How to Solve Traffic*

*This isn’t entirely genuine; it’s more of a “How to Slightly Improve Traffic.”

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

Perhaps no fictional character has lost more credibility in the past calendar year than Gordon Gekko, played so well by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. But I’m not here to talk about the exposure of greed in fiscal terms; rather, I’m here to detail greed’s insidious impact on something another Douglas film is named after: Traffic.

Traffic may be the most singularly hated affliction in civilization. Contemplate it. Unlike murder, no one commits traffic. Unlike AIDS, no one knowingly gives someone traffic. Unlike war, no one starts traffic on faulty reasoning or to build community.

It is entirely possible—if not probable—that there has not been a single individual throughout human history who has been “pro-traffic.” And yet we’re all guilty of perpetuating traffic. For traffic is not the inevitable, unsolvable, irremediable collateral of living in an automobile age. Sure, there are causes of traffic that are beyond our control: construction, accidents, overpopulation. But once that traffic starts, and maybe a lane is closed or a bridge is coming up and the road’s width is narrowing, traffic is made much worse by the foundational sin of humanity: greed.

Greed when merging to be exact. There’s a simple formula to merging two lanes: one-and-one. One car from the right lane, then one car from the left, and so on and so forth. Sure, in an ideal world, you’d snake it (Right lane goes first, left gets second and third, right goes fourth and fifth…), but even I think that’s asking a bit much from the American driver.

One-and-one is a simple, easy-to-follow guide to merging during a traffic jam. And if everybody followed it, merges would be quicker and far more efficient. Greed, however, interrupts that flow. One driver in the left lane decides he’s in too big a rush to patiently merge one-and-one and speeds right behind the car in front of him, causing the driver in the right lane to unexpectedly slam on his brakes, which opens the window for a third consecutive car in the left lane to proceed, and so the driver in the right lane jams on the gas once he’s collected himself, and the car behind him feels screwed so he goes ahead right behind him, and the process cascades down the line. Then there’s the reactionary steps taken by drivers: pulling up right on the bumper of the car in front of you to make sure there’s no way a second car can merge ahead of you. You hit the gas a tad too quick to stay ahead in the game, and you’ve got yourself a fender-bender, a closed lane, and now the need for even more merging and more traffic.

It is an interminable cascade of reactions that is so avoidable, so controllable, so evitable, undone completely by greed. And for what? For one car length! For like, five fewer seconds of driving!

Want to know the long-term consequences of traffic? Our old friend Michael Douglas clues us in to what happens when greed and traffic intersect, and it isn’t pretty.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. something much more interesting, I think, is the potential of dramatically improving the traffic situation: more private roads. In all likelihood, there is probably very little we can do about the elements of human nature that creep into traffic jams, so why don’t we harness self-interest in a way that will actually leave drivers better off? More private toll roads, for example, would take cars off jammed roads, allowing these drivers to get to their destination faster while improving the situation for those who don’t want (or can’t) to pay the fee. In game theoretical terms, it’s a pareto improvement where everyone is better off. The only obstacle is a strong knee-jerk reaction as a result of unjustified bias towards the state owning and operating roads (though we see how well the state does this…).

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on July 7, 2009 at 2:45 AM

    The highly congested roads I travel are also highly expensive to travel. Fact of life in the Garden and Empire states.

    Reply

  3. […] Every mundane action, from deciding whether to give money to some homeless guy to deciding when to let other cars merge, requires at least some moral calculus, and whether you believe in God or not, you still need to […]

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  4. […] steroids. On a list of things that are popular, steroids probably fall somewhere between cancer and traffic. While the popular outrage over steroid use in baseball has diminished recently, the primary reason […]

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