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When it comes to traffic engineers, perhaps it's best if they just don't think


Wow! I got a lot of mail about my last column, detailing the debacle of road construction on Interstate 10 out of Phoenix. I apparently wasn't the only person blowing a head gasket during that clusterfuck of a traffic stoppage.

One guy with a little kid in the backseat vowed to get a vasectomy and move to the sub-Arctic tundra. Another was more thoughtful and attempted to understand the logic behind turning five lanes of traffic into one on a Sunday, a day when any highway is bound to be clogged with work-weary refugees attempting, one way or another, to recreate.

Well, that guy can go ahead and relax. The truth is, there was no logic in that feat of traffic nonengineering. And a recent article in The New York Times backs me up: It seems that an evolutionary biologist called Tadeusz Kawecki at the University of Fribourg has determined that, in purely evolutionary terms, thinking is bad.

I love it when someone figures out that turning something on its head is the best way to understand it. Aristotle thought that the nature of all stuff is to be still, and that you have to push it to get it going. (Kind of like my car on I-10 when it overheated a couple of weeks ago.) Aristotle's idea was accepted pretty much without question for nearly 1,500 years. Then a guy called Galileo came along and said, no, the nature of stuff is to keep moving. You have to put something in its way to slow it down and stop it.

Anyhoo, the same process has led Dr. Kawecki to rethink the notion of human intelligence. Instead of perseverating on the wonders of the human intellect, he wondered why, if it's so great to be a thinker, most creatures are not.

The answer is that learning takes an enormous amount of energy. He bred loads of generations of fruit flies and found that the ones forced to learn in order to eat--and they did; even fruit flies can learn--died sooner than the ones that were simply fed. Other researchers point out the fact that there are simply more efficient ways to adapt to changing environments. E. coli bacteria, for example, simply utilize evolution, switching genes on and off to adapt to environmental circumstances. In the long run, this uses far less energy than being forced to think your way through something. Thinking requires the forming of new neuronal networks, and this takes energy.

The implications for traffic engineering here are obvious. Say the average traffic engineer, faced with the imperative to "resurface the road," has several choices. A) He can plan it out, scheduling singular lane closures at various times, thereby keeping the inconvenience to drivers at a minimum; B) he can shut most of the road down, causing untold aggravation and misery to motorists; or C) he can evolve over multiple generations and hope that the gene for "resurface the road" eventually turns itself on. The problem with A is that it requires not just thinking, but planning and the coordinating of underlings. This causes a great expenditure of caloric energy during the formation of new neuronal connections and thereby leaves him with less energy to golf on the weekend.

The problems with B, while obvious to most, are simply not to the average traffic engineer. There are two reasons for this. First, he's an engineer, and sensitivity to anything as ethereal as "vibes"--even those as acidic as hatred, loathing and voodoo curses--is simply not in his job description, and secondly, he happens to have a schedule of all the road closures and has mapped out, in advance, the alternative routes he'll need to take.

In any case, the only place he goes on the weekends is to the golf course, and that's right by his house.

But the real beauty of Dr. Kawecki's work is that when it comes to traffic engineering, I have finally come to an understanding of why, exactly, our own local traffic debacle--the closing of the onramps and offramps of I-10, from Prince Road to 29th Street, for the foreseeable future--is going to take so long. The engineers who planned this one are utilizing neither alternatives A nor B, but C. They are waiting to evolve over multiple generations, until the gene for "widen I-10" switches on.

It's brilliant.

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