In the olden days, when Paleo was still an era, most people lived in tribes. They lived with a group of people who were indigenous to an area and largely self-sufficient (to use the Wikipedia definition). You may think tribal living disappeared when we invented the wheel, but if you increasingly find yourself feeling “indigenous to an area and largely self-sufficient”, chances are you are being forced back into tribalism. And here’s a clue why — it’s the wheel again, particularly the way wheels have stopped turning.
The society-shaping power of traffic may surprise sociologists, who think we like belonging to tribes because we’re aspirational or secretly racist or we feel more secure being surrounded by people who have beards just like us. But here’s a questionnaire that will convince you that congestion is re-creating communities.
Do you find yourself asking, ‘Can I walk there?’ You may be going for coffee, a movie or a holiday, but if your first response is to check the walkability, you’re on a traffic island. Ditto if your first response is to check public transport routes and timetables before booking anything.
When you ring a tradie for a quote, does he say, sorry, he doesn’t travel across town or across that bridge? Indeed, has a tradie ever said to you, ‘ Why don’t you have a tradie close by?’, as if you’re responsible for the disappearance of all local tradespeople?
Do you find yourself scheduling things early in the morning or as the sun sets? My friends and I meet before 7am (before traffic) and finish our socialising by 8.45am (after traffic).
Do you see friends who live nearby more than friends who live a little farther away? When you arrange to see friends who live farther away, do you argue about the location of the restaurant and plead about how hard it is to get there?
Do you choose your children’s sporting commitments based on how far you have to drive on a Saturday morning?
Do you avoid going anywhere between 10am and 2pm on Saturdays or 10am to 4pm on a summer’s Sunday?
Do you love Good Friday, if only because the traffic is just the way it was in 1976?
Do you read stories about Australia’s population increasing at twice the rate and think: but do they all have to be on the road at once?
Do you ever look around when you’re idling in traffic and think: could every fourth person please leave now?
It’s when I start mentally eliminating people that I realise I have a problem with traffic and it’s most acute in February when everyone returns from holiday and there seems to be 10,000 more people on the roads (which is an accurate figure if you live in Sydney or Melbourne, where about 1000 people arrive a week).
It’s not so much the traffic that gets to me but what it does to us. Traffic keeps us hostage to our own areas. It stops us exploring distant areas; it determines where to live, where to school and where to get the daily bread. It makes us insular.
Traffic cramps our spontaneity. We say no even before we’ve thought about saying yes because the journey often is not worth the experience. Traffic makes us mean. And, often, you don’t realise how mean of spirit you’ve become until someone — say, someone who used to belong to your tribe — comes to visit.
Family or friends who have decamped to the country or the coast remind you that it wasn’t always like this. Is it peak hour, they ask. Ha, it’s always peak, I reply. Can we pop in there, they say. Ha, we don’t pop anywhere any more. Do you have change for the parking meter, they ask. Ha, you need a credit card with a generous limit to park now.
Then I give them the lecture. You’ve lost your fitness for the city, I say. You have to get strategic. You have to leave early, limit your stops, push in, find the rat runs and never presume there will be parking nearby.
By the time they leave, I realise that I belong to a different tribe now, one that marches to a different drum of traffic and one that’s impenetrable to outsiders.