Traffic jams

In anticipation of the traffic woes many will experience later on this afternoon, The Wall Street Journal has a science sidebar about traffic theory, a subject that fascinates me — I’m always interested in situations where aggregated individual decisions add up to something no one in the group had hoped for or expected. Studies of traffic shed light on society itself, the ways in which all of our lives are contigent on those around us, giving the lie to the naive common sense belief in absolute autonomy. The myth of autonomy serves capitalist ideology by seeming to minimize the real detrimental effects of zero-sum competition (since no one else’s success or failure should appear to impact what you do) while obviating opportunities to cooperate (cooperation removes the consumer redundancies where late capitalism finds its greatest profits — these redundancies, the wastefulness and disposability in modern life, are reinterpreted popularly as improvements in the standard of living).

Traffic jams are of course one of the main ways Americans are brought right up against the absurdity of the autonomy myth — it’s one of the reasons why they are so intolerable. The freedom alleged afforded by the automobile and the open road — the idea that you go where you want on your own schedule — is horribly undermined by the realities of traffic. The ideal of unfettered autonomy is an aspiration that becomes harder to achieve the more people who long for it. Autonomy, in this regard, becomes a commodity, one of the positional goods (see The Social Limits to Growth) whose esesence is its rarity, its inability to produced upon demand.

Naturally the Journal doesn’t tease out the sociological ramifications of traffic jams, it simply presents the recent findings of traffic researchers, which reveal that while aggressive driving may help traffic flow on country roads, it slows things down on highways, creating many unnecessary gaps between cars and initiating weaving patterns which slow everyone down. Also interesting is the explanation of “”phantom jams” — think Staten Island Expressway here — the bottlenecks that occur far upstream from the orginal cause of the bottleneck. By the time you reach the site of the original anomaly, it has cleared, so that it seems as though you were backed up for no reason.

The article explains how the self-interested behavior of drivers — there tendency to seek to make decisions about which lane is best or to speed up when there is the hint of an opening — leads inevitably to traffic jams, but it cannot admit that there’s nothing you can do individually to ameliorate it. It ends on a note of “what you can do to help” suggesting that one try to brake less and to look further than one car ahead of you on the highway. Good advice, but ultimately no more likely to make a difference than recycling disposable packaging you didn’t need in the first place.

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