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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@

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.

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