On the road


As I contemplate moving house and adding an hour-plus to my daily commute, I've started noticing traffic very acutely.

As I contemplate moving house and adding an hour-plus to my daily commute, I've started noticing traffic very acutely. The way it makes you choke with ill-will towards the cosmos, like nothing else can.

So far, I'd been glad to be the kind of person who isn't maddened by the gridlock and honking tension of Delhi roads. Sitting in a car or auto driven by other people, I was free to have mild opinions. In fact, there have been moments (in other cities) when traffic has even seemed pretty a river of gleaming headlights rolling down a sloping avenue. Isn't merging and going with the flow a spiritual accomplishment, one we should all seek? As the wise bumper sticker has it, "you are not in traffic, you are traffic".

However, now that I have joined the rest of humanity in hatred for the endless waits and bad behaviour on roads, I've been struck by the variety of ways people have approached the problem. Our conception of traffic reveals gut-level notions of state and society, planning and the civic good.

Traffic lights were only devised in the US after World War I, and adopted around the world. The idea was to engineer order, to coordinate movement to reduce risk. The driver or pedestrian cedes control to the system, obeying its cues in exchange for an assurance of safety. If accidents happen, it is because somebody broke the rules.

However, in recent decades, there have been plenty of other utopian ideas about road safety. In Bogota, at one point, mime artists were hired to manage traffic and mock jaywalkers, because that was a more effective deterrent than a fine. Citizens were given thumbs-up and thumbs-down cards to express their opinion of others on the streets, a zero-aggression way of expressing how you felt. The mover behind these ideas was Bogota's maverick mayor at the time, Antanas Mockus, whose civic interventions were informed by the social theory of Jurgen Habermas, Douglass North and Pierre Bourdieu.

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