This is your brain in traffic

This is your brain in traffic

SLOW DOWN, DILETTANTE - Jam Pascual (The Philippine Star) - October 21, 2016 - 12:00am

The city ward of Shibuya is famous for its scramble crossing. Located near another tourist attraction, the famed Hachiko statue, the crossing is an overlapping pattern of pedestrian lanes that allow the area’s inhabitants to efficiently navigate its intersecting roads from all sides. Lanes cut through the intersection’s arms and even its center. It’s amazing to watch this system smoothly at work: the pedestrian lights turn green, the bodies pooling at the surrounding streets disperse into the stretch of concrete, and nobody bumps or shoves. Shibuya Community News even displays the crossing on live cam. It’s almost like bragging. Like: look at us, both vehicular and foot traffic are steady here, all day, every day.

You get the impression that, with such a system in place (and it’s good to remember that here, concrete systems only work when people actually cooperate), Shibuya’s population is generally content. The spaces that Shibuya’s citizens navigate are orderly, thus the interiority of their lives is orderly. The favorite noun to attach to the adjective “urban” is “jungle,” but it doesn’t really feel like a jungle there. Unlike here, where even if you don’t have to rub sticks together to start a fire, it still feels like you’re stressing every cell in your body to live another day.

In episode 227 of the podcast “99 Percent Invisible,” Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering at Duke University, defines infrastructure as “just about everything that makes civilization physically possible.” Now there’s a word gentler than jungle: civilization. Not utopia, which expects perfection, but something a little more humble. It asks for a place to dwell where we don’t have to feel like feral castaways. Not euphoria, but mental stability.

Not going insane is the least we can expect from our city and the authorities who maintain it. But that isn’t what we’re getting. Getting stuck in EDSA doesn’t just mean being late to work. Daily exposure to heavy traffic has been linked to depression, anxiety and chronic stress, which isn’t surprising. One thing to understand about how heavy traffic affects mental health is doing away with the notion that once you’re out of the traffic, you’re fine. The stress accumulated during those daily periods of being stranded for what seems like eternity on a single spot of road during rush hour bleeds into other aspects of your life. There’s less time to sleep, to play, to nurture relationships. Impatience follows you like a phantom, mucking with the way you deal with other people. Your temper gets a little shorter. Helplessness oozes into the corners of your life you prefer to keep pristine.

Civilization — and its network of roads — is the container in which our existences are allowed to thrash about, from birth to death. So what kind of life are we left with when, in getting from point A to point B, the in-between time feels like a demo trial of hell? It certainly doesn’t help that the taxi drivers that aren’t under Grab are always asking for a little extra on the fare.

When Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade says “A state of mind adds to the problem of traffic,” we can say he’s right, but not for his reasons. When those words came out of Tugade’s mouth, it demonstrated a severe lack of nuance, and betrayed a poor understanding of how actual citizens and their infrastructure interact on a daily basis. Yes, we should cooperate, and yes we shouldn’t use traffic as an excuse. But asking for people to adjust their states of mind when they’ve grown so accustomed to the norm of gridlock demonstrates a kind of willful ignorance. The people who go through heavy traffic every day are fed helplessness and now they’re expected to say it tastes just fine? It’s like asking your brain to produce its own painkillers. To say that traffic is a state of mind, following Tugade’s meaning, is as dumb as saying that the poor can stop being poor if they work harder. Or simply look on the bright side. Neither belief sees the bigger picture.

So let’s twist it a bit. Tugade would be right to say that traffic is a state of mind, if his intended meaning was, “Traffic is responsible for driving us nuts.”

It’s an infrastructural problem, yes. But until people in power understand that issues of traffic are psychologically damaging, we (pun intended, I guess) can’t move forward. I’m waiting for those lights to turn green. Until then, I’ll be spending rush hour in EDSA trying not to blow my brains out.

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