Speed Bumps Are Dumb, and Other Thoughts on ‘Traffic’

Everybody hates traffic, but what should we do about it?

Because I’m a new driver, I have so many thoughts about traffic. I’m not yet very frustrated by the fact that my commute takes forever. I’m not yet on autopilot, mindlessly heading from work to home to work to home. I live in Atlanta, a city which is consistently ranked among the worst traffic cities in the US.

Once I’m off the highway, there are two routes through my neighborhood to my house. One has speed bumps, and one doesn’t. I take the one without speed bumps nearly every time, even though the real-time traffic updates on my GPS often inform me that going the speed bump route will save me more than ten minutes of driving. I will sacrifice up to ten minutes of my time to avoid speed bumps.

I used to love speed bumps when I drove a motorcycle every day. Sometimes I’d aim for the rut in the middle and squeeze on through with my speed undeterred. Sometimes I’d rev it up and hit the thing more like a ramp, launching as much as two feet in the air like a dirt biker racer (Whee!). Yup, speed bumps are fun with two wheels — not so much with four.

I have a confession and also a statement of the obvious: my car goes faster than my bike ever did, and with much less force applied to my skeleton in order to do so. I love driving fast, so I avoid routes with speed bumps for that obvious reason. I also avoid them for less obvious reasons, such as the terribly deteriorated condition of Georgia’s roads and the often dangerously deep potholes that lie just in front of the crumbling speed bumps. It’s bad for the car’s suspension, but you can also straight up bust an axle bottoming out in one of those pits.

I’ve only been driving a car for about a year. The one accident I got in was when a looky-loo behind me was checking out an accident on the shoulder of the road and tapped my bumper in the process. We were going less than 15 miles per hour.

These are just hints at some of the reasons why Paul Josephson’s Traffic rubs me the wrong way. Traffic is the latest installment in Bloomsbury’s excellent series of small books devoted to a singular common concern, appropriately titled Object Lessons. Josephson is a historian, so his investigation into the nature of traffic relies primarily on describing the arc of its evolution from the building of roads to the manufacturing of automobiles. From there, he proceeds with comparative analyses of other nations’ traffic data with a view toward solutions. The target goal of all solutions presented is to reduce the speed of cars.

He’s somewhat interested in roundabouts and pedestrian malls but mainly focuses on speed bumps. Can you even put speed bumps on highways? I guess we don’t need to because there are no pedestrians there. Josephson is intensely concerned about the number of cars striking people on foot or bicycle. He doesn’t give as much consideration to multi-car crashes. It boils down to this:

The speed bump represents the promise of traffic-calming measures. It is a symbol of hope that citizens, planners, and elected officials can take control of the built environment to ensure the presence of human scales and sensibilities. It serves humans while informing machines and their owners that they must come second in matters of health, safety, and aesthetics. (137)

Throughout this amusing — if curmudgeonly — little book, I could not put my finger on precisely why the mission of Josephson’s analysis felt so misguided. But I figured it out on page 138: “Why pay for self-drive automobiles to secure safety? The automobile is never a panacea.” That is the only mention of self-driving cars in this book, glossily dismissed with a skepticism for blanket solutions and some insinuation about expense. But you know who owns a self-driving car? My freaking father-in-law. His ability to drive has proven inversely proportionate to his age, and rather than end up dead in a ditch despite his tendency to drive ten miles per hour, he sprung for a shiny new Tesla that mostly drives itself — and by the way, it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels (directly, anyway, as electricity is required to charge the battery). Sure, he’s a bit of an early adopter; at least he’s investing in the long game.

Historians are always looking over their shoulders, and that’s undoubtedly a very necessary thing to do from time to time. Josephson teaches in Maine, is in his 60s, and professes an academic interest in Neo-Luddism (which is a nice way of saying he may personally be a technophobe — see the video, below). But dang, I live in a major urban epicenter, am in my 30s, and fancy myself a futurist! I like speed and efficiency and machines and automation and renewable energy and speed and market-based solutions and did I mention speed? So the implications of Traffic are running in the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned.

Unlike Josephson, I want to go forward, faster — not slow down. As Josephson hints at his Ludditism at the end, “imagine a world with speed bumps for GMOs, guns, and vulgarity” (141). Ugh. Well, you already know how much I love vulgarity.

RATING 3 / 10