Living in Traffic


Truck and Trolley

I have a relationship to traffic, similar to the kind of relationship a goldfish has to the water in its bowl. It’s never just about the fish and the water.  Rather, it’s an ecology, and the ecology relates to an environment, the environment to a city, the city to a region the region to a continent, the continent to this earth.  So, it’s not quite as simple as Carassius Auratus Auratus and its DNA + the H20 in which it swims about.  The fish and the water have more dimensions than even Matisse’s representation of Red Fish.  In his fishbowl the water never needs changing…or filtering…the water is blue and the fish seem happy.

On this earth the traffic is a rushhhh…a contiguous web, a continuous ebb and flow, of rivers and streams. The rivers are tidal, reaching their peaks in the mornings and late afternoons.  Some people simply don’t appreciate their music, rhythms, and volumes. While others prick up their ears or let themselves be lulled to sleep. Most notice, sooner or later, the haze and the dust; they may wonder precisely what’s in it; its particular local, chemical composition, however, remaining something of a mystery to local dwellers.

Many, perhaps all, have adapted to the nature of traffic, tuning into the voices of traffic radio that are authoritative and reassuring.  They are there to keep everything moving; to prevent jams; to help us get to where we need to go.  They are more socialized, more cultural than anything I have to say.  And if these voices intrude in any way, they can be filtered out.  Filtration, indeed, goes hand in hand with adaptation and money, money perhaps being the paterfamilia of all filtration.  There are expensive windows for instance, like walls, that filter out most traffic noise yet allow sunlight in; and with air conditioning and air filters, air can be cleaned and blown about so that windows need never open. 

Others have moved their bedrooms to the back of their abodes, to facilitate sleep.  Still others filter out traffic by moving to the suburbs, to a gated community, to the country.  Blinds too are used to filter out what we don’t want to see; and there are all kinds of them, in all kinds of places…my remote control…my ear plugs…night mask… prescription…and so on. 

…This has become a very urban earth where new engines spin the planet ever hotter, faster. People live on traffic islands where speed has this magic habit of making things disappear and re-appear.  Even when you think the traffic isn’t there, in some form or another, it is, in the air. A busy street becomes, in some odd way, a place where people appear to disappear…a private place, where most people keep themselves to themselves…where nobody expects to see a child playing…where nobody asks where the children are. 

I imagine my street would be a very different place without traffic.  Nevertheless, I ask myself, where we would be without it.  Everyone wants to go elsewhere, and to go quickly enough; to leave here and go there, if only to enjoy returning to our various places.  In some ways, you could say, we have evolved to become part car.

This relationship of inhabitants to traffic certainly has its own distinctive ecology; its own particular character; its own vitality.  Not to mention, tragedy, even: millions of lives have been lost in traffic…going out…coming home. Traffic is a risky business.  It’s somewhat odd then that we think of this risk as an if even though every moment for humans and creatures in various places it turns out to be a when.   

If I stop filtering…start feeling…the heat…the physics and chemistry of a billion engines, a trillion combustions…the black carbon…particulates…pipes…lungs…choke…of rivers of heavy metal shells…of oil and bright lights…if I start imagining the numbers…divining the future …it’s a drama by any other name…surely…   

Am I foolish then to wonder, that if it’s easy enough to find art and science about life in the sea, say, or flora in the jungle, “where,” I ask myself, “where is all the art and science about people living in traffic?”

Maria Worton is a local Montreal activist, writer and teacher.