We usually think of Japan as a well-organized, efficient, and polite society. That is except for August 12, 1990, when evacuation traffic for typhoon Winona mixed with traffic from people coming back from their summer holiday. Due to their 18th century design, highways around Tokyo can become overloaded as far as 30-40 miles outside the city. How bad did this traffic jam get? Try to imagine over 15,000 cars, bumper to bumper for 84 miles. My name’s…
The world as we know it would not be the world as it know it without cars. Everyone’s got one, it seems, and that can be a problem. Of the billion or so cars in the world, China has 5 million, though the total number of motor vehicles in the country is closer to 18 million. Car ownership comes on much faster than highway building, so authorities have tried to stop residents from buying so many cars, mostly in an attempt to ease traffic and reduce pollution, but their efforts are almost useless. Beijing drivers for example must leave their cars at home one day per week, based on the last digit of the license plate, so some people just bought a second car. Still, local reports claim that the daily Chinese driver spends two or three hours per day in traffic, off the back of the huge number of cars.
In August 2010, China was crowned the host of the mother of all traffic jams, with a leviathan of cars that stretched between Zhangjiakou and Beijing, more than 62mi/100km, and lasted for 12 days. Since we’re talking about China, a nation not known for information-permeable borders, there are no clear statistics concerning the number of stranded drivers, but if the average car is 15ft/4.5m long and we allow for a few feet between them, that would be 20,000 cars. Big trucks were a main aggravator of the problem, which we’ll get into in a minute, so that drives the estimate down, but even at 10,000, that’s a helluva lot of cars.
Like the video of REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” people got out of their cars and walked around. Truckers slept under their vehicles. People played cards, the lucky few who happened to have cards with them, anyway. Locals saw an opportunity to help…and make a little scratch selling the stranded motorists food and water. Bottled water that normally cost 1 yuan could cost you 15 yuan, and you pretty much had to pay it. There was also a fair amount of crime, with gas being siphoned, goods being stolen, and even a few stabbings. Hundreds of police were sent into the area, to no avail. It was like Woodstock ‘99 but with fewer fires.
You know how when you’re in traffic, you want to know what caused it, you want to see an accident or construction once you start moving again. Imagine if you’d waited more than a week to see. So what did cause the traffic jam? A lot of things contribute to Chinese traffic overall. Many of China’s cities were not designed for cars. They were also not designed to support the massive populations they now boast (Beijing, for example, has more than 20 million people). As a result, in many cities, the roads are simply not big enough. Cars are a status symbol. In China, where white-collar workers might otherwise be satisfied with public transportation, buying a car often isn’t as much about convenience as it is about showing that you *can buy a car because you’re enjoying a successful career. Once they’ve got the cars, that becomes their default transportation. Car ownership has nearly tripled in a little more than a decade, but it’s not physically possible to build highways fast enough to keep up. China’s roads are also full of new drivers. China didn’t break the two million vehicle mark until around the year 2000, but a decade later it had more than five million. That means that at any time, a significant percentage of the people driving on China’s roads only have a few years of experience. Their driving school aren’t great either, usually teaching exclusively on closed courses, meaning a brand new driver is on their own the first time they pull out onto a real road. This can lead to mistakes that can cause accidents and gridlock. There’s also a fair amount of corruption afoot, so some new drivers haven’t taken any classes at all. As a result, China has a lot of accidents: its traffic fatality rate per 100,000 cars is 36, which is more than double the United States, and several times more than European countries like the UK and Spain, which have rates of less than 10 fatalities per 100k cars. And the big cities of China just have so many people. Twenty million live in Beijing alone, so even with great driver education, wider roads, and fewer people buying cars, traffic jams are still going to be an issue.
As for the Beijing car-pocalypse specifically, the exacerbating factor is coal. China relies on coal for 70% of their energy needs, which comes both from the country of Mongolia and the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia. There are precious few railroads in the region, so the coal goes by truck and along highway G110. G110 is an important road, but not a big one. It also lack inspection stations that other highways have, making it the first choice for the many unlicensed coal mines. A highway being used that much, especially by big, heavy vehicles, will require repair, which they forged ahead with on the fifth day of the traffic jam, shutting down half the lanes. Ironically, trucks carrying construction supplies to be used on the expressway in order to ease traffic were blocked at an exit, jamming it up worse. What had been a crawl became a dead stop, with some cars only moving .2mi/.3km…. per day. A drive that should have taken an hour took some people a week. Authorities tried to reroute traffic and encourage people not to drive, but it was like locking the door after the horse was on fire. All they could do was let the traffic jam run its course over the next week, as well as to improve roads, add rail lines, and crack down on illegal mining to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Surprisingly, the Guinness Book of World Records claims that this isn’t the longest traffic jam in history, by linear measure. An episode in France spans from Lyon to Paris, a distance of 109mi/175km in February 1980. The reason? Rough winter weather and a spike of holiday travelers. A nearly-100mi jam on I-45 north of Houston in 2005 at least had a good reason: people fleeing Hurricane Rita. It was the largest evacuation in United States history, with three million people flooded the freeways, starting on September 21, 2005. 48 hours later, many were still stranded in the gridlock. If you judge a city’s traffic by taking all of the small traffic jams together, a special prize goes to Sao Paulo, Brazil, which had more than 182 miles/292 of accumulated jams out of 522 miles/840 monitored in June 2009. As in China, Brazil is adding cars and commercial vehicles exponentially quicker than they can add roads.
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Review from FB, not only a review, a recommendation
Erek M Moses recommends Your Brain on Facts podcast.
July 29 at 9:21 AM ·
I listen to about 25 different podcasts on a daily basis while at work, and this show is by far in my top 3 as I have listened to almost every episode (and will get to all soon!), and I eagerly wait each new episode.
Little is ever said about hosts in podcasts.. no matter the quality of content, if the host doesn’t have a voice that resonates, it kind of kills the whole show. This host in particular has a calming, intelligent and informative tone that absolutely makes the show (on top of great content of course).
That said, my family and friends know all too well that I recommend you and wish I’d stop sometimes
Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.
Marooned on the canal’s Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.
“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands’ differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.
Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the “country” running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted “church” services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)
Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”
It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.
Fortunately, the crews were not trapped inside the canal for the entire eight years. They were allowed to go home and replacement crews were brought in. This was needed to keep the ships in order. There was plenty of maintenance work to be done on the vessels—cleaning and repairing, transferring of fuel, fire safety drills. Because of the hot tropical climate, working hours were cut from eight hours to six hours on weekdays and to four hours on Saturday. Sundays were free. This left enough time for reading books, playing bridge and ping-pong, and drinking beer.
The crews were rotated every three to four months. Over this eight year period, some 3,000 men did duty on the stranded Suez ships. For some, the experience in the canal was one of the most memorable.
“But what was remarkable was the strong community these crews forged, even though they came from countries on opposing sides of the Cold War,” British writer Cath Senker told Express.
By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.
Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. Only two ships—the German ships Münsterland and Nordwind—were able to return home under their own power, and were received by 30,000 cheering spectators in Hamburg. After years of inactivity and isolation, the rest of the sand-battered ships—which became known as the Yellow Fleet—were in too bad shape to be salvaged. One of the ships, the American vessel SS African Glen was sunk in 1973 by an Israeli rocket. The British wrote off its four ships as insurance loss, and the Swedish ship Nippon was bought by Norway. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.
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It was a grim 28 hours for Etihad passengers flying from Abu Dhabi to San Francisco, who, in addition to their flight time, were made to wait 12 hours on airport tarmac in the UAE after fog that led to airport congestion. When they finally landed in America, passengers told reporters that, “Everybody was fighting with each other, and the flight attendants were fighting with us, and we were fighting with the flight attendants.”
This ordeal is not the first time that passengers have been left in the lurch. In 1999, Northwest Airlines (which merged with Delta in 2008), left travellers stranded in a snowstorm at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and was later ordered to pay out $7.1 million in compensation. Despite a 12-inch dump of snow over the New Year weekend, the airline decided to keep running flights while other operators cancelled services.
Thousands of passengers were left on the tarmac for up to 10 hours, reportedly without food, water or working toilets on some aircraft. According to the Chicago Tribune, Northwest’s handling of the snowstorm was a significant factor in Congress deciding to make airlines abide by a “passenger bill of rights”, which was introduced in 2009.
Passengers of the American airline JetBlue were held on the tarmac at John F Kennedy Airport for up to 11 hours in 2007 when congestion and frozen equipment caused planes to be “significantly delayed”, a spokesperson told NBC News.
Ryanair normally has a good punctuality record, but this wasn’t so last February, when passengers faced an 11-hour delay on an 8.25pm flight from Stansted to Porto. They sat on the tarmac for three hours, and passengers started to make phone calls to the police when they claimed that they were refused food and drink. Ryanair issued a statement to say that the delay was caused by strong winds, and that passengers had been disembarked and provided with refreshment vouchers. The aircraft eventually departed the following morning at 7.50am.
Occasionally, delays have silver linings. A family from Hertfordshire were on a Thomson flight from Cancun to Gatwick, which was meant to leave Mexico at 4.10pm on New Year’s Eve, and fly overnight to London. But problems with cabin crew scheduling led to a 22-hour delay and the couple spending the night in a beach-side hotel. Chris Maloney told MailOnline Travel that their extra day was “spent by the swimming pool, exploring Cancun, and getting some last-minute sun – the temperature was around 30 degrees.”
Broken toilets caused a two-day delay on a United Airlines San Francisco to Shanghai flight in 2012. The Flight 857 had to be diverted to the nearest airport, which was Anchorage, in Alaska. A replacement plane was brought in, but this was also faulty, meaning that travellers did not leave until a third Boeing 777 was brought in the following day. “If we’d known we’d be here this long, we might have done some sightseeing,” Tammy Harmon California, told Associated Press.
Ronald Huzar was delayed by 27 hours on a Jet2 flight from Malaga to Manchester in 2011. The airline said the faulty wiring that had led to the delay was an unforeseen extraordinary circumstance and so it was therefore not liable to pay Mr Huzar compensation. But a court ruled that this was wear and tear that should have been dealt with before it led to delay-causing problems, and was not extraordinary. Mr Huzar’s case was upheld, and he was awarded compensation under European Union regulations, under which he had claimed that the delay had caused him “no little inconvenience.”
Passengers were delayed or had flights cancelled at Nice airport, along with many other destinations across Europe. Photo: Getty
Up to a million British passengers were delayed after the 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull caused the closure of airspace in several European countries. This led to the mass movement of travellers overland, with coach, hire car and train services booked out across the continent. EUROCONTROL – the European organisation for air navigation safety – estimated that 104,000 flights were cancelled between April 15 and 22, 2010.
Most famously, the Magna Carta was stranded because of flight delays – one of the four versions had been in New York for a special event, but had to stay in the city because of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. It was on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan for a further month.
In 1982, in an incident that sounds like urban myth but did in fact happen, a man strapped helium balloons to a patio chair and took flight. Larry Walters’ amateur flying machine reached an altitude of 15,000ft, and floated into controlled airspace above Los Angeles International Airport, causing enormous disruption to flight services.
A plane from Stockholm to Frankfurt was delayed by nearly three hours last year – because of a smelly carpet. A “strong odour” was detected on board the Lufthansa aircraft, but maintenance staff concluded that the smell was the result of a newly-installed floor covering.
Coming in as the biggest traffic jam in history when recorded by the number of cars, on April 12, 1990, an estimated 18 million cars were knotted up at the East-West border in Germany. To put the numbers in perspective, on an average day only about 50,000 vehicles hit the highway each day.
Likely a pain in the butt for any of the 18 million drivers at the time, the traffic jam did have a pretty good reason behind it. At the same time, Germany was going through its reunification period in which East and West Germany became one.