3.19.2009

Iatrogenia

Let’s just say this up front: I’ve received no kicks from Route 66. Whatever kicks may have been in 66’s arsenal must have been depleted long before I ever rolled my late, great VW beetle westward from Washington. Nonetheless, The Washington Post’s editorial page came out revved up, shall we say, for the widening of 66 in “Spot On: Planners should vote to widen Interstate 66.” Interested parties, and they are legion, can read more about this than is considered healthy on various websites, so I need not review the history.

Lets just start with the present. I realize the wicked nature of the problem, but it's disingenuous to say, as the piece in the Post does, that "no one could have imagined" the rapid increase in traffic from development. What the heck did they think would happen? People looked at that open road and pictured, like the old Nissan Z ad of years past, that there was an empty lane with their name on it. How long would the bucolic landscape be left to the livestock gazing in bovine complacency at speeding convertibles full of happy auto-matons? Maybe someone would wirte a song about it? Well, this 66 is not that 66...from which kicks can apparently still be gotten.

We humans have a remarkable capacity for cognitive dissonance, that is, the dubious talent of holding two incompatible beliefs in one mind. So we persist in believing that widening highways will "solve" traffic problems and "ease" the "congestion"...love the medical tropes. Who doesn't want to alleviate congestion? Oh, let’s not leave the handy “clogged artery” figure behind either. But the cure doesn’t suit the disease. Even as we latch onto the specious belief that we can pave our way to clear-flowing roads, smart people, like those at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, continually remind us that new lanes actually induce automobile traffic. A ribbon o' highway attracts humans in cars as if the road itself were paved in magnets, causing the very problem it is supposed to solve.


This is called iatrogenia. There are other good examples. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that a lot of personal care products perpetuate the symptoms they claim to mitigate, but only to such a degree as to keep the consumer buying the product. A dandruff shampoo that induces a few flakes. A moisturizer that slightly dries the skin. In truth, alcohol does dehydrate you, despite what that cold beer on a hot day suggests. Thus, we just grab another. The construction of Interstate 66 itself generated its own traffic, as it represented a quick and convenient straight line into Washington. Is it no wonder that it worked so well? But, knowing that, why would we do it again?

Only truly unbearable—shall we just call them unsustainable?—situations effect change. Leave 66 as it is. At some point, some sentient being somewhere in Fairfax County just might throw open her window and shout to the stoic sound walls: “I’m tired as hell, and I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m moving to a neighborhood where I have some choices.” Now that will “ease congestion”.

Read more about it
http://www.acstnet.org/about.htm
The Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation

1 comment:

Professor Fleming said...

Good piece Susan. I remember rt. 66 as being plenty wide enough when i was there years back....wider roads and more roads = more development, less open space, more impervious land and ultimately to more congestion - not less, and where will the water all go - not into the aquifer i suspect.