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Talking about traffic is odd, it’s part of living

The drivers in light traffic measured a much healthier 123 over 78. Oddly, whether a driver was running late made no difference to blood pressure.

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“WHERE would you rather be?” asks a bumper sticker on the back of a rickety-looking Toyota Corolla. It is an advertisement for a hotel—and a question that people might well ask themselves. The words on the sticker are so small that they could be read only by a driver a few feet behind the Corolla while both cars were motionless. In Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, it is a dead certainty that plenty of people will be stuck in just that position.

Much of life in Lagos is spent in traffic or trying to avoid it. Peter Elias, a lecturer in planning at the University of Lagos, says that the jams usually begin around six in the morning and last at least until nine. From one to three in the afternoon, parents picking up their children from school clog the roads again. Then Lagos slides into the evening rush hour, which can last until eight or nine. Traffic moves so slowly that one roundabout has a wraparound television screen to entertain drivers. At Victoria Island, the old commercial centre, many workers go straight from their offices to nearby bars to sit out the worst of it.

Many people believe that their city has unusually bad traffic, and that it is worsening. It is hard to judge whether they are right. TomTom, a maker of satellite-navigation devices, and INRIX, a data company, rank cities by traffic congestion. But their lists are dominated by cities in rich and upper-middle-income countries. Poorer cities often have worse traffic but produce too little data to be ranked. The most jammed include Cairo, Delhi, Dhaka, Jakarta, Lagos, Manila, Nairobi and São Paulo.

Most of these cities have three things in common. First, they are crowded. The Atlas of Urban Expansion, a project run by Shlomo Angel of New York University, has good data on Cairo, Dhaka, Lagos, Manila and São Paulo. All are at least twice as densely populated as Paris. Dhaka, with an overall density of 552 people per hectare in its built-up area, is ten times as crowded as Paris. Second, with the exception of Delhi, none has a fast, extensive rail-based public-transport system. Commuters have little choice but to pour onto the roads.

The third thing these cities share is that private-vehicle ownership is rising quickly. In Delhi, the number of registered motorbikes jumped from 4.3m in 2011 to 6.7m in 2017. Cars and jeeps are up from 2.2m to 3.2m. Not everybody with a car drives every day. In Nairobi, traffic is worst at the end of the month, when salaried workers are paid and can afford petrol. But enough people drive that the roads seize up.

In the stickiest cities, traffic seems less an irritation than an inescapable fact. People talk obsessively about it, and swap stories. The quintessential Manila story is the one about the Catholic archbishop who became so fed up in a jam in 2015 that he left his car and directed traffic in the rain. Nigeria’s head of state in the 1970s, Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated while sitting in Lagos traffic. In June of this year one Lagosian tried to beat a jam by driving on the wrong side of the road. He was accosted by police, who tried to force him to turn round. Unfortunately, the driver was a soldier, and he promptly called for back-up. A man was shot in the ensuing mêlée.

Economists think congestion a terrible waste of resources. They have tried to quantify the loss from sitting in traffic—again focusing on rich countries. INRIX estimates that traffic delays cost Los Angeles $19bn and New York City $34bn in 2017, counting petrol as well as lost productivity. Matthias Sweet of Ryerson University in Canada has calculated that congestion retards job growth in American cities when it delays the average commute by more than four and a half minutes.

But to see traffic jams purely as a waste of time is to miss something. To economists, every hour spent in traffic is an hour not spent being productive. But in the cities with the worst traffic, this is not always true. Nor is it clear that people dislike traffic jams quite as much as they say they do.

Nara, a housekeeper in São Paulo, has a three-hour commute. She begins by walking 20 minutes to a bus stop. After a journey of one hour, she walks to another bus stop and takes a second bus, again for about an hour. Then she walks again. Nara could travel faster if she took the metro, but fears being groped by men on the crowded trains. She uses the long bus rides to “create a little world” for herself, listening to music and reflecting on the day. She tolerates and even enjoys the journey. “Nothing here can faze me anymore,” she says.

“Paulistanos know they’re buying a package: São Paulo plus traffic,” explains Ronald Gimenez, the director of Rádio Trânsito. His radio station, which has more than 1m Twitter followers, is all about traffic, all the time. It employs a dozen reporters who zoom (or crawl) to traffic hotspots, though it relies mostly on data from traffic apps such as Waze and on drivers’ tips sent through WhatsApp. Mr Gimenez believes that Rádio Trânsito is not just a source of information but a comfort to stressed travellers. To listen is to be reminded that the jam you are stuck in is merely one of many.

In the slowest cities, few drivers obey bans on texting or making phone calls. When stuck in traffic, they chat to friends and conduct business. Or they shop. Many jammed cities have street hawkers. Lagos’s may be the most inventive. In two days in the city, this reporter was offered soft drinks, grapes, plantain chips, eggs, newspapers, windscreen wipers, hats, hot-water bottles, flip-flops, stuffed animals, gospel music, dog leads, three-legged stools, a large mirror and a CD rack.

One 43-year-old man named Lawal sells inflatable mattresses. He used to have a stall in a roadside market, where he tailored clothes and fixed mobile phones. But Lagos’s police demolished his stall as part of a plan to reduce traffic congestion. He is trying to save money so that he can start again. Lawal likes thick traffic, but not too thick. If cars move so slowly that, by walking up and down the lanes, Lawal passes the same driver several times, that driver might become irate. Happily, he says he can rely on heavy traffic for about five hours every weekday evening.

Many people hate sitting in traffic. One study by doctors at the American University in Beirut measured the blood pressure of drivers who pulled into petrol stations in heavy traffic and compared them with those who pulled over in light traffic. The ones in jams had a mean average systolic blood pressure of 142 and a diastolic pressure of 87. The drivers in light traffic measured a much healthier 123 over 78. Oddly, whether a driver was running late made no difference to blood pressure.

The last finding might be put down to the relaxed Lebanese attitude to time-keeping, except that a study of the punctual English found much the same thing. Male students at Liverpool John Moore’s University were put in a driving simulator and told they would be rewarded with money if they got to their destination within 15 minutes. The simulator was programmed with two traffic jams, one at the start of the trip and one at the end, making it impossible to complete the journey in time. The researchers expected that the second jam would be more stressful, because it made the drivers late. It was not. Both jams raised the students’ heart rates and blood pressures by the same amount. Traffic jams seem to be stressful whenever and wherever they occur.

They are not, however, so stressful that people will do much to avoid them. A study of toll lanes on a Los Angeles motorway, which drivers can enter and leave as they wish, calculated that drivers will pay $11 per hour of time saved—though it seems they will also pay to avoid being late. That is about half the local average wage. Other research has found the same ratio. People would appear to dislike traffic jams about half as much as they dislike work.

Moreover, time spent fuming in traffic jams appears to be soon forgotten. Two academics, Eric Morris and Jana Hirsch, have examined the American Time Use Survey for evidence that people in big cities recall being particularly unhappy at rush hour. They found almost none. Traffic jams infuriate the people stuck in them. But when things start moving, all is forgotten. As they point out, this might help explain why Americans (and others) often oppose measures such as congestion charging.

In 1966 an Argentinian writer, Julio Cortázar, pushed this impression to a fantastic conclusion. In his short story “The Southern Thruway”, a man driving to Paris gets stuck in a jam so bad it lasts for days. At first he and his fellow drivers are furious. But gradually they create a little society, sharing food and drink and turning one car into a hospital. When, to everyone’s surprise, cars start moving at last, the protagonist is distraught. It turns out there is nowhere he would rather be than stuck in traffic.


This article appeared in the International section of The Economist with thte title: “The slow and the furious”

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