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Car Culture

The Windshield Perspective, Same As It Ever Was

4:48 PM EDT on June 6, 2008


From the way back machine comes this remarkable essay, "The Last Traffic Jam," about the blind spots that plague the motoring mentality. The anonymous author, writing for Time Magazine in 1947, delivers observations about road rage and the endemic violence of driving that still apply today.

The most striking passage, perhaps, is the writer's take on the futility of adding capacity for cars:

...though postwar motorists were gradually becominghorn-blowing neurotics with tendencies toward drinking, cat-kicking andwife-beating, there were few who did not believe that the traffic evilwould soon be corrected. This enormous delusion has been a part of U.S.folklore since the day of the linen duster, driving goggles and thehigh tonneau.

Congress and state legislatures had appropriated millions to build superhighways on which speeders could kill themselves at higher speeds. Thetraffic light, the yellow line, the parking lot, the parking meter, theunderground garage, the one-way street, the motorcycle cop and thetraffic ticket had all blossomed amid the monoxide fumes -- and traffichad gone right on getting thicker and noisier year by year.

Sixty years later, the notion that we can build our way out of congestion persists. But as parts of the country like northern Virginia bump up against the limits of that mentality, the author's metaphorical last traffic jam -- which I take to mean the moment when the absurdity of expanding roadways becomes impossible to refute -- may well be within sight.

Photo of U.S. 59 in 1962:

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