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VOL. 43 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 26, 2019

What’s the secret to negotiating Nashville traffic?

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It was a stupid, rookie mistake. I was downtown and decided to go somewhere. In a vehicle. At, roughly, 4:45 p.m.

I can sense your eyes rolling. What an idiot, you’re probably thinking.

Which is pretty much what I quickly thought of myself as I came to the parking garage exit and saw the line of other vehicles all heading the same direction I wanted to go.

Configure alternate route, brain said.

Maybe it was hubris. Maybe 20 years of dealing with the Long Island Expressway, Jericho Turnpike, the Northern State Parkway and the occasional forays into Manhattan or Brooklyn had led me to believe that I was up to any traffic challenge.

Not so. Nashville traffic poses its own particular trials, aside from sheer congestion. For one thing, roadways often seem designed to force you to abruptly change lanes to get wherever you’re going, while simultaneously forcing everyone else to abruptly change lanes in the opposite direction to get wherever they’re going.

It’s a marvel of engineering, in some respects. Though not in good respects.

And let us not forget the congenital inability of Nashville drivers to employ a signal when engaging in any sort of maneuver, rendering every excursion a potential bumper car exercise, only without the rubber bumpers.

I don’t want to say Nashville drivers are bad.

But they are.

Other than you and me, of course.

Fortunately, in this case my destination did not require getting onto an interstate highway. As I passed the long caravan of others slowly crawling their way onto and up the entrance ramp, I felt a slight pity. And much relief.

They’re probably following the directions of Siri, I thought, or some other GPS guide, which seems always to want to direct me onto an interstate even if I’m just heading to the nearest Kroger.

I also started wondering if there’s a way to outsmart the daily snarl, some secret knowledge that the cognoscenti possess to avoid it. What advice would a Nashville traffic guru offer to bypass all the mess?

So I put together a few questions and posed them to Jeff Hammond, assistant director of Public Works for transportation and a traffic engineer.

Hammond, in sports parlance, took the ball and ran. What follows are his answers, verbatim. My questions have been lightly edited, to make me look smarter.

Spoiler alert: There is no hidden secret. Just common-sense advice.

ME: What is the biggest mistake Nashville drivers make?

J.H.: “I think Nashvillians still underestimate their travel time, then stress out trying to get to their destination. We’re not a 15-minute town anymore, so factor that in, or better yet leave a little early or late to avoid the peak.’’

ME: What is the biggest misconception drivers have about Nashville traffic?

J.H.: “Unfortunately, there’s not a silver bullet to fix the traffic problem. It’s one of the downsides to any growing community. Our emphasis on transit, bikes or other modes is meant to give Nashvillians an alternative to congested driving.

“Advances in traffic technology will also help some, but we’re seeing fairly modest (approximately 10%) reductions in travel time with these types of corridor improvements.’’

ME: What is the one (or more) tip(s) you would give drivers to make their drives easier?

J.H.: “Factor transportation into other decisions like where you decide to work or live. All the new infill development is one sign that Nashville now values being close to work, shopping, etc.

“Share your commute! Traffic would be solved overnight (and with no cost) if an appreciable number of commuters carpooled.

“Try another mode. Even not driving a few days a month can help. (Ridesharing doesn’t count. Uber, Lyft, etc. can be really handy, but actually add unnecessary trips on the roads.)

“Drive the speed limit. Yes, for safety, but also because traffic signals are timed in order to progress traffic at the speed limit. Speeding just gets you to a red light faster.’’

ME: Are there underused streets, pikes, etc., that could help if people knew more about them?

J.H.: “Not really. Nashville’s historic hub-and-spoke road network means that there is little redundancy on our major streets, as opposed to a grid street network which can provide for better alternate routes. Especially with advances in driver information, traffic tends to self-equalize across available routes.’’

ME: Do you recommend using GPS?

J.H.: “Generally, yes, because most applications are now factoring real-time traffic conditions into their routing. I agree that they seemed biased toward interstates, but every time I think I know better than GPS, I end up sitting in traffic!’’

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.

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