Shall We Dance?

Atlanta is known for its horrific traffic. Wherever you need to go that should take 30 minutes, plan on an hour to an hour and a half if you are traveling at 7-10 am or 3-7 pm. Yes indeed, our rush “hours” can be 3-4 hours long, and if you are trying to get through town on the 75/85 connector at any time of day, leave a will for your heirs because you’ll be old enough to expire before you get to the other side.

I have often admired, however, that this monster of a city moves around 3 million cars per day, and yet 99% of us get home alive. If you have seen Atlanta drivers, you will know that this is nothing less than a flat-out miracle. As I was driving from Suwanee to Buckhead yesterday, however, I saw that it can also be a thing of beauty, a truly magnificent ballet, more moving and impressive than The Nutcracker or Swan Lake.

I had passed the Ashford-Dunwoody exit on the I-285 speedway. At this point there is a convergence of five streams of traffic. The traffic on 285 is moving consistently at 65+ (let’s admit it’s more like 70-80) miles per hour in 4 lanes. Cars are merging in from the Ashford-Dunwoody ramp at the exact, and I do mean EXACT same POINT (not just the lane, we are talking about occupying precisely the same space at the same time) that cars are getting off on the Roswell exit. In the same (yes, unbelievably, I do mean the SAME) right lane, which has become yellow “Exit Only”, plus the right lane next to it which continues straight as well, cars are exiting to GA 400. That exit then splits into a northbound ramp and a southbound ramp, both of which dump that speeding traffic onto the 400 racetrack without even a pause for breath. Surely this is a recipe for catastrophe.

And yet it was not. It was actually beautiful to behold. Cars merged smoothly like two lines of dancers crossing in perfect synchronicity. Everyone seemed, at least at this moment in time, to adjust their speeds so that no one had to slow or stop awkwardly in their efforts to get where they needed to be. No one got stuck in that no man’s land of white stripes or risked a disastrous collision by dashing recklessly across multiple lanes for an exit they didn’t see coming.  Everyone behaved according to their carefully choreographed performance. It made my heart swell with pride at what humanity can do when we try.

Three things are necessary for such a complicated dance to work. First, every driver must be paying attention to what he or she is doing. Distracted driving has no place when dozens of cars are trying to occupy the same space. Put the phone down. Second, drivers have to be generous, watching what everyone else is doing and adjusting speed to allow others on and off as needed. And third but hardest to control, people have to know where they are going. It helps if drivers look carefully at the signs to anticipate where they need to be, but even with that there will always be poor travelers who are completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume and speed of the traffic. That can throw a real kink into the beautiful ballet of streaming traffic.

But when it works it is a wondrous sight indeed.

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