Saturday, May 24, 2008

Things I don't miss about SoCal I: Traffic

originally published 3.26.06

In the movie Minority Report one witnesses a future (which really isn’t too distant) in which the cars, guided by a central computer and general knowledge of the flow of traffic, travel at incredible speeds because the risk of accident is reduced to nearly nil. With machines doing the driving, humans are free to have conversations or sleep – which I think is awesome. That being said, that’s not the reality we live in today. And, I think my traffic problems are relative.

Here in Southern California, we have traffic issues even though we have the most extensive and widest network of roads in the country. California only became a state in 1850, and our largest cities were designed with the car in mind, so we’ve always had wide roads. When I was in DC last year I was amazed at how impossible the traffic was. Everywhere else in the country there are these things called “medians” because the freeways are only 2-3 lanes at the most. Here, in Southern California, you have to imagine the impossibility of the situation. Meaning, think about the fact that the "El Toro Y" (a major meeting of the 5 and 405 freeways in Orange County) boasts a total of 18 lanes of interaction. There are 6 lanes plus a carpool lane headed southbound and as many headed northbound. In addition there are 2 flyover transition lanes for either direction. Does anyone know what it looks like at 6:30pm? Ridiculous doesn’t even come close to describing it. Hence I pay for the toll road that bypasses it to the south. But what about those whose profession isn’t based on being on time for an appointment at that hour and hence, can’t justify paying $3.50 one way to bypass the soup? They sit in traffic, and have their time slowly stolen from them.

For all our technology, isn’t the idea of traffic the ultimate example of bad planning? The roads are generally easy to travel between 10am and 2pm, with some “tightening” between 12 and 1. But between 2pm and 7pm, on all our major freeways, progress is relative. Then again, some say we have the greatest government known to mankind’s history, but we can’t even solve the problem of who travels when. That’s the problem – we want the concept of unlimited freedom of travel, but if you live in the city, that concept is relative. Relatively pointless.

Any Southern Californian will respond “20 minutes” when you ask how long it takes to get from point A to B. It’s hilarious, but true. We really think of everything in terms of minutes. The rest of the country uses numbered exits and miles, we couldn’t tell you what a mile is.

I can’t stand traffic. It’s purposeless. I am neither working nor spending time with my family. I can’t even pray, really. Having to be alert, especially in SoCal traffic, doesn’t even give one the freedom to be unencumbered on a cell phone call. We’ve all adapted, but we know that when driving with a cell phone, we both reduce our attention we are paying to a friend and the attention we are paying to the road – both with consequences we consider trivial, but in either case, could be crucial. That tone of voice your friend is using could be plaintive and indicate a need of your help, but you’re trying to figure out whether you can merge or not. That accident ahead may be indicated by a row of brake lights, but you’re busy arguing your point with someone. We’ve all had our close calls – do we just chalk that up to the way of life in the city, or do we really stop and think that such risks with our lives and such casualness in our friendships are unnecessary?

Traffic is par excellence the modern Tower of Babel – man trying to be what he supremely is not. We want to be free and unencumbered, and say we can do anything. Traffic answers, "no." We brag about our beaches and our skiing, but none of us who are smart would ever go the beach on Memorial Day weekend or to the mountains in winter. There are MILLIONS of people here and they all have the same bright ideas as you, genius!

It’s incidentally, the same reason I have sworn to never, ever, for the rest of my life, fly into Los Angeles International Airport. I’ve been in over 20 airports worldwide, and up there with Rome’s, LA’s is one of the worst on the planet. But, back to what I was saying…

In most other parts of the country, driving consists of getting from Point A to Point B. Not spending 5 minutes driving into a jam, 40 minutes in it, and 5 minutes getting off the freeway and going to your destination. Living should be about sustainability. We should say “x amount of people can live here.” We should establish quotas, and responsible, sustainable roads and travel habits. But that would take time to think, deliberation, and a solicitude for a comfort beyond that which money can buy.

The slogan for Southern California Mercedes dealers is: “Around here, you have to love what you drive.” We’d much rather have the consolation of sitting in a German car while sitting in all that traffic than have less traffic.

Not me.

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