Articles

THE TRAFFIC JAM IS HERE TO STAY

A man who’s resigned to driving the rest of his life in low gear says the answer to our traffic problems is not to reroute streetcars, build subways or increase the parking fines. The only solution to the five o’clock rat race is to get used to it

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN April 15 1951
Articles

THE TRAFFIC JAM IS HERE TO STAY

A man who’s resigned to driving the rest of his life in low gear says the answer to our traffic problems is not to reroute streetcars, build subways or increase the parking fines. The only solution to the five o’clock rat race is to get used to it

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN April 15 1951

THE TRAFFIC JAM IS HERE TO STAY

A man who’s resigned to driving the rest of his life in low gear says the answer to our traffic problems is not to reroute streetcars, build subways or increase the parking fines. The only solution to the five o’clock rat race is to get used to it

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

ISEE by the papers that somebody has been counting cars again and figures he can fix the traffic and parking situation by designing a super elevated cross-town highway terminating in a 10-story municipal parking garage for every major city in Canada. In my town, Toronto, they are going to provide more elbow room for my automobile by building a multi-million-dollar subway. I admire these optimists, but I simply don’t believe them. They’re not kidding me a bit.

Okay, okay, I’d like to be able to drive onto a sunny windswept terrace and have a uniformed parker take over my car with a cheery smile. I’d like to see my native city’s traffic jams disappear into a hole in the ground along with its streetcars. I’d like to be 19 again, too. And I’d like to have all my muscles back, a clear view where my stomach is and my old youthful confidence that I was going to be prime minister. But I’ve learned to face the facts of life. I know that I’m 40, that my extra weight is a permanent part of me and that the nearest I’ll ever come to public office is the ReceiverGeneral’s Department, Arrears Division. And I know that I’ll never be able to drive downtown again without fighting my way stop light by stop light, or find a parking place unless I’m smarter and faster on the clutch than the other guy. I can live with the idea as long as some municipal Peter Pan doesn’t start kidding me that he’s going to take me back to the days when I packed a picnic lunch, had Pop work the spark and the gas while I manned the crank and the choke, and tooled off into the country singing: “It Ain’t Going to Rain no More!”

Let’s face it. Traffic is here to stay. The answer isn’t to reword parking

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signs, reroute streetcars, and let motorists use these three lanes in the morning and these three at night. The answer is to stop dreaming. The sooner we get used to the idea that we’re going to spend most of our lives in low gear the better. Wishful thinking just snarls things up more than ever.

Ordinarily, when I go into downtown Toronto to, say, cover a cheque, I leave my house in suburban Islington with the realistic conviction that the only places left to park are places where nobody wants to go. I know that if a new place turns up the police are going to put a “No Parking” sign on it. But I have a couple of spots that I guard like a secret cache of rum. If it’s been raining and there’s too much mud there, or if the place is blocked by garbage trucks, I drive down to the docks and park my car among the gulls and take a streetcar uptown. It takes quite a while, but as long as I know what I’m doing I’m okay.

Then I pick up the paper some morning and read that traffic planners have been busy cleaning up the whole situation. They’ve rerouted the streetcars between 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m., allowed trucks to make deliveries only between 9.15 and 10.15 a.m., allowed parking on the north side in the morning and the south side in the afternoon, limited the parking time for all vehicles to 15 minutes and diverted through traffic to the next street north, between 10.15 a.m. and 2.15 p.m.

I can’t quite figure out what’s going to happen to me between 2.30 and 3 p.m., but the item has an authoritative tone and I get the feeling that everything has been taken care of. I have a vague vision of the street looking the way it used to when I was a boy, and me driving up to the

bank and parking as calmly as a cowboy tying his horse to a hitching post. I leave 15 minutes later than usual.

The only difference is that there seem to be more cars with locked bumpers between 2.45 and 3 p.m. I prowl around the block changing gears with one hand, biting the nails on the other, reading signs that say: “No

Standing 8 to 9.30 a.m. and 4.30 to 6 p.m. No Parking at Other Times,” and trying to figure whether you can park when you can’t stand, just what standing in an automobile means, and silently cursing whoever it was that wouldn’t leave well enough alone.

Why don’t you traffic-fixers drop dead? I’m happy with traffic the way it is. I’ve worked out my life to fit into a deplorable traffic situation. My whole schedule is deplorable. But I’m as happy as an old hop toad in a mud puddle until somebody starts monkeying around and giving me delusions that I’m going back to the days when I could move along at 30 miles per hour.

I find myself reading that a new elevated, diagonal, super-duper two-way express route has been opened between downtown and my home, and the first thing I know I’m getting little nostalgic twinges for the days when I snapped around in my car as if I were riding an elastic band. Well, by God, this might be the answer, I tell myself, snapping shut my paper. I leave work a bit early just for the joy of the fast smooth ride home.

I find that, instead of getting into the main traffic jam and coming to a nice brisk stop a few minutes after I leave the office, I have to get through another traffic jam first to get into the main one on the speedway. When I do point my radiator cap along its sweeping curves—what I can see of them between bumpers—I find myself wedged between the same bus and the same transport truck I travel home with every night, like a matron in a junior miss girdle. I look in at the same old bus passengers, who are still looking out the window at me and laughing. I begin to feel like a beaten, frustrated, anachronistic man again, and when I get home I yelp at my wife: “Okay, Baby! There’ll be another car on one of Toronto’s used-car lots tonight. The automobile is finished. It belongs to another age. From now on, Kid, we take the payments on the old bus, plus the interest, the fire insurance, $50-deductible and theft, the public liability and property damage, the money for gas, oil, grease, fines, licenses, garage bills, tires and parking, and put it all in a big bowl. Every time we want to go anywhere, we put our hand in the bowl and pull out a handful of change for a taxi, train or airplane. The automobile has lost out in the battle for survival.”

Or take the idea of driving off into the country and getting away from it all. Ever since highway driving has become like taking part in a Santa Claus parade I’ve learned to stay home over week ends and have my picnics in my backyard. I’ve forgotten the days when we used to explore the countryside in my Dad’s old Ford like a bunch of week end Marco Polos, coming back sunburned, tired and brimming with impressions of interesting sights and far-off places and all singing: “Show me the Way to go Home” in four-part harmony. I’ve become a modern motorist—what the psychologists call automotively mature.

Then somebody announces that a new six-lane artery has been opened up to the far north, and I find myself enthusiastically getting out the old Coleman stove, thermos bottles and bottle opener. Some nice week end, like Blossom Sunday, I pile my family into the car and off I go, trembling

with visions of myself driving along far-off country lanes in high gear with the breeze rufiling my hair and sliding, uninterrupted, over my sleek, streamlined fenders.

The first thing I know I’m looking at the back of the same old transport, my rad boiling over and the hitchhikers walking past me with a look of disgust. I slowly approach a clover-leaf that says if I want to go north I turn south, and 1 try to make the best of it by getting off the highway. I find the only picnic spot where I won’t turn grey with dust, from passing traffic is a farm where some smart farmer, noticing that the motorists have nowhere to go, charges a buck a car and sits on his nice cool ginger-bread veranda watching the cars trying to get up from the old crick in low gear. It, doesn’t do any good to try driving farther. If I drive farther I find myself approaching the outskirts of the next city, which has spread 20 miles in the past 20 years due to the influence of the automobile.

Look, I still think it's wonderful to be able to travel back and forth from my office while sitting down. I wouldn’t notice the traffic if somebody wasn’t always telling me how critical the situation was. Who says it’s critical? There’s no such a thing as heavy traffic. There’s only a lot of guys who remember when it was light:. We can get used to it if the traffic experts will only take a rest.

I’ve worked out little games to play while I sit waiting for traffic to move. I make anagrams of the license plates ahead and do number games by combining them with the numbers on my speedometer, which reads from zero to 150 miles an hour. It’s usually at zero. I’ve convinced myself that this is the normal way to get home.

You don’t hear guys making after-dinner speeches about the alarming number of pedestrians and proposing new four-lane catwalks for them to pass over one another’s heads, or rerouting them between the hours of 8.30 and 10.30 a.m.

And how about garage bills? They’ve become more complicated than the traffic. You don’t hear of anybody viewing that with alarm. We don’t have steering wheels now; we have front ends. Our knee-action goes wrong and our main brake cylinder loses its juice. I used to be able to repair my old T Model Ford with a wrench and a washbasin full of coal oil. Even a differential could be taken apart and put together again on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve never even seen the differential on my low-slung dandy. It’s tucked away demurely beneath tiers of steel, and the only time I ever hear of it is when I clonk onto a piddling little rock eight inches high that my old Ford would have leaped like a frog.

The old cars mightn’t have been pretty: they were rough, uncouth, angular, bawdy, noisy; they smelled like peasants and had straw in their seats; but they had the gumption to lubricate themselves by splashing up their own oil with four connecting rods; they were robust, healthy and jumping with animal spirits. You could kick them right in the radiator and they took it like a man. They’d even kick you back. Kick one of today’s pedigreed aristocrats in its fine chrome puss and you’d have to take it to a specialist—a chrome specialist, at that, who specialized in grilles. Yet those days are gone and nobody’s trying to bring them back. Why not face the fact that streets without cars parked on either side and stuck sideways in the middle are gone too? Continued, on page 42

Continued on page 42

Continued from page 15

Just recently the president of Ford Motor Company of Canada told someone that motor-vehicle registration in Canada had passed the 2,500,000 mark; he pointed out that horse-and-buggy roads still hamper the motorists. A few days later the general manager of the Ontario Motor League came to work on foot, while waiting for the delivery of his new car, and told reporters: “Traffic has become such a problem that it’s a privilege to walk.”

If you ask me, those guys talking like that are going to find themselves out of a job. Motorists are going to start parking their cars in the museum, along with the chariot, the free balloon and the mustache cup.

So, from now on, why don’t you guys lay off? Let’s settle down to the situation. Maybe we won't ever be able to drive again in high gear. Maybe cars are multiplying like fruit flies. Maybe the whole thing is deplorable. But I, for one, say: the automobile is here to stay. ★

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