TRAFFIC AND DEMOCRACY (CEEPUS essay challenge, 2017)

Lauren Beukes once said: “Traffic in Joburg is like the democratic process. Every time you think it’s going to get moving and take you somewhere, you hit another jam.” Joburg from the above quote might be Johannesburg – the largest city in South Africa and one of the 50 largest urban areas in the world. In fact, it is. At the same time, Joburg depicted as a wildly congested jungle of roads with steaming vehicles getting nowhere might be any city anywhere in the world at the beginning of 2020’s. Probably it is.

The quote makes us think more deeply about both democracy and traffic. If democracy is relatively difficult to introduce in many parts of the world due to various reasons, one must wonder why traffic becomes even harder to handle for an average traveller in the century which set all the records in technology advances of traffic industry. Why are we stuck? How long are we supposed to wait? What for? How much do our personal preferences influence the method of transport we choose? Is commuting becoming a lifestyle as such?

If democracy is ‘saying out loud what you think’ you might tweet your political views while sitting in a train. Taking the subway on your way to school rather than going on foot to save precious time can help reflect the meaningfulness of traffic in the modern civilization. Despite the Internet revolution which allows us to see places on videos and talk to people in real time, travelling seems more legitimate than ever. We still stubbornly wait for hours for boarding a plane. Either way, write down your thoughts as a Facebook status, you will be kept waiting. You might be even having enough time to write a book. Turn around. You will be one of many other people doing the same. Why do we always forget that traffic is a social affair?

Democracy, by definition, is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body. How similar is the traffic as a phenomenon of civilization? Did we choose this system of transport on purpose or it was imposed to us? Tracking the origins of traffic would be a tiring task, I admit. Starting from the first wheel moved by just a pair of hands, traffic solutions have passed a big way to become modern, comfortable and pricey options. As the solutions in engineering and materials were becoming more practical and updated, the manufacturing industry evolved throughout the world.

Where are we now?Many distant parts of the world became easier to reach. Travelling became a pastime, not only a business need. So much has been done to make travelling fun and easy. Catering on board, Wi-fi access and air-conditioning have become pre-requisites of modern vehicles. However, obligatory passenger controls on airports have ruined the enjoyment in travelling and endangered ‘democracy’ of privacy by thorough check-ups. Safety of millions of people is on the first place and should remain so.

The costs of some vehicles have made them unavailable with wider population. Many famous car makes cost a fortune, although, their industries promise elegance, comfort and reliance in return: the more, the better. Or is it? Are the car prices money for value compared to average income per capita? Who will pay for the pollution of water and air they cause? Do you need to take a loan to buy an expensive car part? And, finally, is the investment justifiable if you are taking just ONE person to work in your car? Yourself? Since social networks allow us to travel at the speed of our thought, somehow all other methods of travel seem slow and inappropriate.

The future of traffic solutions must be more suited to meet the needs of an average world traveller, travelling for business or pleasure within a limited time span: safe, fast and inexpensive. Achieving that goal is not easy, neither democracy is. However, a systematic planning of traffic development throughout the world is the first step. The experts must perceive the whole world as one traffic platform and work within the scheme. Otherwise, travelling has no point and is doomed to locality and short distances.

A new traffic concept of the 22nd century would use the advantages of the existing one and minimise its flaws. This means that the new goal of traffic vehicles would be having more eco-friendly methods of transport, easier to maintain and cheaper to afford for wider population. Wind power, solar energy, electricity, even recycling materials used as fuels mixed with robotics and information technology could shape a useful outline.

Conquering new places seems like a doomed battle: ground, water and air have already been taken. Underground as well. Since there is no room for stealing more space, the existing one has to be modified and carefully preserved. Lesser noise, smoother transitions from ground to water or air, smaller, less complicated stations, departure and arrivals lists adaptable; special air crafts to reach people endangered by sudden flood or fire, versatile and ready to switch from ground to air in seconds, if needed. Using the same system of roads in levels would allow bikes, cars or trains to reach desired destinations at their own speed. Engineers should devise a net of traffic roads which would make travelling equally fun, easy and eco-friendly.

When you are late, traffic looks like it’s a sign of bad planning. But it’s not. It is a sum of strenuous work of thousands of people who succeeded in putting their ideas into practice. It has to be imperfect, because all humans are. Traffic has been created as a ‘democratic’ way to pick and choose where to go and how. Traffic is tiring and complicated. Above all, it is unpredictable. That’s why it is so irresistibly adventurous.