Traffic and Society: Can We Create a Smooth Commute?
August 10th 2017, 16:00, Johannesburg, South Africa. I was driving home from Rosebank to Glen Austin. A journey of roughly 25km. 90% of which, is covered by highway. The transition from light to heavy traffic had definitely begun. When I can, I try avoid high concentrations of traffic, opting rather to leave before they start or wait till after they’ve dissipated entirely. Sometimes you simply don’t have a choice though. And on a few occasions in my life I’ve experienced a quite remarkable and wonderful type of the stuff.
I can only attribute these strange traffic occurrences to days when there is just the right balance of people still on holiday and those getting back to work. Or a random event that somehow levels out the amount of cars on the roads. Or maybe it’s the cosmos and its mysterious ways. Anyway, in this special type of traffic, during a time that would usually be filled with stops, starts, flared tempers, rash turns and hooters everywhere, you find yourself, instead, effortlessly gliding from the place you left to the place you’re heading to as if an amazing someone gave you a push and momentum took care of the rest. On these extremely rare days, once you get on the highway, it’s like what I can only imagine a society of driverless cars must feel like. You ease effortlessly onto the onramp and for the entire highway drive encounter no need to alter your speed from 65kmph. No hard braking, no sudden acceleration. Just smooth. So incredibly and pleasantly smooth. I have been privileged enough to have experienced such a marvellous vehicular phenomenon more than once in my time on the roads.
The 10th of August 2017, however, was not one of those days. There was flow, until the car in front of me had to brake suddenly because the car in front of them had to brake suddenly because the car in front… you get the idea. Then I would sit for an indeterminate amount of time. Until suddenly the car in front shot off, desperate to mimic the impressive acceleration of their car in front, who themselves were desperate to mimic the acceleration of the car in front of… again, I’m sure you get the picture. So why am I describing the extraordinarily entertaining events of traffic congestion to you? It was also on that day, at about 16:23 in the afternoon, that something occurred to me. That something, was Tom Cruise.
More specifically it was Tom Cruise in one of his Mission Impossible movies. Which one, I’m not too sure. In the scene I thought of he is dutifully keeping his secret agent identity safe by masquerading as a traffic analyst in front of a group of doting women. There he mentions how fascinating traffic is; how you can track a traffic event’s effects at different points throughout the stream of vehicles it occurred in. For whatever reason I had thought relatively often about that rather pointless scene and what he says in it. I don’t really know why that is. Usually it popped into my thoughts as nothing more than an interesting idea; these traceable ripple-like events in traffic. Only this time, I was in traffic. Then it occurred to me – What if I could do that? What if I could manipulate, in whatever small measure it may be, the circumstances surrounding my little bubble of traffic? So I tried.
In search of that elusive smooth commute I thought that if I really concentrated on keeping a comfortable distance between me and the car in front, I would always, bar an accident somewhere along the line, be able to avoid hard braking and sudden acceleration. It also occurred to me, because of Mr Cruise, that my driving in this way would create a smoother commute for the other drivers in my lane. Now, I can’t say for sure, but I swear I could see and feel it working right in front of me. It most certainly made my drive a better one. And over and above my direct experience it also just seemed to make sense.
The idea that mobile objects travelling constantly within close distances of one another would feel the effects of each individual’s intentions at different measures depending on their proximity to the original event seemed absolutely plausible and in accordance with the physical universe I know. To think about it more simply, it’s like when two people hold a hose pipe, each at different points, and the one shakes the pipe up and down so that the other cannot help but be shaken too, whether they like it or not.
South Africa, and most definitely Johannesburg, has a bad reputation for angry and aggressive drivers. It was driving home that day, on the 10th of August 2017 at about 16:28, that I began to explore the correlation between the country we were and the traffic we produced. As a country we, like our driving, have developed a reputation for being angry, violent and with a propensity for producing significant amounts of assholery. The more I started to think about it the more the reflection seemed so tragically clear. If anyone wanted to see what kind of a country we were, all they had to do was sit where I was; in traffic. The display was right there in front of me; directly under the new bridge just past the Grayston off-ramp; people slamming on breaks only because the red lights on the car in front of them told them to do so.
You can see it in our parliament. You can see it in the way that so many of us interact with each other. You can recognise it in yourself more often than you’d probably like to admit. You can see it in our traffic. Some kilometres into my new quest for considerate driving the comparison between negotiating traffic and doing the same in society continued. It made sense, both experientially and rationally, that if I drove with more consideration I would improve not only my commute, but others’ around me too. And if they drove with more consideration they would do the same, with me feeling the benefit. However, the unavoidable question was just around the next bend – Why don’t we?
Why aren’t people more charitable? Why don’t more people help more people help more people help more… ? Why do so many people drive like absolute reprobates? The easiest answer is that not doing these things is much easier than doing them. So, I reflected on my driving. Was it harder driving like this? Having to constantly check my distances, having to be mindful of a more tender endeavour to brake, having to overcome my urge to flip off that troglodyte who cut in front of me? Of course it was. Would it have been easier to focus solely on the brake lights on the car in front of me and only react when they prompted me to do so, and to flip that guy off? Yes. But whoever said the best things in life weren’t worth working for?
I looked around and I saw society right there; through sheets of steel and glass. People limiting their existences to the strangling constraints of the sole faculty of reacting. What if they didn’t? What if everyone did more than just react, or, to begin with, tried simply to delay that reaction? What if we all said, “I know the brake lights on the car in front of me are going to shine at some point. How’s about I give myself more time to decide what to do about it when they do.” Imagine that drive. Smooth. Steady. Pleasant. Is it harder? Of course. Funny thing about hard tasks though; they become easier the more you do them.
© 2017 Kyle McIntyre