Expressway to your heart

By | April 6, 2017


Кто придумал, скажи, эти пробки?

В переулках – зима затаилась

И ждет: что же будет.

                           Zemfira, "Traffic"

(Who thought up, tell me, these traffic jams?  In the alleyways winter awaits us.  And we shall wait - what will happen.)  


Jammed streets.  Smoking exhausts.  Lost time.  Road rage.  A built environment that reflects the needs of the automobile and forgets the most important component in society:  children, women, and men who play and work, sit and read, exercise and play music, and stroll and bicycle among us.

In 1967 the Soul Survivors’s hit, “Expressway to Your Heart,” a song that reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, the singer laments “On the expressway to your heart.  The expressway is not the best way.  At five o'clock it's much too crowded.”  He adds, “I was wrong, baby, I took too long.  I got caught in the rush hour.”  And yet here we sit, more and more of us, longer and longer, every day on the expressway to work, home, in an emergency to the hospital, to the grocery store, and perhaps to someone’s heart.

Traffic addresses the growing national and international problems connected with automobile congestion in cross-national comparisons of traffic, accidents and safety, and solutions to these problems.  I discuss early efforts to deal with traffic and growing safety issues.  The former usually involved building more roads and straightening and widening existing ones – the “if you build it, they will come” approach. This led to more traffic, higher speeds, and more deaths and disfiguring injuries.  As for safety, until the 1990s most countries, including the world leader in automotive technology, the US, relied on industry-sponsored safety measures – and long delays in rolling them out.  And we’ve spent trillions of dollars on automobiles and their infrastructure and wars to secure oil, while crying tears of gasoline when someone suggests better public transportation.  At least the Europeans have recognized public transport and bicycles as the way to get to someone’s heart.  Or to work.

You know what?  We’re number 1!  America is great again!  LA is first in the world in traffic jams, followed by such cities as Bangkok, Jakarta, Istanbul and Beijing. Traffic, mixed with reference to philosophy and rock and roll, offers solutions, not only criticisms to gridlock and congestion.  Americans spend on average 120 hours annually commuting per year.  That’s five full days.  Just sitting.  On that expressway.  To your heart.

We continue to focus on the car as if it is a human right, and we’ve equipped the car to be more isolated from social concerns and pollution.  New ones have USB ports, Bluetooth connectivity, rearview cameras, and screens. Is the autonomous car the solution?  No, first there will always be human error. Second, they are perfect vehicles for terrorist bombers and hackers.  Third, they cost about $100,000 per vehicle.  What about driving in inclement weather?  What if traffic signals fail?  The autonomous vehicle represents the foolish tradition of seeking a technological solution to a problem of technological origin.  How about safe, inexpensive, proven solutions to put an end to auto carnage and exhaust?  How about bicycles in bicycle lanes?   Let’s not go the way of the automobile, but away from the automobile.  We can use our minds to create obstacles to the automobile, and to disincentivize their use. 

Traffic began as a poetic and ontological musing about the speed bump. (“If speed bumps exist, then there must be a higher order of being to help us out of this mess.”)  Here are some solutions:  signs and fines enforced without remorse; roundabouts and traffic circles; dedicated bicycle and pedestrian ways; heavily subsidized public transportation (it’s much cheaper than building roads, roads, and repairing more roads); neighborhoods made for people not cars; and speed bumps.

Traffic thus is a kind of polemic.  I argue that we need to make cities and towns for people, not for automobiles.  We need to recognize the huge environmental costs associated with automobiles, the foreign policy dictated by the need for oil, and the decay of existing infrastructure.

Traffic calming (Verkehrsberuhigung) came from German (and Dutch) traffic engineers.  There’s probably a direct line from Georg Hegel to the dialects of calming.  If Hegel has been in a VW on the Autobahn, he’d likely never had had the time to write Phenomenology of Spirit.  And then where would we be?


TrafficPaul Josephson is Professor of History at Colby College, USA. He is the author of twelve books, including Fish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans (2015), The Conquest of the Russian Arctic (2014), Lenin’s Laureate: A Life in Communist Science (2010), Would Trotsky Wear a Bluetooth? Technological Utopianism Under Socialism (2009), and Motorized Obsession: Life, Liberty and the Small Bore Engine (2007). His latest book, Traffic, is now available from Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.

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