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The Philosophy of Commuting

I’ve been thinking a lot about my commute lately. I have been spending increasingly more time stuck in traffic-pickles since I’ve moved to Bengaluru. Yes, pickles. I don’t find anything sweet or fruity about throngs of hot smoke spewing contraptions helplessly stuck together. I’d prefer a longer commute if that meant not suffering through traffic. But rather than aggravate myself over it, I use my commute-time to get some shut-eye, listen to podcasts, and observe.

Traffic feels like a stream of vehicles and you like a boat sailing with its flow, except that the flow isn’t helping you forward and you aren’t really a boat. You’re the stream itself. Sometimes this stream splashes out of the road or moves in unexpected ways. It acts like a single entity though it’s discretely composed of those like you.

Traffic turns everything it touches into itself. Traffic is a tentacled monster.

I cycled to office yesterday. I rarely do it nowadays. When I was a regular, I’d often change my routes just for the sake of it. Now that I travel in an office bus, I don’t get a say in it. But I do appreciate the air-conditioning and the convenience to observe. When I would cycle, I would be consumed in trying to predict my immediate neighbours’ movements. Now from a safer and higher seat, my view has broadened. I’m not as concerned by vehicles right next to me as I am about the traffic further away. I’m still concerned by things around me, but the breadth has increased.

Traffic is really easy to model at the macroscale. Experts say that traffic behaves like a viscous fluid. But traffic at close is chaotic. I have a hypothesis.

Einstein won his only nobel prize in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect and his revolutionary suggestion of wave-particle duality. He reasoned that light must exist simultaneously as an electromagnetic wave and a stream of photons for us to account for all our observations. I believe that it is necessary to make light of traffic. Similarly I postulate that traffic exists simultaneously as a superposition of a motley of journeys and an aggregation of individual vehicles at a particular point in time.

Like a superposition of electromagnetic waves, a traffic pickle is the function of time and place. The only thing common between two journeys is that they coincide at a particular point. The journey itself is an entity and you’re just the one that experiences it.

You cannot compare your own journey to that of someone else. Their destination isn’t the same as yours nor was the route they took to reach that place. You might be heading in a different direction from them and you’d not know the purpose of their travel unless you ask. Don’t assume.

Sometimes your journey starts on rocky roads. Sometimes from small villages. Sometimes it’s raining near your home and you wear an elaborate raincoat only to find out after some traveling some distance that it wasn’t raining anywhere but your area and you’re the only one on the road with a heavy raincoat on. But do unto yourself as you do unto others. Don’t judge.

Sometimes you travel by public transport. You share a part of your journey with others. You hand the driver the control of your journey for some distance. You're a part of something larger than yourself. There is a huge calm in that. But it works for some. It doesn’t for others.

Every commute has its own challenges. Some are faster than others. Some more interesting. Commute isn’t a race although sometimes it might feel that way.

Another way to look at traffic is through the numerous vehicles and riders that compose it. Each one is unique. Two vehicles the same model end up behaving differently after some use. I see so many of the same–activas, splendors, pulsars, jupiters–and yet they are all different when you look closely. Vehicles are powered by petrol and the attitude of the driver. Traffic is an exploration of Pointillism where each point is a painting in itself.

People value different things. Cars are more comfortable but not very maneuverable. Even the fastest car stuck in traffic has its speed dictated by that of vehicles around it. A bike, while freer than a car, isn't a vehicle for families. But your mileage may vary. Families come in all sizes and I’ve honestly seen more happy couples on bikes than in large cars.

Each vehicle in the traffic is a story.

Traffic lends itself to a large number of potent metaphors and yet traffic itself is a great metaphor when you think about it. I have been spending increasingly more time stuck in traffic-pickles lately and I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about life.


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Pawan Hegde

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