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I was listening to the news about Syria this morning, and thinking of the time a couple of months ago when America almost went to war (again) in the middle east.  The conflict was considered on three levels: justice, interests, and power.  These three levels of negotiation ranged from the most to least moral, and from the least to most “civilized”.

Power is just “might makes right”, interests, the most sophisticated, is  the peace of a negotiated, implied or ongoing contract between parties who see pursuing their own ends as more costly than honoring the contract, and Justice is what’s fair.  Justice often comes at the hands of a court and a Judge, but it can also arrive through negotiations or commonly agreed upon rules.  The reason Sports are so popular and compelling is that they are a pantomime of justice.  Everyone agrees ion the winner and loser, even if they support the losing team.  This is why cheating is taken so seriously in sports.

As regards transportation, traffic is a power negotiation (which has been over in most of America for almost a century) over other transportation modes and land use.  Within traffic, the smooth flow of traffic requires people to act in their interests and avoid collisions.  Congestion is more often caused by people trying to avoid collisions, en masse, than by somebody with the temerity to actually have a collision.  People know their interests in traffic.  They are always thinking about death, because that is what is on the line among 2-ton vehicles moving 30, 40, or even 70 miles per hour.

Justice in traffic is only post hoc, and arbitrary.  Would you be involved in a collision, the justice system would like you to stay there and give an accounting of what you did with your car.  Leaving the scene of the collision is seen as cheating, and results in much stiffer penalties.  If you kill a family by changing your radio, this will be forgiven under the misdemeanor of improper lane change, as long as you stay to face justice.  If you move away from where you do not want to be, as is the nature of a vehicle in traffic, the charge will be multiple counts of vehicular manslaughter.

This makes perfect sense, after all.  The average speed of life up until about 1860 was 3 miles per hour, the walking speed of a human or a horse.  Steam engine streetcars and bicycles doubled this to 6 miles per hour, but those speed demons were not fit for city streets.  The first steam streetcar routes were also the first interurbans, plying open ways between towns and serving sparse new developments within walking distance of the streetcar stop.  The first roads bikers wanted paved with smooth asphalt or concrete were not in the middle of town, but in the wide open spaces at the edge of town.  With the treadle-driven, straight-spoked, solid-tired and leather seated boneshakers of the 1870s, 6 MPH was blisteringly fast.  I find 10 MPH to be an OK average, with stoplights.

The first electric trolleys could be operated at a range of speeds, but their standard in the city was 6-10 MPH.  Fast enough to make them better than walking, and also fast enough to kill a walker or horse if unheeded.  , Trolleys could go much faster in the countryside.  Interurbans, reaching their peak around 1910 when my grandmother was born, could give the steam locomotives a run for their money with speeds as fast as 95 MPH. When the first steam, electric, and finally gasoline cars came in from the countryside and the manor houses, their standard speed was 10-15 MPH.  Cars could go much faster, of course.  The Model T’s weight to power ratio was ridiculously high, and they could easily hit 60 or 70 MPH before their bolts began to shake loose on an open road.

Steam railroads, with trains weighing hundreds of tons and moving up to 60 MPH asserted right of way to keep people the hell off of their tracks by the 1840s.  The way that traffic engineers solved the problem of American traffic was by claiming jurisdiction (“right of way”) over the nation’s 2 million miles of roads, excluding everything but licensed cars and trucks from the road, and by treating new lanes as a good, and not an expense.  Traffic, to succeed, had to win on power, not interests or justice.
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Hello America How Are Ya?

In the last few months, we have learned a lot about Syria, including the infighting and Al-Qaeda taint of the rebels.  The conflict has brought the Saudis and the Israelis together in mewls for a wider war.  We have seen that most religious minorities, like Christians, Jews, and Hindus in the area, would much rather live in a secular dictatorship than in a theocratic autocracy.  Perhaps the Syrian conflict will be resolved through interests after all.  Perhaps we can resolve traffic and transportation in America by interests, too, if we can step out of the Power regime we’ve lived under for the last 80 years.

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