roadway, ever so slowly, only to find themselves trapped between oncoming cross-traffic on either side and native drivers behind who had no intention of stopping.

Compared to the trial-by-fire of Willow, the daily route changes of the Big Dig were was minor potholes in the freeway of life.

Had I stayed in the area longer, I might have been driven to purchase an SUV or minivan simply for the height advantage it would have provided in seeing over the parked cars. I can only imagine how much worse it is, today, with the trends I see elsewhere in the country to buying taller and taller cars.

For heart-pounding, stroke-inducing, adrenaline-rushing, daily driving, I nominate Willow Ave. May I never see it again.

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Julie

When I lived just west of the river valley in Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA (so I know it may not count), there was just one bridge (the nightmare we call the Quesnell Bridge) that connected me to the south/east part of the city, which is where my family and friends lived, and where I worked. Any sort of attempt to find another route would cause about a half-hour delay on a normally 15-minute drive.

Prior to beginning construction, this bridge was already a nightmare. I didn't realize that "bridge slippery when wet" meant to slow down on a perfectly sunny summer day, but there were times when people would slow down for no reason causing what would be a 5 minute stretch at the speed limit to turn into a 30 minute wait.

Then they began construction. After ripping up the road and median to re-route traffic, there were not potholes on the road, but giant craters. Heading home, during rush hour traffic (when people do not drive fast because of congestion and the aforementioned slow-down-for-the-bridge issue), they would position police cars with flashing lights along the route. This caused traffic to slow from an already slow 30 km/h to an aggravating 5 km/h. I would arrive home tense and stressed about being stuck in traffic and have vowed to move to NYC so I can just walk everywhere.

All that was bad, but the worst would be arriving home or leaving late and finding that my only exit/entrance to this freeway was blocked for construction. I would have to go way out of the way to get where I needed to go.

I have since moved and in addition to spending less time on the road, I am finding less grey hairs on my head.

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Ryan

The worst that I have experienced is the Friday commute in Chicago evenings on I-90 Eastbound. You have those from the Schaumburg area merging with those from the Tristate (294) and O'Hare (190). This alone is bad, but what further complicates things is that this all takes place at a toll stop. And after about about 6 miles, you have to merge, once again, with I-94. There is nothing worse than this stretch of highway...

David

Golf Road from Arlington Heights to Skokie, IL.

Looking out the window while riding the bus on this route often makes me nauseous. This isn't a result of bumpy roads or a tendency for motion sickness. Instead, the land use that surrounds me is what creates this reaction.

On this road, one passes a seemingly endless supply of parking lots. The number of strip malls and stores set back almost a quarter-mile from the street along this stretch is nearly uncountable. If I saw a bicyclist or pedestrian, I would be surprised, since the area screams only one thing: CARS!

This seems bad enough, but then the road passes through two forest preserves! About a mile wide, both are good for deer sightings but terrible for promoting alternative transportation modes.

This complaint surely applies to thousands of streets in suburbs around the country; this is merely an illustrative example.

blue92

"The Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, NJ has the stupidest merge in the world. The driver has 20 feet to go from a dead stop to 60 mph, while cutting off traffic fleeing NYC, all while hovering 100 feet above the ground."

This reminds of an entrance ramp on I-76 in West Philly (near UPenn) where, as you say, one basically had 20 feet to merge and, worse, had the line-of-sight obstructed by concrete barriers. No room to accelerate, no way to really see what was coming from behind your shoulder, and not even a shoulder to dodge to if you were unlucky enough to time it badly.

I only had to use it three or four times and count myself lucky for not having killed anybody even in that small number.

AaronS

In Jacksonville, Florida, on 95 South in downtown, if the most minor fender bender occurs--or, heaven forbid, a flat tire!--you will miss two seasons of "House," and arrive home, Rip Van Winkle-like, to a wife who has visibly aged and toddlers who are now grown and married with kids. Although I welcome the fine daughters-in-law to the clan, I do regret not being there for the weddings of my sons or the birth of my grandchildren. When time travel is possible, I will have to go back to 1792 to make up for all the time lost in Jacksonville traffic.

Erin

You would think that a college town would be sophisticated enough to hire logical traffic engineers. Not so! Instead of the joy that should come along with springtime after months of snow and negative temperatures, Madisonians annually struggle to smile their ways through the stupidity that is University Avenue. Every year. EVERY year! March brings a new construction project, inevitably reducing the 4-lane thoroughfare down to one lane, and significantly reducing the amount of time drivers have to sip their MGDs. Or, for the more sophisticated crowd (read: NOT the city planners), a New Glarus microbrew. To make things better, the other one-ways going in the same direction are probably under construction as well, leading even the most experienced Madisonian tempted to drive the wrong way down the roads traveling East (all of which, of course, are empty of orange traffic cones).

I have driven through the African bush on an unpaved road during the rainy season. The constant jarring of the vehicle provided for a killer migraine, but at least my pain wasn't a result of my fellow Badgers' idiocy.

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rangerous

without a doubt the worst stretch of road in the us is I-95 in CT from the Q bridge west through West Haven. Over my lifetime (50 years) this section of roadway has been repaved, repaired, resurfaced annually every year that I can recall. It is narrow, features numerous on and off ramps, sharper than normal turns, and has an undulating surface brought on, no doubt by a distinct lack of road bed beneath the paved surface (it was built on a low bid contract in the 60's).

Brian Wilke

Two roads did merge on I-25
And sorry when I traveled both
And be one driver, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the city's growth;

There is a highway, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it's less crowded and wants the wear,
Though as for that the passing there
The drive time's really about the same,

But both lanes that morning equally lay
In traffic stopped on asphalt black.
Oh, why keep the highway for another day?
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should double back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads did merge on I-25, and I --
I took the freeway most traveled by,
And that has made little difference.

With my apologies to Mr. Frost, northbound I-25 going out of Colorado Springs gets crowded at a little after 4pm every day. The problem, of course, is people who don't know how to merge, cutting over as soon as possible at 5mph, slowing everyone down. I could take Highway 83 to get past the bad traffic, but the longer distance and stop lights make the drive time about the same. Always highlights to me common American driving problems -- can't merge, can't navigate traffic circles, can't build proper traffic circles, etc. -- and, almost paradoxically, how good our freeway system is.

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Lorraine Heffernan

The entire state of New Jersey. If you want to make a left, you have to guess whether there will be a turn lane on the left, a jug handle on the right, or a jersey barrier making the whole thing impossible. Whichever you choose, you will be wrong and have to cross several lanes of traffic immediately to get into the right position, or miss it and use the jug handle 3 miles down the road to get back to where you can then make a predictable right. I used to laugh at my elderly mother for arranging all trips to be nothing but right hand turns (which she learned in a defensive driving class in Massachusetts), but after living here I can see the point.

ZE

I vote also for the Pulaski Skyway and the scariest merge lane I have ever seen . You have to drive through a post industrial twilight zone to get to the one on-ramp I'm thinking of , deserted and ominous even at high noon.

HardyW

This stretch of bike trail near my house, the Olympia Woodland Trail, the people who put it together worked so hard, they're so proud of it, and yet the paving, while rock-solid (and therefore unlikely to be redone any time soon), is abysmal, it is concave so it channels rain down the center into a river. It would have been so easy to pave it flat or convex so that the surface would merit the pride it seems to generate, and they just couldn't do it..

Rachel

I have fond memories of driving on the interstates that merged in the heart of New Haven, CT. To get onto I-95 eastbound from Whitney Ave, you take the (steep, short) Trumbull St entrance to I-91 southbound, then merge through four lanes of traffic within 200 yards to take a left exit, which goes around a tight corner to merge onto I-95 from the left. The ridiculous design, plus the constant construction, plus aggressive drivers, made every trip eastward a thing to remember.

Jon

Cross Bronx. End of debate.