What was the Biggest Traffic Jam in History?

The other day I had an experience that New Yorkers who drive are familiar with – I was sitting in traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. All told, I didn’t do too badly: Throggs Neck to George Washington Bridge in just under 40 minutes. Readers from outside the area might be horrified to hear that it took 40 minutes to go 4 miles, but trust me, you can do much worse. I’ve sat on the Cross Bronx for nearly two hours more than once. But even though this particular traffic jam wasn’t especially bad, it still always feels like it takes forever. Of course my mind starts working, and I wonder – what was the biggest traffic jam in history? Naturally I had to look into it and decided to blog about it, because why not?

For starters, “biggest traffic jam in history” depends on how you measure. Are we talking longest stretch lengthwise? Longest duration? Number of people affected? There are a few answers, so let’s have a look.

If we go by longest duration, then the 2010 traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway probably wins. It’s famous enough to have it’s own Wikipedia page. Road construction in August started a 12-day traffic jam on a 62-mile stretch of road that was already prone to traffic jams. On August 13, a traffic conditions reached a breaking point and sparked off the multi-day jam. It was so serious that international news outlets took notice. The first mention I found of the jam came on August 24, when the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and several other American papers reported that the jam was in its tenth day. The Journal ( Aug. 24, 2010) reported that truck drivers were stuck for days at a time and resorted to playing cards to pass the time. One interviewed truck driver reported that his journey from Mongolia, which typically took three days, would take over a week. Detroit Free Press (Aug. 25, 2010) reported that cars in some spots covered only a mile a day. By August 26, thirteen days after the start of the jam, press reports indicated that emergency measures were finally easing some of the congestion (WSJ, Aug. 26, 2010). That marked the official end of the Beijing-Tibet traffic jam, but congestion continued for weeks as construction on the road progressed.

So that settles the question of longest traffic jam in terms of duration – but what about length? The 62-mile stretch of congestion leading to Beijing sounds like a special circle of hell, but that distance pales in comparison to what Sao Paulo, Brazil sees on a regular basis. Dubbed one of the world’s worst traffic cities, Sao Paulo experiences traffic jams stretching over 100 miles during rush hour. In November 2013 at 6:10 PM, the city reported 309 km of traffic, or 192 miles. I couldn’t find any information on how long it would’ve taken a commuter to get home during that particular rush hour from hell, but reports say that the average Sao Paulo motorist spends four hours sitting in traffic every day. I thought traffic in NYC was bad…

But what about the United States? While the historic traffic jams in the US don’t reach the epic proportions they do in other areas, our country has nonetheless had some serious road tie-ups in its own right. As far as finding the largest jam in American history, it again depends on a few factors. Do we go by length? Duration? Number of people affected? It’s a judgement call for sure, but from what I can tell there are two contenders.

The first, funny enough, is the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. I remember years ago watching news footage and hearing about some of the artists being helicoptered in to make their performances. I never pursued that or looked into why that was, but turns out it was because of traffic. The festival was originally expected to draw 50,000 attendees. By the date of the festival, nearly a million people jammed about 10 miles of the New York Thruway (I-87), causing a traffic deadlock that lasted three days. Unable to move, motorists passed the time by having picnics in the fields of upstate New York. This backup clogged all approaches to the festival, and hence some artists resorted to helicopters for their transport. About 500,000 eventually did make it through the mess and attend Woodstock. The others had to be content with being caught in traffic heading to the most iconic music festival in history.

The second contender is a more tragic story. I confess that when I got the idea for this post I thought it would be a fun little article to write. Unfortunately this last case dampened my mood as I realized the human suffering that can result from uncontrolled traffic. In September 2005, just a few weeks after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita formed in the Gulf of Mexico and headed towards Texas. With memories of Katrina fresh, Houston residents heeded the evacuation order and hit the road in mass. Approximately 2.5 million people flooded the roads out of the city, creating a massive deadlock that lasted over 20 hours. City officials had reportedly not made adequate plans for the evacuation, leaving people stranded on the roads. Motorists ran out of gas in the gridlock, and many started suffering from heat stroke as the sun beat down on them. The most tragic event occurred when a bus carrying residents of a nursing home caught fire on the road, leading to 24 deaths. After the chaos was over, about 100 people died in the evacuation. To top it off, Rita was only a Category 3 hurricane by the time it made landfall, and while it still caused $12 billion in damages, the devastation was nowhere near as bad as feared. This end result makes the Houston traffic jam not only one of the worst in terms of gridlock, but most likely the deadliest as well.

So upon reading up on all of these extreme traffic events throughout the world, my struggles on the Cross Bronx were definitely put into perspective. 40 minutes on the road pales in comparison to the struggles of people who had to spend a week fighting through congestion on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway or suffering from heat stroke in Houston. I’ll be counting my blessings the next time I’m sitting in some traffic.

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