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SocietyOctober 9, 2023

Hear me out: Traffic is fine


School holidays are over and traffic is shit again. This isn’t a big deal. 

I used to hate traffic as much as the next guy. I’d sit there seething as we inched along, fuming at the thoughtless bastards who cut into my lane; resenting the ingrates who didn’t do the little wave or hazard light thanks; oozing furious sanctimony as I became later and later for work. Now, in a traffic jam, I am zen and unaffected. They don’t so much as fractionally raise my blood pressure any more. Sorry to be sick and twisted, but sometimes I even enjoy them. 

I’m not sure what exactly changed. I became a mother recently, which famously increases your patience and sense of perspective, but I also think that, over the years, it’s become harder to avoid the conclusion that traffic is actually fine.  

Being stuck in traffic is just sitting in a seat. Given an hour of leisure time, most people will do little else with it than sit in a seat. Granted, they’ll probably also scroll their phone, watch TV or yarn with a friend, but if you get good at rising above the frazzled vibe, you can reach this same level of relaxed enjoyment while you crawl down the Southern motorway. 

Have you ever had one of those harrowing existential realisations that you will never, in your entire life, listen to all the music or read even a fraction of the books the greatest artists have bequeathed humanity? When you’re sitting in traffic, you can make a decent dent in all this cultural treasure. David Bowie’s 77-80 run of albums are all perfect, traffic jam-lengthed listens. The Idiot, The Metamorphosis and Moby Dick are free audiobooks on Spotify; do an Audible trial and you can hear Toni Morrison reading Sula herself. Centuries of great art, from Chopin to Kafka to Gunplay, at the touch of a button. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy it. 

But I’m fucking late for work!!!!! I know, but listen: fuming impotently won’t get you to your job any faster. You can go one of two ways here: you can lean on your horn and zoom madly down a lane you know damn well is ending in 200 metres, pissing off everyone so you can shave a miserable two minutes off your commute, or you can call your boss to say you’ll be late, queue ‘A New Career in a New Town’, then crack the windows. Feel the wind in your hair as you listen to the greatest rockstar who ever lived, at the apex of his cool in late 70s Berlin.

That’s easier said than done when your baby’s wailing in the back seat and a real estate agent with a punchable face is riding up your arse. But even the most trying traffic situations are low-stakes Stoic challenges in the scheme of things. Think how much worse it could be. Your baby is so cute and you’ll be home soon. 

Traffic will mould you into a better person if you let it. People are usually at their worst when they’re inching down a motorway, but cast in the right light, you’ll see they’re still loveable. My trick here is remembering that some people, maybe most people, have unbearably hard lives. The depth of the real estate agent’s suffering would break your heart if you knew about it. It’s genuinely calming to imagine the worst thing your road nemesis might be facing, and I do this all the time. When some dickhead shrieks at me for a minor and accidental roading infraction, I imagine his wife of 15 years just asked him for a divorce, or he’s waiting to hear if his son has leukaemia. Suddenly I truly and fervently wish the dickhead well, and my anger just evaporates. 

Traffic jams are atmospheric. The low-angle sunlight glinting off all that steel. The dark, feral energy. Rain blurring tail lights into a wash of neon red. Hundreds of cars crawling in tidy unison while emotions boil inside.

Look at the personalities bursting forth around you. I sat behind a Subaru hatchback the other day with a personalised plate that said R3KLES, and a frame that added, “PUT IT ON MY TAB”. I’ve seen a “RuffCuntz Performance” decal span an entire back window. On a road in New Zealand right now, there is a champagne-coloured 90s Mazda sedan with the number plate SARTRE. Humans, beautiful humans, have shelled out hundreds of dollars for CRY, THETOE, P0VRTY, LESHGO, OLDCOK, BEACH and HI COPS. 

People are so, so funny and triumphant. A traffic jam is your front row seat to the movie of human life, and it’s full of joy, fury, sex, sorrow and pride. Sit back, queue the best songs you know, and watch these gems of humanity gleam.

Keep going!