From the archives: A look back at the highlights and low points of Roadshow’s first 20 years

From the archives: A look back at the highlights and low points of Roadshow’s first 20 years

Editor’s note: Mr. Roadshow wanted to share some of his favorite columns and stories from more than 30 years of informing, entertaining and getting things changed for Bay Area (and beyond) drivers. He’ll be back on the road with new material soon. In the meantime, please keep sending Mr. Roadshow your comments or questions to mrroadshow@bayareanewsgroup.com.
This story originally was published on September 18, 2011

Twenty years ago, when we decided to launch a weekly column called Roadshow, I had never heard of a “cellphone,” I had never seen a red-light camera, and carpool lanes and metering lights were something of a novelty.

Bridge tolls were a buck, and a gallon of gas wasn’t much more — the better to fuel the SUVs that were just showing up in dealer lots. And a hybrid vehicle — what was that?

Today all of the above are dominant themes of the complaints, concerns and sometimes compliments that flood the Mr. Roadshow column, which is celebrating its 20th birthday with a look back at the highlights and low points of these remarkable two decades. What started as a weekly Q-and-A on potholes and red lights has become a six-day-a-week deluge of questions, comments, lectures and rants — a window to the soul of the Bay Area commuter.

At first, transportation agencies were leery of being quizzed about paving jobs on the Nimitz or long red lights on First Street in San Jose.

But as the questions and comments rolled in, traffic officials realized how passionate commuters were and how much they wanted answers and fixes to their traffic issues. And if fixes couldn’t be made, they wanted to know why.

“There is nothing more personal and aggravating and irritating than dealing with a myriad of traffic problems,” said Will Kempton, who served as the head of Caltrans from 2004 to 2009 and is now chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority. “Nobody likes sitting in congestion. But with this column, they have a place to go and get a straight answer.”

Mark Dettle, the public works director in Santa Cruz, depends on Roadshow for “a good reality check.” He says readers’ comments provide “the opportunity for me to hear the concerns and questions from the users of our roads. It is good, direct feedback on what is working and what is not.”

And, oh, there are the debates. Do metering lights really help? Yes on 880, where drivers were begging for them. Maybe not on 680, where commuters remain unconvinced.

Will carpool lanes get better use? Should the gas tax be hiked? Should slowpokes in the fast lane move to the right — even if they’re chugging along at 65 mph?

We’re only beginning to get a glimpse into what’s ahead in the next 20 years: Toll lanes and metering lights will exist on nearly every freeway in the region. Congestion pricing, meaning higher tolls when traffic is heaviest, could expand to other Bay Area bridges and freeways.

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Key local streets will be narrowed to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians, including El Camino Real. Express buses with Wi-Fi will ferry commuters to work. BART will finally reach San Jose and, if you’re a believer, high-speed rail could be running between Southern California and the Bay Area.

But the biggest change could be the cars we drive. Electric vehicles will dominate the road, with charging stations in garages, on city streets and along freeways. Cars could drive themselves, or at least avoid collisions.

This much is certain: The questions are sure to keep coming.

“In a world where people fly airplanes into big buildings, and one in six Americans lives in poverty, and the government seems to be deadlocked, and the ice caps are melting, it is good to read about something important in our daily lives, like traffic,” said motorist John Plotz, of Hayward. “I’m not kidding or being ironic. Traffic is important.”

There you have it. So let’s go. I’m ready for another 20 years.