What is Traffic?

The Infrastructural City Blogiscussion: Reading Sean Dockray, Fiona Whitton, and Steve Rowell’s Blocking All Lanes (introduced by mammoth here)

[Flickr user Zsolti/NYM]

Blocking All Lanes begins by asking a very basic question — what is traffic?   As the authors point out, we typically emphasize the vehicular steel container rather than its contents when referring to traffic.  Quoting a German billboard campaign,  “You are not stuck in a traffic jam, you are the traffic jam” makes note that our collective bodies – the willful, pulsing tissue controlling the wheel and the pedals – seems to get overlooked in a very interesting spatial abstraction.  Similarly, all the other material things that get packed into vehicles as various commodities are under considered.  Historically ‘traffic’  referred to the transportation of goods.

Blocking All Lanes provides a detailed account of the evolution of highway traffic management technologies and the limits of their control in Los Angeles.  This particular form of technological development – the meta, or real-time mapping of flows – resonates far beyond the highway; by description implicating broader streams of productivity and efficiency schemes.

If you follow the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Loop Feedback Loop link provided at the end of Mammoth’s post, you can find the above diagram used to illustrate the physical and virtual feedback mechanisms of highway traffic management.  It’s not surprising that the diagram effectively illustrates many other systems that feed into highway transportation, such as mining extraction and freight delivery. The diagram’s loose terminology  of “vehicle” and “ground loop detectors” can be easily tailored to suit the material particulars of each mobility system, each operating on efficiency gains through data accumulation and feedback cycles of “sense, think, act”.

Consider how cheap it is to track a package sent by mail, or the requisite data infrastructure to catalog and map every shipping container as it moves around the globe, or more impressively, how the largest open-pit mines can track the movement and choreography of all its mining activity, all the time, in real-time, down to a centimeter of accuracy.  This is a very particular form of urban evolution driven by the selective factors of productive efficiency.  Collectively these data loops serve as the meta cognition of urban flows;  the abstract conjecture of MVRDV’s  MetaCity/Datatown made real.

[Leaving the mine, plates of 99.9% pure copper sheets enter the broader logistics stream.]

Perhaps a better term for ‘traffic’ is the logistics stream, which more accurately embraces the embodiment and underlying agency of traffic.  Logistics is the “The time-related positioning of resources“, or “the management of the flow of goods, information and other resources between the point of origin and the point of consumption in order to meet the requirements of consumers”.  This applies to goods as well as human labor, as the biggest logistical nightmare for the highways are rush hours, when people try to get to and from centers of productivity.  Logistics was originally conceived in reference to military ground strategies, again stressing mobility, efficiency and reliability.  Logistics has since become the guiding mantra of the economic city.   Chapter after chapter of The Infrastructural City reads as varied material expressions of contemporary urban logistics.  Highway traffic is just more overt and where a bulk of these logistics, or infrastructures seem to coalesce (which we knew before reading the book), but which also might be why the highway system teeters on the edge of dysfunction.

Perhaps the zenith of this evolution is  exemplified by the introduction of the bar code and its utilization by Wal-Mart.  If you haven’t read it yet, check out Jesse LeCavalier’s piece: Logistics, Territory, and Wal-Mart at Design Observer, which brilliantly illustrates this connection:

“It was this early realization (“detailed and obsessive scrutiny” of their own operations), that led [Wal-Mart] to develop its multilayered distribution system and to identify logistics — the branch of management concerned with moving supplies from point to point, and which relies upon information to enhance speed, efficiency and control — as its primary expertise.” (bold added)

“To bring about such extraordinary coordination, Wal-Mart devotes significant resources to the development, maintenance, refinement and synchronization of its distribution and data networks. The company keeps track of every item every customer buys for two years and stores this information in two data centers near its headquarters in Bentonville. Wal-Mart uses this massive amount of information — only the U.S. Department of Defense collects more — to monitor consumer behavior and develop predictive purchasing and distribution models. The transmission of this data is then enabled by Walmart’s large satellite network and its proprietary intra-net, RetailLink.”

[the strategic mobility of pop tarts, courtesy of Wal-Mart’s 2005 annual report]

Jesse LeCavalier also points out how Wal-Mart’s early and aggressive adoption of the universal product code (or bar code) further enhanced Wal-Mart’s advantages in tracking mobility data, which in turn dictated the dispersed form of the retail system.

“For Wal-Mart, real estate too is a logistical practice. The stores and distribution centers are strategically located to optimize the flow of goods; they form a dynamic and expanding network whose locations are calculated in miles and minutes. Wal-Mart executives thus abstract territory much as bar codes abstract merchandise. In other words, the nation’s largest company sees its territory essentially as a data field over which “all those numbers” are monitored, tracked, allocated and redirected in pursuit of market coverage.”

The article continues with a great description of how this retail strategy manifests in the architecture of its stores and distribution centers, which segways into the Consumers Gone Wild chapter of the Infrastructural City.   Although it’s fairly obvious that Wal-Mart is premised around highways, the mobility and efficiency parallels between retail operations, other productive processes and traffic management demonstrate a shared and very specific urban adaptation – a trajectory that both the authors of this chapter and others have argued is functioning beyond a sustainable capacity.

What I find interesting is that all of these information-efficiency systems are  hierarchical in structure.  They require command centers, rather than being able to self correct.  Secondly, the highway is the base medium for most of them.  Outside of the complexity of the feedback loops occurring within the highway system, highways are subject to outside efficiency systems being indeterminately fed into it, which seems a significant urban vulnerability.  The problem with efficiency is that it typically limits redundancy, which brings us full circle to the embodiment of traffic and the ‘incident’  problem of urban highways.  As stated in Blocking All Lanes, “traffic exists at the human, bodily scale”.  One distracted driver can bring the whole system to a standstill.

*of related interest: Alan Berger and Charles Waldheim’s Logistics Landscape, cited in LeCavalier’s article*

One comment

  1. Malgorzata Hanzl · ·

    Please have a look – this cartoon is very much on the same subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8&feature=fvsr

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