The other day, I found myself in the unpleasant situation of having to drive to an appointment in a nearby town. It was a recurring appointment, along a familiar route, but fortunately, not one which occurred frequently. The trip was expected to take no more than 15 minutes, under normal circumstances, so doubling the amount of time required seemed to be a sure way to guarantee a prompt arrival.
At the time of my departure, I imagined myself coolly walking into the waiting area with time to relax and review my notes before the meeting. What happened instead was that I ran into unbearable traffic on the first route I attempted. This was certainly not normal traffic. Cars were lined up for what appeared to be a quarter mile, with one car practically sitting on the rear bumper of another, and no indication of motion in anyone’s future. In other words, we sat at a dead standstill, with nowhere to go, and no way to get off of the road.
Five minutes into this mess, I began to consider my alternatives. If only I could reach the next exit, I could cut across town and take a smaller road that ran parallel to the one I was on. In spite of the cool weather, I rolled down the driver’s side window in an attempt to utilize a blast of cold air to ward off my growing panic at the thought of being late for an important meeting.
The person I was meeting with had a tight schedule. If I didn’t get there at the appointed time, our meeting would be cut short. This would be disadvantageous to me, and thinking about it made me wish for complete control over my fate. As the cars ahead began to creep forward, I crawled up the bumper of the car in front of me, desperate to reach the exit, which was just beyond my grasp.
A few minutes seemed like an eternity as I looked for ways to get onto the shoulder of the road to pass the traffic on the right. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a shoulder, and my car wouldn’t fit if I tried to squeeze alongside the growing row of cars.
Finally, I reached the exit and pulled off of the road. Once free from the traffic jam, I tried to gain some time by driving as fast as possible on the narrow road leading to the center of town. Despite my best effort, I missed the first light by a hair, and had to wait for pedestrians to cross the street before I got the green light.
I heaved a sigh of relief as I peered ahead and saw a clear path in front of me. I was making good time until I hit the intersection where I had to turn left. A line of at least a dozen cars was waiting at the red light and I couldn’t maneuver around them to go into the left turn lane.
A glance at my watch made my heart sink because even if I drove as fast as the speed limit would allow, I wouldn’t make it to my destination on time. Thoughts of canceling the appointment filled my mind. Should I try to make up some of the lost time and salvage part of the meeting? Or, should I call it quits and hope that I could be worked into a busy schedule within a week or two? I decided to forge on.
Crossing the double yellow line, I inched into the left turn lane. Six cars were lined up in front of me. This light usually allowed three or four cars to turn before turning red. I would never make it. I resigned myself to waiting for the light to go through another cycle before I could turn onto the main road.
At last, the light turned green and I blew my horn at the car in front of me when failed to move right away. What kind of idiot holds up traffic when dozens of cars are trying to get through the intersection? As I blasted the horn, I had a bad feeling about the traffic leader in front of me. He was oblivious to everyone on the road but himself, proudly displaying an obnoxious driver trait which I became aware of when I started riding my bike on urban roads.
The anxiety of the driver tailgating me was thick enough to cut with a knife. We all wanted to get where we were going, but the first car crept along at a snail’s pace. This reminded me of the rude comments I’d heard about how cyclists tie up traffic by riding below the speed limit. But, this time, a car was tying up traffic — a common occurrence which most drivers won’t admit to when they’re chastising cyclists for being on the road.
Time seemed to have been elongated when I finally reached the road where the office was located. I was a few miles from my destination and thought that I might manage to get there only five minutes late. Although I had hoped to arrive early, this arrangement wasn’t too bad. After all, I would still have enough time to cover the key points I needed to make and could follow up by phone.
Just as I was beginning to feel some relief over being just a few minutes late, I hit a bottleneck in the traffic. I was so close, yet so far. I couldn’t move. It was tempting to park my car and walk the last couple of miles, but there wasn’t enough time. All I could do was inch my way closer to where I was headed.
My proximity to the office created an agony which one can only experience in a motor vehicle. A mere touch on the accelerator could have gotten me to the office’s driveway in less than five minutes. Yet, I sat motionless, listening to my car’s engine groaning as it idled. Had I been on my bicycle, I could have made this trip in half the time. I could have continued to move at a steady pace. I could have circumvented the bottlenecks and the traffic jams, the maddening idling and wasted gas. I could have counted on a constant speed rarely attained by drivers in an urban or congested suburban environment.
At that moment, I realized that driving was nothing more than a game of stopping and starting and sitting and inching. Bursts of speed were transitory and wholly dependent on a lack of other motor vehicles on the road. In fact, as I sat trapped in the throes of resignation, the concept of cars as a fast form of transportation revealed itself as nothing more than an illusion.