Traffic is Universal

by phil on Friday Aug 17, 2012 3:22 PM


One of my favorite aspects of Spielberg's Minority Report is that people are still sneezing from the common cold. I get some solace from that. I have seasonal allergies, and when I'm sneezing a hundred times an hour and am a barely functioning human being, I feel better when I imagine that posterity will suffer like I have.

It's the same with being stuck in traffic. I don't believe traffic jams will be eliminated fifty years from now, nor fifty thousand years from now. In fact, I think traffic is so universal a predicament, that it even exists among intelligent alien life-forms.

It's a problem inherent to entities traveling on a 2D-plane. Independent paths intersect, and so at some point the creatures have to stop and take turns. You might object by saying that a civilization could have mass transit tubes like in Futurama, but I don't think that's realistic. For those tubes to work smoothly, they'd have to take you from A to B directly, and that would be much too many tubes connecting every point. For it a tube-system to be economical with space, there has to be small tubes that feed into larger freeway style tubes, which means onramps, and in tandem, waiting.

Or you may object, that perhaps this civilization lives underwater or is airborne, and therefore, can travel in three dimensions. I don't think that's possible because evolution will always favor terrestrial intelligence over marine intelligence. Just look at our own example on Earth. The number of tool-using terrestrial animals is an order of magnitude greater than marine animals. Monkeys use sticks for foraging and fighting, insects use leaves as shields, and beavers construct elaborate shelters and dams. There is just something special about land: a solid surface on one side, open air above it, gravity to make everything stick, and voila, you have instant work-benches. You can't swing rods in the water, and you can't make hiding places or elaborate structures in the air.

Now, for the sake of the thought experiment, I'm excluding intelligent species that have transcended their existence so much that they live within a Matrix-like simulation or Tron. These species are irrelevant to me because I know that their members will have also shed the suffering intrinsic with being in a traffic jam. If you're in a computer, and you're in a bandwidth-based queue, you can press a button to instantly de-program unhappiness. If you're in the flesh, on the other hand, you would have to pop a Xanax which takes some time to work its magic, and you're not really supposed to be operating heavy machinery while under it anyway.

Another objection is that perhaps this civilization has no rush hour. Perhaps their sun is always at the same spot in the sky and there is no concept of diurnalism or nocturnalism. Doesn't matter. A thriving intelligent species will always have travel waves. Whether it's to go to the latest Coneheads bowling game or to synchronize their feeding, there will always be a situation where more than half of the population of a city wants to move at the same time. Since an individual requires about 100x more square footage for transport than it does for dwelling, if a city planner tried to handle the load during their equivalent of a Laker's game, they would need more than 99% of their city devoted to roadways or tubes, which no intelligent species would ever tolerate.

Other Objections:

Maybe this species is able to hop over each other while moving about. But even if they're able to jump 10x their body height, they would inevitably need vehicles that carry large cargo that can't be hopped over.

Maybe this species knows how to cooperate better than humans or has something like population control. However, look at China with all their harmony and population control. They still have a week-long traffic jams just for the 30-mile stretch that enters Shanghai.

Maybe this species is so exotic that we can't extrapolate Earth-based patterns to this other planet. Even so, evolution is universal, and evolution will always lead to a resource-scare economics for its creatures. An intelligent species will have to make do with what it has, and its cost-benefit analysis will always require it to tolerate some amount of sitting in traffic, in exchange for being able to cram amphitheaters, research triangles, and restaurant/re-fueling stations in a city.

In other words, I feel secure knowing that nobody will ever be safe from traffic (or sneezing). At least not in this universe.

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