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I used to feel stuck during rush hour traffic — but now I’ve come to appreciate it

This First Person piece is by Akiko Hara who lives in Vancouver. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

In the August sun, it’s unbearably hot in my car. My air conditioner doesn’t work unless the car is moving. My car is not moving. I’m in Richmond, B.C., approaching the Knight Street Bridge as I try to get home after work. It’s 5:15 p.m. Traffic is already slowing down and then it comes to a full stop. Ugh! I’m stuck even before getting on the bridge. 

Like it or not, this has become my work commute routine. Ahead of me is a heavily jammed on-ramp. I stare at the endless rows of vehicles, dismayed. 

My initial reaction is always denial. 

This is not how it looks. The traffic will soon start moving. I’ll be home before I know it. 

Seconds pass. Minutes pass. I think about turning off the engine. 

Then I retreat to my second strategy: delusion. I try to forget that I’m in a “traffic jam.” Looking at the rows of cars and trucks glittering in the sun, I start counting — 299, 300, 301 — and I give up.

I suddenly remember I’m one of the 300 helpless drivers. 

I strain to stay alert. When the cars do move, I must move, too, carefully not to bump into the car before me, which will stop again at any moment. When I’m too slow, someone cuts right in front and takes my spot. This makes me mad.

I remember what my friend suggested — it’s not healthy to fume silently and I should swear instead; then I’d feel better. Raised by Japanese parents, I’m not used to swearing. But I try it anyway. This fails miserably. I now feel helpless and stupid. 

i used to feel stuck during rush hour traffic but now ive come to appreciate it
Traffic on the Vancouver’s Knight Street bridge is pictured on April 9, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Through the practice of waiting, moving and stopping, and waiting, I finally make it onto the bridge. The traffic is still crawling at a snail’s pace. Tired and hungry, I become even more agitated.   

Just then, I hear a faint sound in the distance. The sound gradually becomes louder, until I can unmistakably identify it as an emergency vehicle approaching from the distance behind. What do we do? The bridge is packed. There’s no room for us to shift around. 

I’m wrong. Every single car swiftly, yet carefully, moves toward either side of the bridge, creating an emergency lane down the middle. Without thinking, I follow suit. The lane remains open for a few seconds during which the mighty ambulance flashes through. 

Afterward, every car, including mine, moves back into its previous formation. As the siren becomes fainter and fainter, we close up the phantom lane, ready to resume our patient practice of waiting on the bridge.   

Back in my spot, I’m awestruck. At this moment, I don’t remember my fatigue or hunger. My agitation is gone. I spend the rest of my homebound journey reflecting upon what just happened and what I just did with more than 300 fellow drivers. 

Even when the bridge was absolutely packed, we created the extra lane, wide enough for the ambulance. Then, everyone waited. How did we do that? We were all tired of being stuck. Perhaps, it was the loud siren that intimidated us and all we could do was sidle away as quickly as possible. After all, we are polite Canadians. That is one of my theories. 

Here is another. Perhaps, we just knew what to do. Despite our exhaustion, in the moment of confusion and realization, we collectively decided to help the stranger we didn’t know and were unlikely to meet. For the stranger who needed the time more desperately than we did, we drew on our compassion and intelligence, requiring no directives. I decided I like this theory better. 

On the bridge, I’m still stuck. But suddenly there is a vast space in my car. And I’m not alone. I’m connected with all the drivers on the bridge, who are kind and intelligent beyond my imagination.

The event has changed my view of the traffic jam for good. Today, whenever I’m stuck in traffic, I remember this event with a smile. I remember kindness. That together we are capable of making the impossible possible even in a very stressful moment.

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