Yesterday, as my wife and her sister and I drove to Little Rock for a relaxing day of bumming around, we passed signs of road work. Dozens, if not hundreds, of traffic cones, highway construction warning signs, and “narrow lanes ahead” signs, among others.
The sight of those signs caused me to think about the complexity of transportation today. Management of people and products on the move requires coordinating so much information, both to give drivers guidance and to ensure a degree of conformity with the rules, which helps avoid chaos.
I began to notice other evidence that traffic control and road transportation in general is a very big business. Traffic cones. Lane strip markers. Reflective pavement markers. Reflective signs. Color-keyed and shape-signified signs that give information and directions. Posts and railings that help keep traffic going in operating directions separated in the event of a vehicle veering off the road.
Aside from the physical evidence of the complexity of traffic and transportation management, I began thinking about the support structure behind it. “Rules of the road” on a state-by-state basis, including speed limits, traffic signal standards, traffic sign standards, one-way street designations, etc.; they all require intellectual capital to conceive, plan, and execute. Execution requires an army of workers and managers, who attempt to maintain some semblance of order even as they regularly work to repair, upgrade, and enhance roadways and the like.
This massive undertaking—this massive construction of an entire industry dedicated to traffic and transportation and movement of people and products—did not evolve along the same timeline as humankind. No, it developed on an incredibly compressed time schedule, the vast majority of which took place over a period of far less than a century; decades, no millenia. An exceptionally complex industry arose in parallel with the automotive industry. One hundred twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t even the hint of the vast industry to come.
None of this is to say that the evolution of transportation (and here, I’m speaking primarily of ground transportation) has been all good. A lot of land has been destroyed along the way. The petroleum industry and its excesses of greed and environmental destruction grew primarily because the transportation industry emerged and grew. Yet for all its faults and failings, the growth of the industry and society along with it is astounding.
We humans have compressed time into a nano-capsule. All of the bad and good things associated with our capacity to rush into the future, turning fiction into reality, are fascinating.