There are few things in life as frustrating as being caught in a traffic jam. Trapped and forced to helplessly wait at a standstill, the sound of music drowned out by the back-and-forth honking of horns. According to a recent analysis done by INRIX, a company dedicated to analyzing traffic trends around the world, Americans spend an average of one hour a week stuck in traffic during their commutes. That may seem like a lot, but how about being gridlocked for days at a time? That’s what happened to some drivers during these legendarily bad traffic jams.
Bethel, New York – 1969
When most people think of Woodstock, stress and traffic aren’t the first things that come to mind. But the huge hippie festival caused a traffic jam that could easily turn feelings of peace and love to fury and regret. The three-day festival, which lasted from August 15 to 18, 1969, was a victim of its own success. Organizers expected the festival to attract 50,000 attendees, but 10 times that number showed up instead. And even more may have set up camp at Max Yasgur’s farm if it hadn’t been for the 20-mile-long traffic jam on the New York State Thruway that forced thousands to turn back. Others simply abandoned their cars altogether and walked to the venue. Most of the high-profile artists, worried they’d miss their sets, were helicoptered to and from the festival. Singer Joni Mitchell was scheduled to perform, but opted out due to traffic, for fear she’d miss a television appearance a few days later. She had to base her iconic song, “Woodstock,” on her boyfriend’s account of the legendary concert.
East & West Germany – 1990
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought hope to a country that had been divided for decades. But while many recall the images of thousands of Berliners streaming between East and West when the Wall opened, fewer may remember an epic traffic jam that followed a few months. Easter 1990 marked the first holiday that families were able to travel across the borders of the soon-to-be reunited country. That weekend, more than 18 million cars took to the road (which usually saw just 500,000 vehicles), resulting in a 30-mile-long logjam—a Guinness Book of Records-holder for most cars in a traffic jam.
Moscow, Russia – 2012
Russia found itself the focus of unwanted international attention during the winter of 2012, when the country’s capital was blanketed by the heaviest November snowfall it had seen in 50 years. The resulting standstill, which lasted three days, saw cars piled up for 125 miles on the M-10 highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. To combat the snowfall, 12,000 removal trucks were called in, and Russia’s Emergencies Ministry provided meals, shelter and even and psychological counseling to stranded motorists. Sometimes even Russians, proudly accustomed to the bitter cold, have their limits.
Chicago, Illinois – 2011
Another city that usually deals with the pitfalls of frigid weather without much of a hitch found itself in a heap of snow and trouble in February 2011. Twenty inches of snow blanketed the Windy City, but the biggest issue was timing—the storm struck during rush hour. Drivers on Lake Shore Drive were hit the hardest with 70 mile-per-hour winds helping to bring traffic to a complete stop for almost 12 hours. Some brave souls waited behind the wheel, despite snow that reached up to their windshields, while others abandoned their vehicles and braved the snow on foot.
Beijing, China – 2010
Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. It wasn’t the usual holiday or car crash or weather disaster that caused one of the largest traffic jams in history—it was construction meant to ease congestion on the busy streets outside Beijing. In August 2010, a 62-mile-long traffic jam shut down the Beijing-Tibet Expressway for more than 10 days, leaving some motorists stranded in their cars for five days. The disaster was exacerbated by drivers who refused to take optional detours because of tolls. Opportunistic entrepreneurs had a field day, selling food and water at inflated prices to those too stuck—and too stubborn—to move.
São Paulo, Brazil – 2009
For most of the cities on this list, epic traffic jams are, luckily, the exception rather than the rule. But for Brazil’s largest city, hours-long gridlock is commonplace, and the city is considered one of the most congested in the world. So it seems likely that at some point São Paulo will exceed even its own worst trafficked day, June 10, 2009, which saw more than 520 miles of its city streets and 182 miles of surrounding highways come to a crawl. And with an estimated 1,000 new cars joining the commute daily, the traffic woes of locals don’t seem likely to slow down any time soon. The city has a 24-hour radio station that does nothing but broadcast traffic conditions and alternate routes, and drivers come prepared for ways to make use of their long commute times, often shaving, reading and conversing with other drivers. One São Paulo local even met her husband thanks to a traffic jam.
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