In Defense of Traffic Jams: Finding Peace in Commuting Chaos

In Defense of Traffic Jams
Illustration by Ian Keltie

I THOUGHT I KNEW traffic. Then I landed in Denpasar, on the Indonesian island of Bali, and caught a ride for the first time. It was January 2019. As a driver inched my jet-lagged family and me through the streets, I had one thought: What. The. Fuck. Half the roads weren’t wide enough for two cars to pass. Stop signs were rarities. Dogs darted between moving vehicles. Soup carts parked in the middle of lanes. Then a religious ceremony shut down the road in front of us. A gamelan band played calmly, never mind the thousands of waiting vehicles. Twelve miles and two hours later, we arrived in Canggu, the little expat neighborhood we would call home. The din of motorbikes and honking horns rang in my ears for hours afterward.

I’d spent the previous decade living in Atlanta, where traffic is a bloodsport and among the worst in the nation. In 2014, a mere two inches of snow resulted in a 16-hour traffic jam. And that was before part of I-85 caught fire and collapsed, which made congestion even more atrocious. A friend once told me that his divorce had an upside: He could rent an apartment near work, to avoid gridlock. I understood. Traffic fatigue was half the reason I wanted to leave Atlanta. But, having decided to move to Bali without having visited, I didn’t expect to land in a place where a three-mile errand could easily eat up an hour.

Studies suggest that the longer you sit in traffic each day, the less satisfied you tend to be. After a few months in Bali, though, I noticed that nearly all the drivers were calm and stoic—nothing like Atlanta motorists. Ten thousand motorbikes could merge through a five-way cross with no stoplight as peacefully as water rolling through a streambed.

Turns out, when traffic transcends to pure, unadulterated anarchy, with thousands of vehicles clogging the streets, something sublime happens. You have to accept that you’re not in control, that there is no escape, and that there is no sense in fighting it. The result isn’t chaos; it’s collaboration. Traffic becomes the work of a community to figure out.

I also realized that, in this unrelenting gridlock, you have no choice but to pay close attention to other drivers, most of whom in Bali are on motorbikes. When you do, you see faces more clearly. You notice the food that people are bringing home for dinner. And, soon enough, your road rage begins to fade.

Since moving to Bali, I’ve met other Westerners who’ve come to attend yoga classes, to work on their presence and mindfulness. Yoga isn’t for me. But traffic has played a similar role in my life. In Atlanta, the sounds of a congested highway could give me an anxiety attack. Now I put on my helmet, kick-start my motorbike, hit the road, and am forced to slow down.

I lapse into my old ways sometimes, to be sure. On a recent Sunday morning, while trying to pick up chickens for a dinner party that night, I ended up trapped in a throng of motorbikes, with the tropical sun beating down. And, suddenly, there they were—all those calm, stoic faces. Doesn’t anyone else have somewhere to be?! Doesn’t it bother anyone to sit here all day?!

As I made my way to the front of the jam, I heard the rattle of a gamelan band, then spotted flowers and dozens of people in white clothes. It was a cremation ceremony. It was a small celebration for someone who had, odds are, lived their whole life in this place. I felt foolish for being in such a rush. I would, like everyone else, get to where I was going eventually. ♦

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