Why Chris Christie should hope ghosts aren’t real

Noted traffic hater Robert Tucker, seen here at a train station
Noted traffic hater Robert Tucker (on right), seen here at a train station with son Joshua Tucker. (Courtesy Joshua Tucker)

The emerging Gov. Chris Christie “Bridge-gate”  scandal raises a lot of interesting questions for political scientists. Is it likely to have durable effects, or will we forget about a week from now? Could it affect Christie’s (R-N.J.) popularity among any remaining independents? Will it harm his chances in purely Republican primaries (talk about government getting in the way of people trying to go about their business…)? Will it enhance his reputation as a bully? But I must admit that it is hitting me on a deeply personal level.

Let me explain. While my father was alive, he made a point of always repeating one piece of advice his father gave him. (For what it is worth, his father’s advice was “never marry a woman with bad gums”.) So as I grew up, I felt it was important for me to always have at the ready a single piece of concise advice my father gave me. For me, that piece of advice was: “Never take the Cross-Bronx expressway.”

The reason for this advice was that my dad was obsessed with traffic, and, more specifically, avoiding traffic, which was ironic for a guy who spent most of his life able to walk to work. Or perhaps that’s why my parents bought a house so close to where he worked. Either way, one of my favorite anecdotes about my dad involves a time when he had to drive my brother-in-law to the airport at 5 in the morning through a set of primarily small roads in a rural part of Italy.  As we attempted to figure out how long this would take  - this was in the pre-Google maps era – my Dad, without even a hint of irony, felt compelled to note that our estimate would hold “as long as there’s no traffic”.

Now here’s my completely non-data driven postulate: my dad was not alone.  In fact, I’d bet there are an awful lot of dads out there with similar hang ups about getting stuck in traffic.  Now, many of these dads are probably sitting up there in heaven right now enjoying the fact that there’s no traffic in heaven.  (That’s true by definition: heaven can’t have traffic or it wouldn’t be heaven).  They are probably relaxing, not bothered by much.  But so help me, when they hear about the guy who caused more than half a million cars (I explain this number below) complete with drivers and passengers (aka, the “children of Buono voters”) to get stuck in traffic unnecessarily, I think there are suddenly going to be a lot of ghosts returning with some ideas for whom to haunt.

Back on earth, here’s some recent data from Texas A&M on the amount of time Americans spend in traffic:

Americans spend a lot of time stuck in traffic (Source: Texas A&M Transportation Institute 2012 Urban Mobility Report)
Americans spend a lot of time stuck in traffic (Source: Texas A&M Transportation Institute 2012 Urban Mobility Report)

Yes, that’s 5 .5 billion hours spent stuck in traffic in 2011.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were 203 million licensed drivers in the US  in 2006.  I’m guessing most of those people have been stuck in traffic at some point recently, but even if we take what I think is a conservative estimate and say 50 percent of those people never get stuck in traffic, that still leaves 100 million Americans and their passengers (aka, the kids, as in “I feel badly about the kids . . . I guess”) who can feel the pain of all those people unnecessarily stuck in traffic to allow political scores to be settled.  And if we assume those 100 million Americans are getting the brunt of the 5.5 billion hours of traffic, that’s an average of 55 hours of traffic per year per traffic-affected driver, or an awful lot of time to wonder about how angry they would become if they discover their traffic jam was deliberately caused by a politician or one of his or her appointees.

Here’s another fun calculation.  My estimate for the number of cars affected in Bridge-gate comes from the the Port Authority’s estimate of 134,000 cars heading east bound on the GW bridge per day in 2012.  Since the lane closures went on for four days, that’s potentially 536,000 trips that were affected. I have no idea how long the average car was stuck in traffic (although I personally have been stuck in traffic for a long time trying to get on the GW bridge), but again let’s be conservative and assume 10 minutes of extra travel time.  Even at that minimal level, it would imply that people spent approximately 90,000 hours of extra time waiting to go over the GW Bridge those days.

Christie has wisely now declared that “this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.” The question is, will my Dad and his buddies believe him? Because you know what happens after you finish going over the George Washington Bridge going eastbound? You end up on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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