Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Everybody Complains About Traffic
At one point in my stellar public relations career, I was working with The Home Depot, which was trying to get county approval for a store that would have been the first in the area. Opposition to the store from neighbors and others was vocal and vehement. They raised more objections than you could shake a stick at, but in the end it came down to one critical issue: traffic.
The proposed location of the store was at the intersection of two of the county’s major roads on several parcels of land that had on them decrepit housing, auto repair shops and an unofficial junkyard. There was a lumber yard across the street, along with a paint store, and catercorner to the site was a shopping center that contained a Safeway and a Kmart.
Aside from traffic, one of the objections raised by a number of people, always with a perfectly straight face, was that it would destroy the rural character of the area.
In any event, owing to the two busy streets and the uses already in place along them, traffic was a legitimate issue. The Home Depot spent a ton of money on traffic consultants, and the architects did everything they could to address the issue. I found myself, as I was driving through the area where the store would go, paying close attention to the traffic, and after doing that a number of times, I was saying there must be something wrong. Simply put, the traffic didn’t seem bad at all.
So I decided to test it out. Figuring that the traffic impact of that store would be felt for a couple of miles in either direction, I started about a mile and a quarter from the store during the evening rush hour and drove past the store site to about the same distance on the other side — a total of two and a half to two and three quarters miles.
There were 11 traffic lights and stop signs on that stretch of road, but even with all those impediments, after driving it 100 times in each direction at peak evening rush hour, the average time to navigate that stretch of road was six and a half to eight minutes. It took more than nine minutes several times, and once it took twelve minutes.
Armed with that knowledge, I began to ask people, when I spoke at community groups, how long they thought it took to drive that stretch of road during evening rush hour. The answers were illuminating. Without exception, people said it took 20 to 30 minutes, and most said 25 to 30. In other words, the perception was that it took three times as long as it really did to drive that road. When I tried to say otherwise, they laughed at me, and after a while I stopped trying.
About the only way I can explain this is to say that Americans (probably everybody else, too) believe they should be able to get in their car, go wherever they want, and encounter no impediment along the way. And because of that attitude, they tend to take the worst experience they ever had on a stretch of road, multiply it by two, and view that as the irritating norm.
The Home Depot never got a store at that location; the multiple property deals they had going for it collapsed. Several years later, Kmart abandoned their store a few hundred yards away and The Home Depot is there today. A new Honda dealership was built on much of the proposed Home Depot site and almost no one objected. I guess it was a rural enough car dealership that it didn’t destroy the character of the area.