March 06 2010
One lesson you learn as you get older is that stuff you’re looking forward to is often disappointing, while things you’re not relishing tend to be enjoyable. I went to university thinking I was fascinated by political philosophy, but wasn’t. I later did a subsid in town planning, which proved to be one thing I’ve found truly sustaining.
Town planning is a better expression of what politics really does than mental masturbation over Aristotle and Rousseau. The way we engineer, via elected politicians, how towns work, who lives where and who can build what where is important and intellectually thrilling. Honestly.
That town-planning course continues to affect how I see things. The other day I was stuck in traffic next to a sparsely used bus lane. As we drivers sat in our expensive cars, the occasional bus flashed by on the inside, generally with about half a dozen people aboard. It occurred to me that, by democratic means, it has been decided that the poor, plus the non-poor who opt for public transport, shall arrive at their destination before the wealthy. The rich shall be artificially delayed in deliberately formed traffic jams; if they stray into the poor lane, they will be fined. Leaving aside the frustration and policy inconsistencies (most buses are hugely polluting, and it can be cheaper to drive), it is remarkable that we create traffic hold-ups to forward a policy.
Getting round traffic hold-ups (mainly caused by buses) is becoming a science. When traffic warnings appeared on satnavs, they were rubbish, and I have ignored or disabled them ever since. Their information came from the Department of Transport and was unreliable and out of date.
TomTom recently urged me to give its new traffic system, HD Traffic (as in High Definition) a go. I fear I’d already laughed it off. I borrowed its latest GO 950 LIVE model – and was impressed. Its traffic information does not depend on the Civil Service. The HD system equips each satnav with a SIM card, which sends information about your progress and receives traffic reports from various sources, such as other TomTom users and their silently chattering machines.
TomTom HD processes this information, warns of upcoming traffic and calculates re-routings based on some 800bn “road speed profiles” in its database. The system is accurate – getting obstructions and delay times spot-on in most cases. But getting traffic forecasts 100 per cent right is hard, so don’t throw the satnav out of the window if it fails, as it did for me, to tell you about a bus that had just broken down. You need, with Traffic HD, to retain your understanding of what’s possible – and your scepticism. Also, in TomTom’s case, you must be patient with its complicated interfaces and gimmicks.
Still, traffic technology can now lessen the misery, to some extent, of getting around this overcrowded island of ours by car. I trust that some arm of government is already working hard at making it illegal so as to redistribute the wretchedness again in favour of bus passengers.