Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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6/12/15: thinking whilst stuck in a traffic jam

Over my adult life I've lived varying distances from work.  Most recently working in Reading I was driving about 1/2 hour each way from my house near Tadley on the Hampshire / Berkshire border.  I started working there in January, when of course the journey both ways was in darkness hours, with also a lot of rain, and I found myself thinking, grief, what on earth have I committed myself to for the next few years?  But as the rains eased off and the days lengthened, I found I quite enjoyed the drive, and liked the separation of work from home that it gave.  Setting off early meant that I could beat the Reading traffic, and took great pleasure in annoying my then students who would turn up saying, "The traffic's really bad out there," by replying, "Well, at 7am. it was fine!"

Here in Dar es Salaam I have on many, many occasions had reason to be grateful that I live walking distance from work.  My understanding is that the infrastructure has barely changed since there was far less traffic on the roads meaning that we're way beyond comfortable capacity.  Similarly, styles of driving, I think, were adopted when things were much quieter, all very well queuing on the right as well as the left if things globally aren't too busy, but if the same is happening in the opposite direction, mayhem - and gridlock - can easily occur.  And as I described in this blog post, if it's raining hard as well, my goodness....

Many of my Tanzanian colleagues live in the suburbs, on a clear run in the middle of the night maybe 20 minutes by car, but they can easily spend 5 hours every single day travelling.  Which in practice means much of the time spent in endless queues of traffic, with pavements (not always well defined) becoming additional lanes.  Meanwhile, I just walk in.  Or, if I've got my laptop with me, drive a very short distance.  Doesn't seem fair, really, does it?

So, I can normally live my life without spending too much time in traffic jams, I sometimes go to meetings elsewhere in Dar es Salaam during the working week but normally in the middle of the day.  Driving in the weekends is normally not too bad.

One exception to this was yesterday, the annual outing from work to a beach resort to the north of the city.  This is a major treat for many of my colleagues and their families, and it seems to be important to attend if at all possible.  Really nice to meet colleagues in a social setting, and delighted to be introduced to spouses and children.  Except, that is, for the young daughter of our chief technician who saw me and burst into tears, apparently she's afraid of wazungu (white people) for some reason, nothing personal, I'm assured.

So, needing to get some work done before setting out, I opted to drive myself, aiming to arrive sometime before 1pm.  Which was fine initially - and then the traffic slowed down to a virtual halt.  Long periods stationary, then to go forward a couple of metres before grinding to a halt again.  Plenty of time to come to the conclusion that the posters, "You've just gone past Amani Hospital" and "You're about to go past Amani Hospital" had been put up the wrong way round.  A lot of time.  An awful lot of time.  Maybe half an hour after going past the first poster before getting to the second.

Eventually arrived in my normal calm, serene manner sometime after 2pm., very pleased to discover that lunch was still being served which I wasn't necessarily expecting by that time.  To reflect that what for me is an occasional happenstance is, for many of my colleagues and many, many other people in Dar es Salaam, a twice a day occurrence.  I really couldn't do it.  Just not possible.  The local stomach ulcer ward would be offering me a loyalty card.

So, whilst stuck there waiting in the jam, a couple of ideas developing as to what might be done.  Not being a businessman I can't speak to their commercial viability, but here we go!  Firstly, I'm wondering if there's a market for luxury commuter buses.  So, to encourage people who can afford them to leave their cars at home, the idea would be that the busses would have air conditioning, blinds, wifi, maybe pull out tables airline style and electrical points for laptops.  Limited or no standing room.  So, 20 cars get taken off the roads to be replaced by one medium sized bus, people on them able to get some work done as they travel.

(Parenthetical thought, bit of a digression from the main theme, do skip to the next paragraph if not interested.  This is actually the example I use to explain the concept of 'Veil of ignorance' as put forward by the American philosopher John Rawls.  Question: should people be allowed to stand in buses?  The point here is that your answer is likely to depend on how you think you will be impacted personally.  So, if you live at the beginning of a bus route you'd be inclined to say no, it's dangerous, it's uncomfortable, better for everybody not to allow it.  But if for you the choice is between standing and waiting an indefinite period for the next bus, you would be inclined to say, this is a service for everybody, the point is to get where we need to go rather than to be comfortable as we do so, people should be allowed.  So what John Rawls is suggesting is that such questions should be considered behind a 'veil of ignorance', ie. we should decide these questions without knowing what the impact on ourselves will be personally.  Not entirely sure how this is achieved, but that's the theory!)

The other idea is to improve the postal service, an awful lot of cars (although wouldn't be able to guess a figure) are on the roads hand delivering letters, documents, packages, in preference to the postal service which is regarded as unreliable and only delivers to P O boxes, and in preference to DHL and equivalent which are very expensive.  Whether there's room for a new service to complete with DHL at a lower cost by promising delivery within two days (say) rather than immediately I really wouldn't care to say.

So, I offer these two ideas as possibilities, meanwhile, continue to be grateful to live close to work.  Good to have at least some exposure to conditions which other people face on a daily basis.  And a good reminder that if people are late in arriving for work, the appropriate response may be - not necessarily! - "Thank you very much for battling against difficult conditions to be here."

Anyway, need to finish now to practise my British accent, off to a Christmas do at the High Commissioner's residence!  I'll hopefully let you know how that goes in a future post, in the meantime, Hurrah for Her Majesty!  And mustn't forget to keep my little finger high whilst drinking tea.....

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