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Traffic, Traffic, Lookin’ For My Chapstick

What can traffic tell us about ourselves?

I drive a lot. Somedays I drive a couple hundred miles in ten or so hours. I’ve written a little about driving and traffic before, but I’ve been wanting to discuss it further.

I grew up kinda all over the place, moving from house to house and city to city every couple of years, and I’ve continued that trend into my adulthood. I’ve lived in and around Phoenix, Arizona, most of my life, but Phoenix is far from a small city, and there are many different lifestyles to be found here. The longest I’ve stayed at one address is probably four years, the shortest is probably a few months. Some of those moves were precipitated by poor choices, mine or someone else’s, but some of them were simply the consequence of being poor in an increasingly apathetic society. I’m not going to focus on my own history, but I have had the opportunity to witness a great deal of diversity and disparity, and I’ve recently really started thinking about what traffic can tell us about ourselves.

I came of age in a pretty rough part of town, topping both the violent crimes per capita and the property crimes per capita charts in all of Arizona. Some people think that’s awesome, something to be proud of and write terrible Soundcloud songs about, I think it’s rather disgusting. I’ve been reading about the history of Maryvale and it’s a pretty clear and extreme example of White Flight and ensuing social negligence. Hopefully I’ll have the time write about it soon.

Growing up and developing my critical thinking faculties in such an impoverished place has given me a very valuable perspective on the way we live our lives, but it has also left me with a lot of odd presumptions that I’ve had to really work to overcome. One of those presumptions was thinking that my actions were self-contained, that they affected me and me alone. When you’re struggling to meet your most basic needs, hungry and undereducated and generally fighting an uphill battle everywhere you go, you don’t really have the luxury of time to think about the bigger, more abstract questions in life — what society even is and what holds it together, the implications and repercussions of simple thoughts and actions. I’m not saying that people in more affluent neighborhoods are more conscious, if anything I’d indict them for having the time and energy to care and think about these things, but regularly failing to do so. People who struggle to satisfy their basic needs usually fight harder for the same comforts as those higher up in status — and usually don’t achieve them — yet often manage to find a way to think about these topics anyway.

A large part of my day job is driving around Phoenix and its surrounding municipalities. I live in a suburb and have a twenty minute drive in to a rather run-down part of town. When I drive in to work at three in the morning I don’t really deal with much traffic, just the occasional long-nighter and a few fellow early-starters, but when I drive home at around three in the afternoon I get to contend with school traffic and the beginnings of rush hour. Driving around all day, my mind starts to wander. I have noticed that there is a marked difference in the flow of traffic that is correlated with the apparent socio-economic status of the neighborhood I’m driving through, with some exceptions.

Driving in Gilbert, where I live, is most often calm and quiet and peaceful. Occasionally there’ll be Mr. Inconsiderate-Man-In-Business-suit driving a fancy Mercedes who seems to think that the road was laid specifically for him and that his fellow drivers are all inconveniences and opponents; or Mrs. Harried-MLM-Mom driving the crossover SUV with oversized blind spots and a way-too-big footprint anyway who seems to believe that traffic laws are just suggestions, and that makeup should be applied while driving using her selfie camera as a mirror. But really, it’s usually pretty nice. We let each other out of driveways, we go the speed limit, we use eye contact and hand gestures to thank each other, we slow down for yellow lights.

Driving around Mesa is absurd. First, the scenery and surroundings are so inconsistent that it’s hard to get a good feel for just what type of area you’re driving through. One second you’ll be looking out the window at a brand new multi-million-dollar commercial complex, the next it’ll be an abandoned housing complex that’s been used as a flop since the mid-nineties, complete with opiate-addicts sleeping behind the bus stops and an exterior carpeting of crack pipes and hypodermic syringes. The cars on the road are diverse; old, new, nice, shabby, legal and insured, the opposite of that, lowriders, minivans, lifted trucks, mini trucks, South Dakota license plates, Sonora license plates, bright yellow Ferraris, and camouflage Ford Broncos, and just about anything else you could imagine . The flow of traffic is absurd as well. You never really get a chance to get comfortable driving in Mesa, sometimes you’ll be driving along at a reasonable pace, everyone else on the road doing the same, and there’ll be a primer-grey Honda that sounds like a bumble-bee weaving in and out of lanes and running the lights, or there’ll be an early two-thousands Oldsmobile going twenty miles an hour and managing to take up three lanes, the driver looking perplexed as if they aren’t entirely sure where they are or what they’re doing.

Tempe is a terrible place for driving. Not that it’s the worst traffic, but everything has been under constant construction for the last twelve years, and it takes longer to drive than it would to simply walk. The cars are pretty homogenous, either reasonably-priced mid-tier sedans or work-trucks, most of the traffic being of a commercial nature. There are thousands of college students walking or biking or scootering or Segwaying and at times it gets so congested with pedestrian traffic that you can’t get more than a few hundred feet without having to slam on your breaks due to some jaywalker caring more about getting in line at Dutch Brothers than they do about their own personal safety. Parts of Tempe are pretty similar to Gilbert, outside the city center away from the college and sports arenas and business centers.

Phoenix has it all. Driving through the really nice neighborhoods is just as fine as taking a lazy Sunday stroll. Driving through the hood is a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with our society, everybody’s car has seen better days, they’re all in a rush to get where they’re going, they care more about being first than they do about safety, and they don’t even realize that their self-centered driving affects their fellow drivers. Downtown is both stressful and depressing, you’ve got the cars that shouldn’t be on the road, you’ve got the drivers who shouldn’t be on the road, you’ve got the inconsiderate and inattentive and incompetent and the ignorant.

As I said above, the flow of traffic in, and the feel of driving through, certain areas seems to be generally correlated with the socio-economic status of the place. My town, for the most part, is very comfortable; there are rarely accidents, it’s easy to communicate and cooperate with your fellow drivers, people are genuinely prosocial and take responsibility for their own driving. I have to think that driving in Gilbert is so much nicer because it’s a nicer place to live, it’s established, people are comfortable in both their careers and home life, most people aren’t hounded by economic insecurity, and most people commute out of Gilbert.

Driving through the impoverished neighborhoods you’ll see that most people seem to be self-centered drivers, you’ll see a lot of angry people, you’ll see a lot of unsafe and unregistered cars, you’ll see a lot more accidents and a lot more police. I imagine that people drive this way because that’s how they go about every element of their daily life. I grew up in The Hood, and I love it and I’m almost convinced that it taught me how to be grateful, but I know what it feels like when you don’t ever have enough. I know what it felt like when I realized there was more to life than just struggling. I know that when you are inundated with apathy you don’t necessarily develop empathy without some concerted effort.

Commercial and industrial areas are often chaotic. It’s like a box of chocolates, but like a box of stale Soviet Union chocolates that somebody found and brought back from Chernobyl. People drive through these areas, not to these areas. Nobody really cares, nobody is invested, nobody wants to be there for long. Here you’ll see the most accidents, the most blown lights, the most rude gestures, and the biggest pricks on the road.

When I drive through the multi-million dollar home neighborhoods my stomach turns. This is where all the entitled drivers live. Sure, it’s an established area and these people surely aren’t struggling to eat, but they have an entirely different set of needs that aren’t being met. It’s a lot easier to become a millionaire if you’re selfish and apathetic, and it really shows in their driving. I go the speed limit almost everywhere I go, certain freeways just lend themselves to speeding, but I really do try to be a self-aware driver. The people in these neighborhoods often seem appalled that one such as myself, in a work truck and tattoos, would be observing all traffic ordinances. These people all seem to be the most important person on the road, they all seem to believe that while driving is the proper time to read emails and send texts, and they all seem to think that yelling and brandishing fingers will get me out of their way. They also all bought cars with invisible blinkers.

I’m not making any assertions here, just relaying my observations, and none of my statements were absolutes. I think people all over the place should be more concerned with safe driving. I’ve seen hundreds of car crashes. I’ve lost loved ones, and seen other families ripped apart, in car crashes. I’ve seen thousands of people flippantly operating their four-thousand-pound death machines nearly miss tragedy and think nothing of it. Automobiles are amazing, they take us places, they become hobbies, they become avenues to fulfilment of dreams, but they are dangerous as well. We created traffic laws to ensure that we would all get where we’re going in a safe manner, that red light is not a personal attack, the stop sign not a slight against your honor, that driver in front of you isn’t an opponent. I love traffic laws, they are a prime example of cooperation and the amazing problems a society can solve when working together, I wish more people thought about it like that.

Thanks for stopping in, folks! I appreciate your time and attention. Please think a little bit about the drivers on the road with you the next time to get in your car and drive somewhere. I hope you all are having a great weekend. Happy Bastille Day, and, as always, go be the best version of yourself that you can be!

Secular Humanist writer, photographer, and quintessential millennial dilettante. Check out for more, you can even buy prints!

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