Sartre said hell is other people. I heard Gil Grissom quote him on it in a CSI rerun this week. But times change. For many people, hell is now other people’s cars. There is a gritty basis to this ugly mood shift. Traffic accidents are projected to be the third-leading cause of death and disease by 2020.

But existential angst is also involved. As someone who rarely has to face rush hour, I am in awe of those who brave it twice a day all their lives. Their discipline is humbling. Traffic may now evoke, by stealth, the noble historic impulse to resist regimentation and despair, even to overcome the human condition. You just have to seek out the signs:

In London, Mayor Ken Livingstone has put a “congestion tax” on vehicles entering the city core. There’s a complex collection system and fines go to public transit. Ken was warned that it would be political suicide, but it’s been popular and he won easy re-election. It also seems to have cleaned up traffic. But when I was there last year, people said they adored the mere effort, aside from all practical effects. They were delighted he’d gone and done something. Maybe it’s because, during the Blair years, they have been told so often that so many things are out of their control — global economic forces, inevitable war in Iraq — that the fact of simply taking a direct action gives them pleasure. It has existential appeal.

In Paris, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has an even more radical seven-year plan to ban all non-residential traffic from the centre-ville. He ran and won on the platform, a gay environmentalist in a habitually conservative city.

Both these mayors are leftists on the left of their parties, in an era when left parties in power have slunk to the right, under leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But my favourite traffic initiatives come from left of either, and reek of sheer anarchism.

Several German, Dutch and Danish cities have created what they call “naked streets.” They removed the traffic lights, stop signs, even sidewalks, and left drivers and pedestrians to sort things out for themselves. Did it lead to Hobbesian carnage? Nope. Accidents and fatalities dropped. Drivers and pedestrians make eye contact, they adapt, they interact. The planners talk about it in terms of forcing folks to pay attention to what’s around them, as if it’s a psych experiment in reconditioning.

But think about it politico-existentially: It’s about restoring responsibility to individuals for their acts, rather than forcing them to follow rules. It’s liberatory, democratic, and creates community. We caught a brief glimpse of it at Toronto intersections during the 2003 blackout. That kind of social self-regulation instead of top-down control is the utopian essence of anarchism.

The last great flowering of the anarchist impulse came just before 9/11 in the anti-globalization, anti-capitalist protests in Seattle, Washington, Quebec City etc. They were youthful, playful, visionary; 9/11 seemed to squelch that movement. An irresistible, fear-ridden militarism took over. But the liberatory impulse always finds a way back, the way buds on the trees finally start to re-emerge each spring, even if the snow lingers longer than usual and looks like it may decide to stay around permanently.

I heard Avi Lewis interviewed on CBC Radio the other day about his and Naomi Klein’s film, The Take, on the movement for worker seizures of factories in Argentina, when they get closed down due to globalization. The sceptical host kept asking if that wasn’t an insignificant response in the face of global capital. But I’d argue that what matters is that the utopian impulse never dies, and that what counts is to keep finding signs of it. Occasionally, it catches the wave of its era, it fills the zeitgeist, as it did in the 1930s, the ’60s, or just before 9/11. At other times, it motors along on its own, without much resonance. You justify what you do not by being on history’s cutting edge (for a while), but by the inherent value of your action as one moment in the endless striving for liberation. Traffic lights? Stop signs? Why not? The unpredictability is the inspiring part.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.