2005 September 22 Thursday
Why Don't Police Control Entry Onto Evacuation Freeways?
Watching the TV cameras on cable channels of Houston freeways an obvious question strikes me: Why not have the police control and shut down freeway on-ramps? Then evacuation traffic would not get so heavy that the speeds go down to a crawl. What has been the average speed of the cars on the highways out of Houston? 1 mph.
As traffic levels rises total vehicle miles driven per hour rises. But at some point total vehicle miles driven actually drops. Put more cars on the roads and total vehicle miles declines. It becomes counterproductive to put more cars onto highways. If car entry onto roads is restricted then the existing cars would get out of the way more quickly by driving to where they are headed more rapidly.
The Texas police made a big mistake by not closing down a lot of on-ramps as soon as traffic started to slow.
Another point: If the police would have asserted control over on-ramps they could have given preference to vehicles that have more passengers. This would have provided incentive for people to evacuate neighbors without cars, people from old folks homes, and others.
Also, once the inbound lanes were shifted to outbound directions entry onto the switched direction lanes could have been reserved for buses and cars that carry many people.
Excellent proposition. Though, if adopted, it would have imposed a tough decision (neighbours vs. belongings) to be picked on blindfold. For who can know at the time he sets out (or even gets prepared) how restrictive the police will have to rule the moment he enters the highway?
I do not envy anyone in such a situation.
How do you shut down most of the on-ramps? Do that and you'll have masses of people bitching that they couldn't leave because they couldn't get on the highway. Do they have to put maps at the on-ramps telling people where to go to enter the ramps? You just know there are more than a few idiots who will decide they can't get on so they'll just go home or they'll simply drive through any barricade.
That's easy, you put police on the ramps. You'll need them anyway if you're going to use the inbound lanes for outbound traffic.
One of the serious problems with the evacuation appears to be people running out of fuel while idling in traffic. Evacuating by zones, holding vehicles in blocks until there is room for them, broadcasting requests to shut down engines until it's time to go, and other measures might help this. In the end, there will always be the idiots who try to go without enough to make it; wreckers to get them to the shoulder and buses to pick up the passengers would be a good management strategy.
The people of Texas were smarter, they left earlier. They all left earlier leading to a huge traffic jam. Evacuation by zone is more intelligent. Get out in your time slot, or take your chances. Warmer sea temperatures leads to stronger hurricanes. These people are learning. Too bad the local Louisiana government officials are too stupid to learn. Kick them out and start over.
I doubt one would completely close down most ramps, and if one did close down a couple ramps completely, I would expect one to erect detour signs.
More effective would be traffic control to limit the rate of cars entering the freeway. I have seen automated systems for this in some areas prone to congestion. If one holds back each car until 20 or 30 seconds after the car ahead has entered the freeway and until any temporary traffic jams start moving again, the traffic keeps moving.
Scheduling zones seems important too. In which case, one could erect a sign that basically says: "Come back at 3pm" or whenever the zone starts up next.
Otherwise, the people closest to the coast will feel the greatest urgency to leave. And just as they move further away from the coast, the people in those areas will try to get on the highway and so on.
Elsewhere I have been reading that police were closing secondary roads to persons fleeing Houston so that everybody was forced into the Interstate parking lots. I can't understand that, other than as a desire to control everything and everybody.
Closing secondary roads is stupid, and I agree it sounds like a control issue. I long ago noticed that the congestion in Toronto where every effort is made to discourage through traffic on side-streets was far far worse than Milwaukee where folks don't even consider it necessary to go to the expense of erecting stop signs on most residential intersections.
Take it a step further, if you will. The situation was declared as a "State of Emergency", giving the Texas Government the ability to mobolize the National Guard. Put those big Troop Trucks at the intersections that need to be managed, put M.P.'s that have been trained in traffic control out there and let the Police watch the property of the Citizens and keep law and order in a tough situation. It is a classic story of not having enough Municipal People to get it done. Witness New Orleans.
What I do not get is why wasn't this done? It is such a simple and obvious thing to do. Around Los Angeles there are stop lights on on-ramps that come on during busy times to control flow onto freeways. This isn't rocket science. It is an incredibly obvious step to take.
And, yes, personnel were available to do this. They could have used National Guard, police, firemen, city, county, and state road workers, and still others.
The state government's of hurricane prone areas should issue colored stickers to people (during vehicle registration, license renewal, etc) that must be put on the upper left-hand side (or some other designated place) of the front wind shield. Have six or eight colors, and spread them out evenly across the geographic areas at risk. Then order evacuations by color (purle at 2:00pm, red at 4:00pm, etc). Have police on the on-ramps to fine the hell out of people who try to go when it is not there time. This would alleviate much of the congestion.
Having been in the Houston area during this time, I can give some answers. The problem with trying to block exits is that it takes quite a bit of time and manpower to do that. A lot of the police manpower was watching the Houston area to prevent looting. The NG and federal troops would need time to be briefed and deployed as well. Also, Houstonians are notorious for creating their own on- and off-ramps to freeways. All over Houston you can see ruts between freeways and frontage roads where frustrated drives decided TXDOT should have an exit or an entrance.
The attempts to channel traffic onto the main evacuation routes is a concern for drivers who get stranded. If you're stranded on an official route, like I-45 or I-10, you'll be found and helped, one way or the other. If you're off on some side farm-to-market road, your chances of getting picked up in case of a breakdown are very slim.
IMO, the gridlock itself was caused by an overreaction by the Mayor and the Harris County Judge. Understandably, they didn't want to repeat New Orleans' performance during Katrina, so, in addition to ordering a mandatory evacuation of vulnerable areas (flooding zones, storm surge zones, and those in mobile homes), they issued a voluntary evacuation. In their words, "If you can get out, go." They did this on Wednesday, three days before the hurricane was scheduled to make landfall. Unfortunately, the hurricane track was nowhere near being settled. On Wednesday night, the eye was projected to go through Matagorda, to the south of Houston, putting us on the "dirty side" of the storm, but still a good distance from the strongest winds. But on Thursday morning, when Rita had reached Cat 5 status, the track was going through Freeport, which would have put the strongest winds and rain right into Houston (at which point I told my wife to prepare to leave, just in case the track stabilized). But then on Thursday night, the track slid even further to the east, putting us on the clean side, and by Six O'clock it was apparent that Houston was going to dodge the bullet, though everyone kept their guard up.
The tragedy in all this is that people were told not to take the Southwest Freeway towards Matagorda, and so they all went north and east, towards Lufkin and Beaumont. That is, they wound up evacuating into the ultimate path of the hurricane.
Future evacutions should be managed in more sober manner. The sticker idea is a good one. We certainly had a problem of premature evacuees blocking those from coastal counties. So much so that the Brazoria County Judge lashed out the Houston Mayor and the Harris County Judge. People frustrated by the long traffic decided (wisely) that it was better to be in their house during the storm than to be exposed on the freeway. Prepositioning emergency stocks of gas along the freeways would also be helpful. Another thing that would be useful is to have some system of rating houses by their ability to withstand a storm. If homeowners knew that their place could withstand a Cat 3 hurricane, as some can, they wouldn't need to block the lanes of traffic.