Traffic in the Beltway during peak commuting times is notoriously bad. All three regional governments have developed roads with a middle lane in which traffic goes one direction in the morning and the opposite direction in the evening. It was actually quite disorienting seeing those lanes when I first traveled to the area but I walked away thinking that it was an incredibly innovative way to try and solve their traffic problems.
Well Virginia has now decided to take a step further in trying to squeeze every last ounce of highway capacity out of their Beltway interstates. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced this week that commuters will soon be allowed to drive on the shoulders of certain parts of the Beltway during peak times to try and ease congestion. The advantages of this decision are clear. Opening up the shoulder effectively provides an extra lane to the highway at very little cost to the state and motorists should enjoy a shorter commute as a result.
This decision also opens up some problems though. Motorists have to know exactly what the rules are and those new rules have to be enforced. Also, emergency vehicles often travel along the shoulders during periods of heavy traffic and this could slow them down considerably. Another thing to consider is why exactly highways have shoulders to begin with. If your car breaks down or if you’re involved in an accident, the shoulder allows you to move your disabled vehicle off the road and allow traffic to still pass through. What will happen when a vehicle inevitably breaks down on a shoulder being used as another lane of traffic? All of the temporary gains in traffic congestion gained will be gone instantly. This decision seems seems like a high-risk, high-reward proposition. This will probably work great when nothing is going wrong, but when a problem inevitably occurs, this new scheme will only complicate it.