photo: Pre-Thanksgiving traffic on the Long Island Expressway in 2018.
Pre-Thanksgiving traffic on the Long Island Expressway in 2018. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The annual holiday gridlock reveals the failure of the American imagination when it comes to other transportation choices.

It’s Turkey Time in America, and you know the deal: Prepare for traffic hell.

More than 55 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles away from home for the Thanksgiving holiday, AAA predicts. This figure has been steadily rising; it is, once again, the highest since 2005. About 1.5 million people will be taking trains, buses, and various forms of public transportation to their destinations. Another 4.45 million Americans will fly to friends and family. The rest are driving. As we motor from suburb to suburb, back to little hometowns and over to new retirement communities, Thanksgiving exposes America’s utter dependence on automobility like no other holiday.

The epic congestion this mass migration triggers is as much a Thanksgiving tradition as the tryptophan-induced nap. Those striking photos of bumper-to-bumper-in-both-directions traffic you see next to stories about lane-widenings or War on Cars-themed social media content? This is when they take ‘em.

Traffic! (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Google Maps has helpfully searched out the best times to leave for the holiday drive, as well as when to avoid grocery runs or shopping trips while roads are near peak capacity. But plenty of Americans say they would gladly give up the driving if there were another way.

About 52 percent of people surveyed by Esurance said they find the Thanksgiving drive at least slightly stressful. The online car insurance company asked people in a somewhat-clunky poll what they would do to avoid it. Stuffed with options, about 32 percent said they would either sacrifice their favorite Thanksgiving dish or help with meal preparation to avoid driving, as if forgoing the pumpkin pie could somehow whip up a high-speed rail network.

But alternative travel choices were also an option: 21 percent said they would rather pay for a flight than drive, and 18 percent said they would happily just skip the holiday altogether. Meanwhile, 26 percent insisted that they would still drive, no matter how terrible traffic got.

Maybe more of us should stay put, as the Huffington Post recently argued. Based on those earlier AAA estimates, there will be at least five billion miles driven to and from our Turkey Day destinations, with cars emitting close to a pound of CO2 per mile driven. Flying’s even more foul, before you get to the table to contemplate the carbon footprint of your turkey. The running estimate, per a 2016 Carnegie Mellon University study, is that “four people who fly 600 miles round trip have a carbon footprint ten times that of an average prepared Thanksgiving meal.” But be nice to your guests: Curbed’s Alissa Walker argues you should redirect your flight shaming towards the elected officials who expanded the airport in the first place. And Thanksgiving’s overall climate impact may get partially counterbalanced by other forces: With two or three days off work, there are a lot of Americans who aren’t making their average daily 30 vehicle miles traveled.

The dissonance of conducting an annual orgy of gravy-and-fuel consumption in a world that can no longer tolerate such profligacy is the focus of a new TV ad from the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute. Airing before the Democratic debate on MSNBC, the spot conjured a grim “This Is the Future That Liberals Want” situation by imagining an idyllic suburban home where the family has to haul their turkeys and pies to grandma’s house via scooters, because the Green New Deal has made gas too expensive.

They’re not even electric!

Rasheq Zarif, a mobility consultant at Deloitte, says that the packed roads of Thanksgiving present another danger. When so many multiple millions of people choose (or are forced) to drive at once, it sure seems like the mobility solution we need is another lane or two. “But adding more roads does not solve the problem of congestion,” he says. “It’s a matter of distributing the demand. It should not be expected that we should build more roads and it’s free. It’s a utility, a resource for us, and we need to respect that the same way as we respect energy, water, housing and so forth.” Zarif paraphrases our gluttony for roads with a twist on the popular aphorism about road widening: “When you’re wearing big pants, loosening your belt will not help remind you about weight loss.”

Zarif also cautions that the gridlock we see on holidays cannot take over our imaginations for what’s possible the rest of the year. “Especially when you have these peak periods, resorting to single-occupancy vehicles will not be a solution moving forward,” he says. “We will need to kind of shift towards seeing alternative forms of transportation as viable.”

A lot of that is just about making other options visible. Zarif says he encounters this in his work on shared and autonomous vehicles, where he has to help design “systems on systems” to help people make different choices. Buses, trains, bikes, and yes, scooters, will need to become more legible and appealing to become part of our daily journeys, whether we’re going home from work or home for the holidays. Thanksgiving is a good time to start trying to push that message.

“There’s an opportunity in providing the necessary incentives to change people's behavior to use these other forms of transportation,” Zarif says. “It’s a lot like another holiday: New Year’s Eve. We discourage drunk driving by offering free services to get people out of their own cars. But we could take that concept to the next level, doing it dynamically, at a larger scale, to reduce congestion.”

So instead of arguing about impeachment around the dinner table tomorrow, argue about congestion pricing. Explain the virtues of road diets during pie. And take a cue from these maniacs who served a Thanksgiving feast on the L train. When it comes to mobility, America is hungry for alternatives.

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