The Worst Traffic Jam In History

By S. Grant on Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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“Time is the mercy of Eternity; without Time’s swiftness Which is the swiftest of all things, all were eternal torment.” —William Blake, Milton

In A Nutshell

While cities all over the world struggle with traffic issues, Beijing, China holds the title of having the worst traffic jam to date. In 2010, the China National Highway 110, which runs from Beijing to Yinchuan was clogged for an astounding 12 days over a 100-kilometer (62 mi) stretch of road. Travelers were stuck in their cars for up to five days, and a mini-economy of overpriced food, water, and cigarettes sprang up instantly.

The Whole Bushel

Virtually every large, highly populated city is plagued with traffic problems, with the biggest offenders being places like Bangkok, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. In these places, folks often have to budget several hours per day just for their commutes. Even the average American in an ordinary city spends nearly an entire work week per year sitting in traffic. With automobile congestion being such a common issue, it’s easy to see how even a minor hindrance on a roadway can lead to major gridlock. This is exactly what happened in 2010 when roadwork created a 12-day, 100-kilometer traffic jam in Beijing, China.

This mega-jam spanned the China National Highway 110 and, ironically, formed from road construction that was intended to relieve traffic congestion. However, these highly trafficked streets couldn’t handle even a temporary reduction in capacity, and the increased maintenance trucks along with the roadwork quickly brought cars to a standstill. Making matters worse were the resulting fender benders and overheated cars. These setbacks left some motorists stuck in their cars for up to five days.

Of course, no matter how dire the situation, there are always those who can find a way to make a profit. As such, opportunistic vendors showed up offering instant noodles, other food items, water, and cigarettes to the stranded drivers at prices as much as 10 times their ordinary rates. Those who refused to buy from the price gougers were sometimes threatened with car damage, and there were multiple incidents of modern-day highwaymen stealing money and siphoning gas. Still, things stayed relatively calm, as 400 police officers were sent in to constantly patrol the road.

This dragged on for nearly two weeks with cars moving at the enormously sluggish pace of 3 kilometers (2 mi) per day. Travelers passed the time by playing cards and chess or napping on the hoods of their cars. Although most of us would never willingly enter such a debacle, apparently some truckers deliberately took the clogged route (when they could have taken a detour), because they wanted to travel longer distances and increase their prices. Obviously this didn’t help the situation.

Amazingly, the traffic jam vanished out of nowhere on the 12th day, which was actually a shorter time than some officials predicted. Seemingly overnight, local authorities had dispersed the congestion, and cars began moving at the ordinary speed—which wasn’t exactly breakneck on this forever traffic-heavy, accident-prone highway.

Incidentally, while Beijing might hold the record for the longest-lasting case of gridlock, the record for the longest traffic jam (in terms of distance) goes to Sao Paulo, Brazil. This city regularly has traffic jams up to 295 kilometers (183 mi) long.

Show Me The Proof

The Atlantic: The American Commuter Spends 38 Hours a Year Stuck in Traffic
HowStuffWorks: How Traffic Works
NBC News: Worst traffic jam ever? Gridlock spans 60 miles
The Guardian: Chinese drivers stuck in the longest traffic jam
CBC News: 100-km Chinese traffic jam enters Day 9
BBC News: Sao Paulo: A city with 180km traffic jams