Why Pop Culture Loves Traffic Jams

Ridley Scott is just the latest storyteller to harness the nightmarish power of highway gridlock.

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In 1998's 'Deep Impact,' a comet hurtles toward Earth while Americans watch helplessly from the highway, trapped in—what else?—a traffic jam.(Paramount Pictures)

There's a moment in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight where things shift palpably from bad to worse. Commissioner Gordon and Mayor Anthony Garcia sit helplessly in the mayor's office, realizing just how little time remains before the city of Gotham succumbs to the Joker's sadistic terrorist schemes. If audiences weren't grinding their teeth into flakes before, they certainly were now.

The most distressing aspect of the scene, though, isn't what's happening high up in Garcia's corner office. Rather, it's the knowledge of what's taking place down below: Before peering into the mayor's office, the camera pans to the expressway, where thousands of Gotham's motorists sit trapped in a shrewdly premeditated bottleneck traffic jam.

Last week, filmmaker Ridley Scott signed on with screenwriter Steve Zaillian to make a feature-length disaster film based on the BBC's faux documentary The Day Britain Stopped, which imagines England on the day of a full-blown, nationwide transportation meltdown complete with a train-system strike and, naturally, colossal traffic jams. But Scott and Zaillian are just the latest in a long line of storytellers to find themselves bewitched by the dramatic potential of road congestion. In fact, for as long as there have been cars and freeways, there have been filmmakers, novelists, economists, physicists, songwriters, and elite mathematicians—and, of course, Atlantic journalists—mesmerized by the traffic jam.

Why are storytellers so interested in highway gridlock? To know for sure, of course, you'd have to ask each one. But the appeal is understandable: Being stuck in gridlock is a uniting, miserable feature of the human experience. Plus, despite traffic's prevalence, we still haven't quite figured out how to deal it, logistically or psychologically. In a traffic jam, the polluted air itself hangs heavy with the nightmarish implication that the situation is inescapable—and might stay that way.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone in the developed world unfamiliar with the unique blend of boredom and directionless aggression that come with sitting in traffic. Smart filmmakers can tap into that universal angst. For example: The tiny, wondrous piece of modern cinema known as Office Space—a comedy that achieved cult status in part for being so relatable—opens, naturally, with a montage of its main protagonists all sitting stalled and irate in traffic.

Road congestion is also a handy plot device because it comes with its own built-in dramatic elements. After all, traffic jams are more than just annoyances that makes us late for work; they're also a quantifiable source of psychological and physiological distress for drivers and passengers. They materialize at any given moment and trap us in suspenseful, high-anxiety situations, inhibiting the crucial "flight" half of the fight-or-flight response. Psychologists have identified that distinct, muted panic as a diagnosable condition: Traffic stress syndrome. And perhaps that's why artists of all kinds use the traffic-jam plot to such splendid, tense effect in films like The Dark Knight, War of the Worlds, The Day After Tomorrow, Joel Schumacher's Falling Down, Federico Fellini's 8½, and even the darkly funny 2002 Belgian short Gridlock (Fait d'Hiver).

By trapping characters indefinitely, fictional traffic jams also have the power to enable otherwise implausible plotlines. Gridlock can force characters cataclysmically together (a la the good-vs.-evil showdown that ensues in The Dark Knight or the French drama Vendredi Soir's erotic encounter between strangers) or hold them miserably apart (like Bruce Almighty's morning rush-hour traffic that keeps Jim Carrey's Bruce Nolan from arriving on time to an important meeting—and nudges him toward his existential breaking point in the process).

Some of these traffic-induced storylines actually aren't as implausible as they sound. When harrowing news reports of a 60-mile, 10-day gridlock along China's Beijing-Zhangjiakou freeway surfaced in 2010, it conjured echoes of Julio Cortazar's surrealist 1966 short story "The Southern Thruway" from the larger work All Fires the Fire. Translated from the author's native Spanish, it imagines a stoppage on an expressway through the French countryside—a sudden, phantom standstill that lasts for days, then weeks, then months, and into vast, indeterminate expanses of time. Seasons pass, and the accidental neighbors form a camaraderie borne of necessity, which eventually blooms into a tiny, isolated civilization. Interestingly, Cortazar's band of circumstantial protagonists evolves socially in the opposite direction from the real-life motorists trapped in China's epic traffic jam. Passersby in Beijing built a darkly capitalist empire of desperation by selling ramen noodles and water to parched drivers for exorbitantly high prices; Cortazar's troop of stranded travelers, meanwhile, embodies the utopian vision of possession-free commune living.

What does all of this teach us about traffic jams? Only that they're as swift and effective in fiction plots as they are obstructive and irritating in real life. The urban theorist Jane Jacobs once said that traffic congestion was "caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves"—but if an entire post-Henry Ford generation of storytellers is to be believed, traffic jams are only ever caused by fate itself.