Life Is An Open Road

In Bryan Adams’ little-known album “Room Service” [1], the single “Open Road” tells a story that is both relatable to many as well as wish fulfillment. A lot of drivers are stuck in a traffic jam until Bryan Adams manages through something that appears like magic (with some suitably clunky visual effects) to make an open road for the drivers to follow. The song itself (along with the album as a whole) appears to be an ode to Adams’ life as a busy and touring musician who, even if his days of having his singles played on American radio was done, was still popular and still enjoyed playing shows for appreciative fans.

Last night, it took me two hours to drive between work and the home of some friends of mine in the country where I will be spending the next week or so [2]. This morning, the same drive, in reverse, took me less than half the time (about 55 minutes or so). When a drive is flowing smoothly, one does not often have a lot of time to reflect. One is hurtling down the road, deciding to pass a slightly slower vehicle or not, looking at the signs and making driving decisions in the moment. This does not leave much time for reflection and rumination. In contrast, when one is sitting in traffic, one has a lot of time to think, besides the more repetitive and less pleasant actions of endlessly braking and coasting (or sometimes slightly accelerating for a tantalizingly brief moment) [3].

Some of these thoughts are pleasant, and some of them are unpleasant, as is the nature of all our thinking (and certainly mine). On the more pleasant side, I like to sing along to good tunes, ponder what I will be up to when I arrive at my destination, and perform various and natural analytical tasks that come easily to mind. On the less pleasant side, I have a mental game that goes something like this: “How many people would have to disappear for me to have an open road?” Is there one car (or one incident) that caused a problem, like a cop car pulling over a driver but leaving part of his car in the slow lane, causing a temporary blockage, or an accident that draws the attention of drivers on both sides of a road? Is the problem even as minor as someone tapping their breaks and causing a cascade of brake lights after them in on a crowded road? Or is the problem more systemic, like traffic flow having to change lanes often with a clog that ends up resembling my shower drain. Some of these problems are much more serious than others.

It is the systemic problems that I ponder the most often, since it is hard for me to blame others for being attentive to flashing lights, for not desiring to hit a cop car, or for slowing down to look at an accident. I am certainly no better than most people when it comes to these driving behaviors, after all, as irritating as it to have to suffer through them (more irritating, though, for those who are actually involved in the traffic stop or accident, though). Likewise, it is the systemic problems are those where people themselves are the least to blame. If a light and gentle tap of the brakes is enough of a problem to send cars screeching to a halt and dropping like sugar cubes in a glass of sweet iced tea, then there are far larger problems when it comes to the design of a roadway than the timorous nature of a few drivers who are perhaps a bit overeager to break.

When one is dealing with problems like the traffic flow of a long journey lasting 50 to 60 miles and extending across two or three counties (depending on one’s route), one has to recognize that these are systems issues, dealing with the availability of highways to speed someone along, of local roads connecting with businesses like gas stations and post offices and grocery stores and restaurants and other places one goes to on various errands. These lengthy journeys test the local road systems of multiple municipalities, as well as the interconnections between highways, involving numerous entrances and exits and merges. At any point along the way there can be disruptions that cause problems for the interrelated system as a whole, and when these problems become routine, one is dealing with a capacity problem that has to be dealt with in some fashion by someone, even if only by attempting to calm one’s frustrations at traffic by listening to Enya or Yanni or some other New Age artist (which, in my experience, does not tend to work as well as it ought to).

There are at least three ways that one can deal with these systems problems if one is responsible for the overall transportation system (generally some sort of public agency). The easiest solution for such a regulatory agency is to do nothing at all, although there are some definite political risks of so doing. Often, such a lassiez-faire solution of letting people build what they want wherever they want without looking at the overall results (what effect will adding 20,000 people to area x cause, or for adding 5,000 new jobs in area z while no jobs are added where most people actually live) comes about because planning and coordinating activities or any kind of overall civic plan is entirely absent. A great deal of human misery comes about not because of evil decisions by people, but because decisions are made in the absence of accurate information or an understanding of the larger connection between the various and complicated elements of our world. While we may disagree about the best way for these matters to be sorted out, in terms of efficiency or some other principle, we should at least remove our heads from the sand long enough to realize that we are part of matters much larger than ourselves alone.

A second way of dealing with problems is retrospectively, by looking back on what is going on and reacting to it. This is the general sort of nature that governments engage in as part of their modus operendi. Traffic gets heavy enough at an intersection and a red-light is added, or even one of those new-fangled lights with the passive left-hand turn light [4]. Maybe there are enough bicycles on a roadway and a bicycle lane is added (usually at some cost to lanes for drivers), or perhaps a massive and expensive lane widening project is undertaken to widen a road from two lanes to four, or six, or more, or add more lanes to a highway, or lengthen a bus route or train route for public transportation. Additionally, there may be calls to create new toll routes by private companies, so this is not necessarily a matter of public expense (although it often is). All of these solutions are responses to an existing problem and often involve a high degree of expense to repair, since tearing up roads or building infrastructure is no cheap (especially where the privacy rights of business owners and residents are concerned).

By the far the best way of dealing with systemic concerns, although also the rarest, involves planning for the future, in such a way that the needs of the future are addressed thoughtfully today, with periodic looks to see if those plans are still progressing well, or at all, with corresponding changes in our plans and behavior accordingly. In order to do this well, we need to understand the relationship between actions and their repercussions, so that we can know with a fair degree of confidence and precision the results of specific actions taken on our part based on the way that others will respond to that. Our predictive powers, of course, are not perfect, but most of the time people react in consistent and reasonable ways that nevertheless continually surprise government agencies. Discovering the laws and patterns of how others behave can help us to know in advance at least some of the likely consequences of our actions for the larger sphere, and thus allow us to behave in a smarter and more successful fashion. This is, of course, far easier said than done, and how to do this with regards to traffic requires a combination of information including the patterns of friendships and religious and social commitments, the relationship between jobs and residential housing and those places that are continual choke points for traffic flow (like bridges and interchanges). First, we seek to understand how people and systems operate, and then we plan and act accordingly.

To know something is one thing, and to be able to do anything about it entirely another. One of the dominant leitmotifs of my life is the interconnection between knowledge, power, and frustration. Some cultures have deliberately fostered among their people a lack of interest in serious matters, because those cultures desire to preserve power in the hands of a small elite and do not like the social tension that arises when people become aware of how badly they are being ruled. The tension between knowledge and power can be resolved only with great dexterity. Expanding our knowledge so that we have a greater idea of what we can change and how and what we cannot change can help us to reduce our frustration at situations where others are not really to blame. But that knowledge also increases the frustration that those who are to blame, and those consequences and repercussions can be terrible indeed. Sometimes, though, we need life to slow us down enough for us to think and ponder and ruminate over matters, rather than live life in a heedless unconcern of what is around us because it is going so well that we think little of the larger systems which we depend on for our well-being and survival. Sometimes it is best when life is not an open road, as paradoxical as that may seem.

[1] The album is better known to readers of my blog, though. See, for example:


[3] See, for example, some of the thoughts I have had on traffic:

[4] I happen to like these lights a lot:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Life Is An Open Road

  1. Pingback: Confidence Intervals | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Leave Me Two Lights | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: It’s Not My Fault If I’m Falling Apart | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Thoughts On Building Strong Towns: Volume III | Edge Induced Cohesion

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