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The Steady Stream


There once were two small beetles who each wished to reach the beach where food was plentiful and the sun always shone.  One day they decided to fashion themselves vessels so that they might float along to where the stream joined the sea.  The first beetle chose himself a large, dry leaf, cupped ideally for the purpose of floating.  The second beetle was far more rash and impatient.  Wanting to reach the beach more quickly, he searched and searched until he finally found the perfect vessel to slice quickly through the water—a narrow twig. 

On the appointed day, each beetle pushed their craft from the shore and set off upon their way.  The first beetle lay comfortably in his leaf, enjoying the fluid motions of the current.  The second beetle, however, grew more and more impatient at the fact that all of his hard work was for naught as he found himself floating along at the same speed as the other beetle.  Not wanting to be proven wrong, the beetle began frenetically paddling his wooden craft through the water.  Exhausted from his paddling, he did not even notice the jagged rock in the middle of the stream.  As the twig struck the stone, the beetle was hurled into the water, never to be seen again…

Parables aside, I would dare say every one of us who has experienced stagnantly idling in heavy traffic at one point or another.  It is infuriating to say the least, not to mention the vexing people one is forced to endure while in the midst of such a scrum.  Watching drivers weave from lane to lane, it occurred to me what a futile effort this must be.  Cars, as a whole, cannot go faster than the flow of traffic.  If traffic moves more quickly, everyone stands to benefit.
            Anyone familiar with Economics has likely become acquainted with the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In short, this scenario states that one cannot predict the behaviour of others.  Consequently, people working in their own best interests will render the best outcome for everyone.  On the contrary, it seems that this self-serving behaviour is in fact the cause of at least some of our problems. 

Given the congestion on our major thoroughfares, if one person, acting in their own interests, changes lanes and forces another person to brake, this will force the car behind the braking car to brake and so on.  As tightly packed and impatient as we are, it seems that most of us resent anyone seemingly getting ahead, and will go to great lengths, risking life and limb, to box the other car out.  Merging traffic is a perfect example of this behaviour (N.b. Tolerance aside, drivers who breeze by merging opportunities, forcing their way in at the front of the line in an attempt to pick up a few extra car lengths create the aforementioned issue, and as such should be dealt with accordingly).  Thus, by acting in our own self interest in fact we inadvertently slow the flow of traffic as a whole, and ‘round and ‘round the cycle goes.  Cars cannot move faster than the flow of traffic, just as a twig cannot travel faster than the flow of the stream, or so it seems to me.

Categories: Opinions
  1. November 3, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    There was an episode of Marketplace I think (definitely CBC produced programming), where they conducted a test of the same idea. Two people, two cars, one route, one told to take every available lane change, one told to only change lanes whenever absolutely needed. They arrived only minutes apart, despite the fact that the route was over an hour long, in the middle of Toronto, in the middle of rush hour.

    Point taken entirely. We are, supposedly, living in a “society.” How often do we take to that paradigm?

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