Getouttamyway! (Thoughts On City Traffic)

I've been to Rome, so I've seen the dark side: a traffic intersection where everybody decides to get where they're going at the same time, so no one gets anywhere. Cairo might be even worse. This isn't a parking lot, it's a street...

A Cairo traffic jam.
Walid Hassanein/Flickr

City people are always pushing; if you think you won't get caught, you keep moving. The rules don't matter. The signs don't matter.

But the amazing thing is, in most towns, even though people are constantly pushing their luck, taking crazy chances in traffic, they don't die, they don't get hurt. They get where they're going. And that's a miracle.

Just take a look at this video, created by New York designer (and School of Visual Arts grad student) Ron Gabriel, who went to a Manhattan intersection, 28th Street and Park Avenue, and watched cars, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians skirting inches from each other with matter-of-fact ease.

The near misses (or the exquisite ballet between people and machines) is both maddening and thrilling, especially when Gabriel adds spatial graphics, sound effects and the theme from TV's "Peter Gun" by Art of Noise. This video will make you hate bikers.

And so it has always been. Traffic scholar Tom Vanderbilt wondered how pedestrians, chariots and carts negotiated the very narrow streets of ancient Pompeii.

The tourist wonders: Was it a one-way street? Did a lowly commoner have to reverse himself out of the way when a member of the imperial legions came trotting along in the other direction? If two chariots arrived at an intersection simultaneously, who went first?

The answer, says traffic archaeologist Eric Poehler, is Pompeians improvised. There weren't road signs. There were one-way streets. But, studying the "wear patterns at corners as well as the stepping stones set up for pedestrians," Poelher says people just learned to get out of each others way. Just like today.


The newest book that explores the history of traffic in old New York, London and ancient Rome comes from Tom Vanderbilt. It's called "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)" from Knopf 2008. And probably the most dramatic (brand new) essay on at traffic safety comes from Casey Neistat, a New York City filmmaker who purposefully ran into Manhattan potholes, construction sites, moving vans, even a police car to protest a $50 ticket he got for riding outside the bicycle lane. His point: riding in bicycle lanes is dangerous for bicyclists, so unsafe that bicycle lanes aren't worth it. My point: Casey has to mightily (you won't believe what he does) exaggerate to make his case, which makes me wonder if he's got a case, but, if you don't mind the occasional swear word and someone doing stunts without a helmet, Casey's video, "What Happens When You Ride in a Bike Lane" is, in its inane way, delightful.

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