Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Some buzzwords are simply cases of exaggeration. ‘Gridlock,’ for example, is being widely used today to describe situation that aren’t really up to snuff.

Strictly speaking, gridlock is a scenario involving a grid-based transportation network—e.g. a system of roads—whereby blocked intersections prevent vehicles from moving. It thus describes a locked grid where movement becomes nearly impossible.

This specific meaning is being watered down, however, by increasingly frequent uses of the term to describe heavy traffic in general.

While covering on a recent transit strike in Ottawa, The Globe And Mail reported:

“Frustrated commuters, who've hitch-hiked, walked through repeated blizzards or been stuck in traffic gridlock, have been hoping for weeks for an end to the dispute.”

A lack of bus service, however, does not cause gridlock, as this article seems to suggest. Rather, bad drivers who enter intersections before they have space to exit them are the cause of gridlock, when it occurs. And generally, true gridlock is mitigated in Canadian cities by the enforcement of laws against such behaviour.

In downtown Toronto, for instance, many intersections are painted with large ‘X’ patterns to dissuade drivers from idling in them. It’s not a perfect remedy for gridlock, but it certainly helps prevent it even when traffic in general becomes heavier.

It’s really a question of context. A recent letter to The Toronto Star referred to a public transportation meeting and suggested:

“Faster, cleaner, more convenient service extending throughout the Greater Toronto Area will reduce the appalling bumper-to-bumper rush hour gridlock and cut air pollution dramatically.”

Not only does the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) generally avoid actual gridlock, but it also would not necessarily see any existing gridlock—or other traffic problems, really—reduced by improved transit service. Indeed, many cities around the world with the strongest provision of rapid transit service also suffer some of the worst road traffic. One does not prevent the other.

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