Gridlock awaits the great escape
By James Alan Fox
Tuesday,  June 6, 2006

 There are two things about which my South End neighbors are absolutely passionate: their concern over the dangers associated with the biocontainment laboratory planned for Albany Street, and their love of dogs. Therefore, it came as good news that the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation directing cities to expand their evacuation protocols to include the rescue of pets.

I'm not the kind of person who worries about catastrophe, be it natural or man-made. If anything, the thought of evacuation is strangely exhilarating. I know I'm not alone: Consider how giddy TV meteorologists become when a fierce storm is approaching; consider too the popularity of disaster films.

I'm also not the type of person who prepares for the worst. I figure I'll cross that bridge - be it the Zakim or the Longfellow - when I come to it.

Sure, I have batteries in virtually every drawer of the house - a perk to my "executive membership" to Costco, but I haven't a clue where the flashlights are. I don't keep supplies of bottled water, but again thanks to Costco, I've got 27 bottles of Diet Coke. Although I'm well stocked up on 12-packs of tuna, it would take me time to locate the can opener.

Despite my que sera sera approach to emergency preparedness, the new evacuation route signs that have appeared throughout my neighborhood have got me thinking. These round blue signs appear both larger and more plentiful than the green airplane symbols - those Logan logos - that are so easy to miss when lost en route to the airport.

As a gesture to crisis readiness, I decided to do a "get outta town" drill - a "premature evacuation," if you will. I thought I'd see how helpful the blue signs are in guiding me to safety in New Hampshire, Rhode Island or the Boston Harbor.

Starting out at the Boston Center for the Arts, I traveled west along Tremont, tracking the evacuation directional signs that appeared at nearly every corner. But soon came Mass. Ave., where a blue evacuation sign points left, right and straight ahead. What now?

Because the traffic light was red, I decided on the quickest response - right on red. Obediently following the evacuation route indicators posted along Mass. Ave. through Back Bay, I suddenly got befuddled by signage overload. My view partially obscured by a double-parked truck, I mistook a blue parking symbol pointing right for an identically-colored evacuation sign.

I soon realized my goof after having turned eastward onto Commonwealth Avenue: There were no more evacuation signs to be found. At the end of Commonwealth, there was only one way to turn - right onto Arlington.

Thank goodness! I had rediscovered the trail of evacuation signs. Crossing over the Mass Pike, the next sign directed me to the right onto Tremont - back to where I had started.

Traveling the boomerang route was actually a good thing. In my rush to leave, I had forgotten my precious little kitty CATastrophe. That isn't really her name, but for the occasion it seemed fitting.

The second time around, I'd be smarter. At Mass. Ave., I steered left to avoid the downtown confusion. This, however, maneuvered me toward Albany Street, site of the biocontainment lab that, in my make-believe disaster, had experienced a toxic leak. Simulation game over. I'm make-believe dead.

I performed my drill mid-morning when traffic was light. Had this been an actual emergency, I would have been directed to tune my radio to the Emergency Broadcast Network, where I would receive more impossible-to-obey instructions while helplessly stuck in traffic gridlock waiting to die.

Good thing this was only a test.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at