Where can we find true indicators of what’s happening now, so that we can help coherently shape our future? We all look to mainstream media, who relentlessly attempt to break down for us the multi-zero sums that are nearly impossible to comprehend. At the gym or the coffee shop, we hear people tell their own stories or offer secondhand reports of what’s happening locally. We see “clearance” signs plastered on shop windows and popping up on retail Web sites, begging us to pony up just a fraction of what we once did to purchase goods and feed their businesses. The Dow and other stock indices look like Rocky Mountain ski runs. And most weeks the President has somber words on the subject.
For news junkies accustomed to the worst but still looking out for glimmers of hope, a road-traffic measurement tool offers some interesting indications of American behavior. Traffic information provider INRIX has released its Traffic Scorecard for 2008, showing a dramatic 30 percent decline in peak traffic congestion on major urban American roads. Survey data suggests that higher fuel prices in early 2008 and the slower economy later in the year kept the drop consistent throughout. Americans spent an average of 13 fewer hours stuck in traffic than we did in 2007 (though if you’ve ever braved Manhattan’s cross-town bus, you’ll wholeheartedly agree with the Scorecard’s recognition of New York as second-most congested city in the U.S.).
The significant impact our economic climate had on these figures is pretty clear. Higher unemployment leads to fewer commuters. Tighter household budgets mean fewer trips to the mall. Lousy retail sales make for fewer products shipped; fewer trucks on the road also contribute to less traffic. That’s a lot of here-and-now pain, but could it also offer the tiniest glimmer of hope? Less traffic does translate to less fuel consumption and less nasty fumes released into the atmosphere.
Over the last few years, our excesses have been driving us into a deep hole of debt, and we know that can’t continue. We’ve also literally been driving into dangerous energy dependency, and that can’t continue either. Would we have voluntarily stopped the journey we were on? Probably not.
But we should be paying attention to behavior-tracking indicators, and using them to brainstorm new concepts for living. In this case, we can strive to continue driving down traffic numbers and emissions even as employment numbers rise again, utilizing public transportation, alternative fuels and other innovative methods—all part of the Reboot for our future.