Finding no respite from traffic and the crowds

Finding no respite from traffic and the crowds
Traffic plunges us into constant crowdedness. We arrive at a state of sublimated frustration, the Philippine Republic of collective waiting.

Traveling around Manila means being mired in dense, slow-moving and often stalled traffic. It is a condition that the city shares with many other so-called third-world mega-cities such as Bangkok and Calcutta, as well as small cities that have recently seen great bursts of growth in the US, such as Seattle.

But is there a difference between traffic in the first world and in the third? Can this difference in the conditions of driving and traveling tell us something about ideas regarding citizenship and community in these regions of the world? 

After surviving yet another mind-numbing Friday afternoon traffic jam in Manila recently, I came across a book by Cotton Seiler posted on Facebook by a friend who teaches at the University of California at Davis. It’s called “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.” It is a cultural history of driving in the US and a critique of what the author refers to as the ideology of “automobility:” the idea, so fundamental to US national identity, that mobility, both physical and social, is what makes the country exceptional from other places in the world. 

Since the 1890s, the car has come to be seen as the chief vehicle for achieving, as well as signaling, social mobility. By allowing people a mode of transportation at great speed, cars contribute to conjuring the “American dream.” They link the city to the suburbs, while allowing access to the countryside. In doing so, they sustain the historical dynamic of settler colonialism.

Cars feed the sense of middle class entitlement to increasingly more room and unhampered space to breath and raise families, or simply to start all over again, often at the expense of earlier inhabitants of an area: native peoples, immigrants, workers, and racial minorities. 

American national identity is so closely tied to the idea of being able to simply get in the car and just take off, to start all over again and embark on the road to freedom and adventure. See, for example, Hollywood road movies such as “Thelma and Louise,” or the work of beat poets such as Jack Kerouac. 

Automobility has also opened up opportunities for women, allowing them to move between the home and work or elsewhere. For blacks and other minorities, having a car has meant gaining access to the freedom and privileges of mobility traditionally monopolized by a white majority. By democratizing travel, car ownership has been a way of claiming full citizenship in the Republic of the road. 

At the same time, the freedom afforded by the car is, as Seiler shows, a myth. It is, in fact, contingent upon State programs of road building that rely on tolls and taxes. Maintaining roadways also requires constant policing. While meant to ensure safety, policing has also resulted in untold numbers of racist incidents resulting in the humiliation and at times deaths of black motorists at the hands of white cops. 

Cars have been associated with crime, as numerous gangster movies attest, while accidents invariably multiply with automobiles. Driving can enhance life but also risk bringing about deformities and death. Finally, cars are depreciating assets, constituting a significant financial and environmental burden. The average American family spends thousands of dollars a year in licensing, insurance and maintenance of one vehicle. And they contribute significantly to green house emissions, while the oil companies have had a vested interest in preventing the more rapid development of electric automobiles. 

How does American automobility allow us to think about driving in Manila?

In this city, traveling entails endlessly waiting in traffic. Stuck on the road, one feels irrevocably joined to anonymous others. The majority of those on the road do not own cars but take public transportation, much of which constantly breaks down.

In touch with the world

While more vehicles are now air-conditioned, a great many remain open and exposed to the elements, such as jeepneys, buses, tricycles and, more recently, motorcycles and scooters. Sitting in close proximity to one another, passengers get wet or hot, sweat and cough, leaving bodily traces of themselves for one another.

Sitting in traffic also means being solicited by street kids begging and ambulant vendors hawking their wares, while watching out for thieves roaming the streets. Traffic cops, for their part, are barely able to direct the dense, coagulating movement of vehicles.

In short, to be in traffic is to be in touch with, rather than isolated from, the world.

Air-conditioned cars might try to inoculate riders from the outside, but they simply contribute to the thickening of things. There is no illusion of escape, only the experience of further immersion into the multitude. The inside and the outside of vehicles seep into one another. One bops along the pot-holed roads hollowed from the last monsoon rains, or zigs and zags around various obstructions strewing the highway, ensuring that you are acutely conscious of, rather than oblivious to, the very ground, literally and figuratively, that you travel on.

Having a car in Manila, then, does not afford the individual flight from society.

Unlike the romance of the road so common in the US, to drive here is to be ensnared in the aporia of traffic. Driving furnishes no fantasies of freedom, and thus no anxieties about limits to such freedom. The car does not emancipate you from oppressive conditions but instead further condemns you to into the limbo of arrested movement.   

Circumscribing circulation, traffic plunges us into constant crowdedness. Rather than an American Republic of automobility with its fantasies of bourgeois entitlement, we arrive instead at a state of sublimated frustration, the Philippine Republic of collective waiting. 

A phenomenology of Manila traffic reveals that in the place of automobility, there is the daily formation of evanescent communities made up of stalled commuters held captive not to the uncertainties of the open road but to crumbling infrastructures of a state apparatus unable to adequately respond to the needs of its citizens.

In this context, mobility is felt as a momentary break from the more persistent state of immobility. It is the sensation of being thrown into the unequal relations among chauffeur-driven elites, mass-transited publics, wandering beggars, vendors, and all others who make the streets their home. 

André Breton once said that “the street . . . [is] the only valid field of experience.”

Shared experience

The spaces of Metro-Manila would seem to bear him out. Congested conditions – packed commuter trains, traffic-clogged roads, crowded sidewalks, teeming shopping malls – characterize everyday life in the city, slowing travel from one place to another at nearly all hours of the day.

Traffic as the incarnation of the multitude affects all social classes. And because there is no way of definitively escaping traffic, it constitutes the most common and widely shared experience of city life. 

In the second decade of the 21st century, this is what it means to live in the nation’s capital: to find no respite from traffic and the crowds. It is to be caught in the concrete fact of uneven capitalist development and to feel daily the inability of the State and civil society alike to comprehend, much less ameliorate, such unevenness.

It is this imperfect state that constitutes our current paradise. –


Vicente L. Rafael is professor of History at the University of Washington, Seattle. 



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