In Praise of Bottlenecks


February 21, 2008
West Marin Citizen


Browse in West Marin

When they put the new surface on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road it first seemed like a gift. That sweet cushion of slurry seal, the way the old car tooled along – I almost couldn’t wait to get past the cement plant and over the Platform Bridge.

Then it dawned on me that I was going faster. Sixty. Sixty-five. No, officer, that was just a figure of speech. Really.

The smooth surface eliminated the feedback that the old rough one had provided. There no longer was a rattle to tell me I was going too fast. This got me thinking. There is something to be said for bad roads – not pop-the-shocks bad, but bad enough to keep us going slowly, or not driving at all.

This is a corollary of the bottleneck theory, which I first heard from a German transportation planner. We Americans take bottlenecks as an affront. Efficiency means progress; and you don’t get ahead by going slow. The bottleneck theory suggests the opposite – namely, that a system needs overload protection, like a fuse. Life might ultimately depend upon them.

It was something I knew already, but for some reason had to hear from someone else. I spent the latter part of my boyhood on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, out near the tip. Route Six, which is the main highway down the Cape, narrows to two lanes for about sixteen miles between Hyannis and Orleans. There were chronic demands to widen that stretch and speed the flow of summer tourists.

But the Lower Cape, as the tip end is called (even though it’s farther north) always resisted. The bottleneck reduced the hordes. It helped preserve the quiet that people come out there for. The Upper Cape could have used a few bottlenecks itself, but it’s too late now, alas.

More recently I moved out here to West Marin and found another version of the same thing. The narrow winding roads help keep traffic down. They make us pause and think before we get into the car. When the highway builders of the Sixties proposed a thruway up the coast and two more across the county, people here reacted much the way they do on the Lower Cape. They understood that without inconvenience and inefficiency in the right places, we’d all be toast.

I’m told the residents of the Bolinas Gridded Mesa have fought to keep it unimproved. It can be a challenge for visitors; but if people there don’t desire many, desired, then it means doing more with less, and saving tax dollars too.

There’s another corollary – namely, the traffic light. Most transportation planners view these as second only to new thruways in their capacity to “rationalize” a flow. But that’s not so clear. Often you sit burning gas at an empty intersection waiting for the light to change. Or else you race to beat the yellow light; a lot of pedestrians die that way.

Compare that to the four-way stop, such as the one at South Novato Boulevard and San Marin Drive, next to the high school. You stop and look around. Maybe you don’t remember from the driver’s test who exactly has the right of way. So you play it safe. You make eye contact with the other drivers, perhaps wave one of them through. A social system takes the place of a mechanical and legalistic one. The bottleneck requires us to cooperate with people instead of race against them.

Something similar can happen when we walk along these narrow roads. I walk often with my family on Mesa Road here in Point Reyes Station. Yes, it can be unnerving with those hulking pick up trucks and SUVs. I think often of the need for footpaths, so us walkers can get off the automotive grid.

Yet something wonderful can happen when we all are on the road together. Drivers often slow down and swerve around us. They wave, and we wave back, even if we can’t see who it is. Sometimes people stop to chat or offer us rides. It’s the kind of etiquette of interaction that once flourished in daily life, before the isolation booths called cars stripped it away.

But not everyone is so considerate. Tourists think Mesa Road is a state highway. Pick-ups sometimes speed like it’s L.A. Things are even worse along the Levee Road. We humans don’t make good bottlenecks unless there are a lot of us. Otherwise we are potential road kill. Out here, walkers need other routes, which is something I will deal with another time.

The bottleneck revival is another sign of a large and fundamental shift. Long ago the challenge was to speed things up, or seemed to be at least. Now it is to slow things down. Progress has a new face: inconvenience.