A Miracle on I-35: Little Traffic

Print this entry

AUSTIN — We escaped to our favorite Texas big city for the Thanksgiving holiday, to sit in the stands to shiver and watch the Longhorns get slaughtered by TCU — and relax in a condo rented through AirBnB. I had never tried this service, in which owners of private property — condos, houses, even a spare bedroom — list them online for rent. In this case, the owner travels a lot and rents his ultra-hip loft condo on East Sixth Street, which sits practically in the shade of the freeway from Hades — otherwise known as I-35. It was an outstanding location and has made me a confirmed fan of using AirBnb to find cool places to stay while on the road.

Molly Ivins, the late acerbic and greatly esteemed columnist, once wrote, “The key to happiness in Austin is to never, ever drive on I-35.” This is excellent advice. During my most-recent stint living there, from 2010 to 2012, I assiduously avoided I-35, opting for alternate north-south routes to get to work and elsewhere. I might not have saved any time but at least psychologically I was moving from traffic light to traffic light, albeit at about 8 mph. I-35 often is a parking lot often from daylight to darkness, and if there is a wreck, well, one might as well start walking.

Thus it was with trepidation that we drove to the condo late on Wednesday afternoon, after I got off work. “This is going to be bad,” I kept muttering. Holiday traffic, arriving about 5 p.m., a perfect storm. And there was no way to avoid I-35 to get to the condo. I avoided it as long as possible, paying tolls until Hwy. 290 intersects with the Evil Freeway. And…

There was no traffic, on either side of the interstate. I have seen more congestion on North Jefferson Avenue here in Mount Pleasant than there was on I-35. It was downright eerie, and I began to wonder if some disaster had befallen the city, and we had somehow missed it. That was unlikely, since we were listening to the news on KUT, the Austin NPR station as we rolled into town. A vast swath of the population had obviously left town before we arrived. We were at the condo five minutes after getting on the interstate. From past experience, normally it could take 30 minutes to travel that 3.6 miles at rush hour.

The town remained relatively deserted for our stay through Saturday. We headed to Gueros Wednesday night, one of our favorite Austin haunts, got there in a few minutes and were immediately seated. Even getting to the football game Thanksgiving night was easier than usual. On Black Friday, we wisely avoided all malls or anyplace selling large-screen televisions, but we did hit up a popular thrift shop. My Beautiful Mystery Companion and daughter ventured out to The Domain, a high-end “village.” I dropped them off and wisely went back to the condo for a nap, still winding my way through Austin at the speed limit both coming and going.

According to Google Maps, Austin, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were predicted to be the busiest cities, traffic-wise over Thanksgiving. If that is indeed true, then some other cities must have been ghost towns last week.

My theory is that everybody hoping to beat the traffic and thus by the time we showed up, the rush to escape had ended. The city has likely reverted to its well-deserved reputation as one of the worst places in America in which to commute, with scant prospects of improvement on the horizon.

For a time I lived in Cedar Park — a suburb north of the city and 18.6 miles from the UT campus, where I worked. It took 35 minutes to get to work if I left at 7 a.m. and usually at least an hour to get home at 5 p.m. And it was not a peaceful hour, that drive home in a bumper-to-bumper melee. From the top of the Hwy. 183 flyover I once took a cell-phone photo to send to my BMC, first to prove I had truly conquered my long-standing phobia about using these aerial ramps that are taller than the buildings alongside, and second to show the ocean of vehicles in which I was stuck.

Now my commute takes just as long, but it is peaceful and pretty — cows grazing in pastures, trees turning color, the occasional red-tail hawk swooping across the horizon. I arrive at work ready for a long day, and by the time I am back home my mind is generally washed clear of the day’s challenges. When I got home from my commute in Austin I was usually ready for a Xanax.

We enjoy a taste of the big city on occasion, but just a taste. This trip tasted even better, because Austin felt like the pleasant medium-sized city that has long disappeared.

Print this entry

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required