Traffic jams are like ocean waves; they come in various sizes. The one that clogged together on the afternoon of October 7th, the Friday before Columbus Day weekend, near Boston’s Logan airport can be compared to a tidal wave.
I know because I was there, starting at 3:30 p.m. After two hours and forty minutes, our car was a mile from the airport heading glacially toward the Sumner tunnel along with many thousands of other motor vehicles.
Unmoving traffic allows one to engage in observations about motorized immobility. The first scene I noticed was the serenity of the drivers. For nearly three hours, there was not a horn blown, not a fit of tempers or vituperatives, only a resigned and omnipresent calmness — this in Boston, land of the hot-tempered darting drivers!
Their serenity was born of surrender, a complete submission to the absence of any vacuum for their accelerator to pursue. They knew a gigantic, Olympic-size traffic tie-up when they saw it. Some even were amused, as if they were part of making history, unlike the traffic cops who were not there.
Check that last point. There were two policemen at a checkpoint detouring some traffic around a three or four mile arc back to the main clogged artery leading to the toll booth for the Summer tunnel, a mile or so from the Airport. Otherwise, the motorized masses were on their own — not to be moved along by experienced traffic constables.
My colleague and I started making acquaintances with our neighbors. “Is traffic like this all the time at this time,” we asked one likely commuting veteran of the bumper-to-bumper grind. “Worst, I’ve seen yet,” he replied, with an amiable disposition.
“Any sign of a major accident ahead,” we asked another driver of a light
truck? “Not that he could see, he said, an opinion verified later by the state police.
Meanwhile, life in the languished lane continued on. A vendor, seizing the hour, was selling cups of “Vermont Spring Water.” Which made one wonder about the thousands of iron bladders in these vehicles; not one desperate person was seen by the side of the road answering the call of nature all this time. Not even a teenage boy.
A few weeks earlier, a woman was stricken in her car and the ambulance could not get through the gridlock before she died. With tens of thousands of people in one paralyzed mass, there is no emergency assistance possible, notwithstanding cellular phones.
With cars, vans and trucks starting and stopping every few feet and then idling for minutes at a time, the pollution built up. I looked to the roadside and there was a large billboard advertising Newport cigarettes. The youthful couple looked happy over the headline “Alive with Pleasure” and in smaller print the message was the Surgeon General’s warning that cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide. So does hyper congested traffic.
We noticed a sudden surge in fumes nearby and saw an Old Town Trolley parallel to our lane. For fifteen minutes, this Trolley filled our area with ample squirts of dark emissions. On its side was an ad that read “Save the Planet — Hard Rock Cafe.” The Cafe should choose its carrier more environmentally, I mused.
We slow motioned past a large bronze tablet informing us of the “Professor Enrico Fermi Overpass,” presumably honoring the brilliant Italian physicist who first split the atom. Just then a flower-salesman wove himself between the cars selling pretty plants.
Days later I learned from the Boston Globe that “increasingly, gridlock is paralyzing traffic in downtown Boston, making it impossible for cars to move in any direction, police and city traffic officials say. But unless they are willing to spend money to increase enforcement of traffic laws, the situation is likely to worsen.”
There was no mention in the Globe article of any motorists’ movement to alleviate the problem in the short run by getting more police directing traffic. There was no mention of any upsurge in public protest. Serenity reigns in the cradle of our Revolution. Why fight the irresistible slowdown?
“We know we have a problem” a Boston Police spokesman conceded. More “cadets” to direct traffic are on the way. But they cannot write tickets and enforcement of the rules of the road — the cheapest way to keep intersections open, transportation specialists and policy both say is down dramatically in the city.
“Everybody goes through green lights, yellow lights, red lights -nobody stops,” complained a venerable cab driver. He also said more cops directing traffic could stop violators and move traffic, as they did years ago.
Of course no one is talking of more mass transit. Another tunnel’ is being built. But long ago in the Thirties, General Motors and its highway lobby companies, conspired to buy up electrified mass transit systems in many cities, including the world’s largest in Los Angeles, tear up the tracks and push for more highways. The Justice Department convicted them in Chicago in 1947 and GM was fined five thousand dollars for one of the economic crimes of the century.
And so, Americans in their cars endure the waste of time, health, fuel and money going to and from and do so silently. Our experience was not wasted however. My address at a local University that evening was titled “The Age of Diminishing Expectations”.