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October 7, 2002

Planning For Better After The Worst

No matter where you are on this planet, there are probably traffic problems not overly far from where you live. In my case, Toronto is the big traffic headache that affects everybody within 100km. Of course, there are also local traffic problems too, but compared to Toronto's vehicular woes they're relatively minor. Nevertheless, they are a problem.

City planners probably lie awake at night wondering how to curb the traffic problems in their area. Do we add more roads, and if so, where do we get the space? How can we get people out of their vehicles and into public transportation? How do we plan for growth 20 years from now when we have to build around infrastructure that's been around for 30, 50, or even 100 years? Even if they could come up with the ideal solution to traffic problems, there would always be some resistance, in no small part due to the amount of funding that new road building requires. I once heard that the cost of a new highway could be measured in schools per kilometer. A bit overblown? Perhaps, but probably not far off.

Seemingly unrelatedly, I was watching the Discovery channel about a week back. They had two shows back-to-back about large comet or meteor impacts on Earth, their likelihood, their inevitability, and what the result would be. In a nutshell, anything 500m across or bigger would seriously fuck our planet up. One expert they interviewed went so far as to say that you'd better hope you're inside the impact zone of the killer comet's (or meteor's) fall, as death would be instant versus the slow lingering starvation death that the rest of the world would suffer. Heavy, dude.

As a background to this, there is the aftermath of September 11th 2001. Terrorist cells, dirty nukes, rouge nations, biological weapons - the spectre of mass destruction looms large again. While not at the high levels that I assume the Western populace in 1950's saw, I would not be at all surprised if some people again started building shelters in their backyard. (Of course, a simple bomb shelter wouldn't be enough anymore. A shelter to protect from biological, chemical, nuclear, and weather dangers would be mandatory, or otherwise useless.) Truth be told, I have considered it myself for the past year, and have even planned out how I would implement it.

Traffic troubles. Planet-killer comets. Global war. It sounds like a sick grown-up version of Blue's Clues: What is mr.ska's article about this week? Let's see what our three clues are. Global war, although not looming presently, is a danger that has been brought closer by the high-level terrorist attacks on our neighbour to the south. Extinction-level comet impacts are a planetary fact of life. Planet earth just isn't watching enough of the sky to see all the comets and meteors that could hit us, and our response (despite whatever movies you've seen) is not up to the task of saving the planet without decades of warning. It's not an "if", but a "when". As for the aforementioned traffic problems - if a nice big war were to break out, or if a comet does smash into Canada - they could all be solved very quickly.

I'm not being morbid and saying that there won't be any drivers left alive on the face of the planet. I'm more optimistic than that, and believe that portions of humanity would survive and eventually regain their place on the face of the earth. Assume for a second that something dreadful happened, and most of the infrastructure that your local major metropolis (or city, town, hamlet, village, etc.) had was wiped out. The first order of business would be to save lives. The second would be to start rebuilding. However, let me ask you - if you started out with a clean slate, why would you rebuild the mistakes that were made previously? I think that cities worldwide should plan to be better after the worst.

Imagine that Toronto is the epicenter of a major catastrophe. Buildings leveled, roads destroyed, bridges turned into piles of rubble. No more Gardener Expressway, 427, Don Valley Parkway, or any of the piles of steel and concrete spaghetti that serve as the interconnections between them all. Although it would take years to accomplish, eventually everything would need to be rebuilt. Now assume that years previously, a group of traffic engineers and mathematicians got together and figured out what mistakes had been made in the planning and expansion of Toronto and its transportation system. They redesigned the system and eliminated all the problems, and even factored in future growth. Now that Toronto's been leveled, this new system of roadways can be built, and New Toronto would never know the clogs, jams, and headaches that the old Toronto was lamented and lambasted for.

Brilliant? Yeah, I thought so too. It never hurts to plan for the future, and could only be of benefit to future generations in the event of a national tragedy. The only problem is that the effort required to get such plans in place would require people. The funny thing about people is that their time and effort isn't free, so redeveloping Toronto's highways would not be a small or inexpensive task. Ask any municipal leader about road maintenance and they'll probably talk your ear off about a lack of sufficient funding. Do you really think that they'd find the money for a what-if-then scenario based on high levels of infrastructure destruction or damage? Hah. Jean Chretién would sooner get a radio gig.

The idea isn't completely dead, however. Traffic is a complex entity, and can only be explained sufficiently through mathematical modeling. Although there may be slight regional differences, modeling traffic in Canada would be a large task to be sure, but one that could be encompassed by a Master's or Ph.D. thesis. From there, that data could be used to analyze current highways across Canada.

Thanks to the popularity of Mapquest, GPS systems, and other systems that require road mapping, I'd guess really close to 100% of all roads are probably logged somewhere electronically. Combine that information with traffic flow analysis, and you have the workings of another Master's or Ph.D.: determining the bottlenecks of the current system. Once you know the bottlenecks, a much smaller number of traffic engineers and mathematicians would be able to design around the problems and analyze possible solutions. With a bit of trial and error, or even fully automated brute force try-all-possibilities method, an optimal highway redesign could be obtained.

I won't be so naïve as to think that I've reduced a big problem into a smaller one that is easily digested by our road maintenance systems and bureaucracy that is currently just barely able to keep up. And although I don't wish for millions of people to be killed and all our infrastructure to be reduced to so much ash and debris, you gotta admit that rebuilding would be a lot easier than repairing. Nonetheless, it's all probably just an interesting idea, and not much more than that. I guess I'll simply let it rest at that, and get back to designing my family's shelter, if I can ever get out of this traffic jam.


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