Time & Space

Once upon a time, many years ago, I dropped in on some friends in Anaheim. They were entertaining a couple from Paris. Trim, cosmopolitan, and with impeccable English, they were the sort of cultural ambassadors any country would be proud of.

Before dinner, as the conversation drifted from this to that, the Frenchman surprised me by remarking, with his delightful accent, that he had noticed that we Californians talked funny. Wary of some odd French joke, I asked him what he meant.

“Okay,” he said, “We’re going to Los Angeles for dinner tonight. Correct? How far is that?”

“About half an hour.”

“You see,” he said triumphantly, “I asked ‘How far’ and you answered me with ‘How long.’ We would never do that in Paris.”

He had a point.

In California, where all travel was shaped by the freeways, how far was lots less important than how long. Journeys were measured by the clock, not the odometer. We would automatically rather travel far out of our way by freeway than more directly on city streets, knowing the freeways would end up being faster. And the freeways, except for the occasional tie-up, made the trips wonderfully predictable.

I was reminded of that recently while driving in L.A. from North Hollywood, down the 101, merging into the 5, and finally onto the 710. Destination: Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific. (Terrific, by the way; you really ought to see it.) It should have been easy, with all the GPS precision measuring of routes and distances, to guess how long it would take. I gave it my best shot, but…


Ever see a demonstration of super-cooled water? You take some distilled water in a glass and gradually lower its temperature. 35, 34, 33, 32. Now we all know that water freezes at 32 degrees. But if you’re careful, you can keep going without the water turning solid. 31, 30, etc. No problem. Liquid water. But, if you give the glass a sharp rap, all of the water will turn solid almost in an instant. Its molecules are all ready to freeze, but they need some nucleus to start the process. By giving the glass a shock, you trigger a local freezing of a few molecules. That one little bit starts a chain reaction that moves across the glass.

I think that nowadays, our freeways are like that. It’s a matter of density. They are now so crowded that practically any perturbation causes a wave of brake lights to race back along the lanes, the effect magnified along the way.

Imagine a car is driving along and a plastic bag blows into its path. Just for a second, the driver lets up on the gas. The car behind him, who can’t see the bag, only sees the gap closing. So he taps his brakes a bit. The next car, seeing those brake lights and his gap closing a bit faster, hits his brakes a bit harder. Which, of course, closes the gap to the next car pretty quickly. And so on. With all those cars traveling within a couple of car lengths of each other, the brake lights ripple back, trying to make the whole super-cooled road solidify into a parking lot.


Once upon a time, distances and times in California were measured by the missions. They were stationed about 30 miles apart, one easy day for a horseback rider, a hard day for a wagon, and a really tough day for a walker. But each one’s steady pace gave a nice, linear result: one day’s travel equaled 30 miles.

Over the years, that same relationship continued, at least on the main routes, even as the pace quickened and the time involved to cover a distance went down. On average, it was still linear, even if the vagaries of traffic lights made the average a bit fictive at any given time.

But it was really the invention of the freeways that made the math concrete (pardon the pun). They were rivers of cars, all traveling at pretty much the same speed, and they changed our language and our ideas of distance. Traveling from Anaheim to L.A. off-peak was a reliable distance of half an hour. Even more than in the days of the padres, time was distance.

But it hasn’t lasted.

Getting back to that trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific, although it was around mid-morning, traffic density in L.A. is always high now and the speed-up/slow-down more or less constant. The average rate of speed varied from second to second. The time-distance equation was the very last thing away from linear. It was not even non-linear in any predictable sense. It was erratic, spasmodic, intermittent, call it what you like.

If I had had to meet someone that day, I don’t know what I could have predicted about my arrival. A range of times? High and low values? “Don’t wait for me?” I suspect the last might have been safest.

I imagine I sound like a doomsayer talking about some golden age that has gone past, never to return. But, you know, I think this one just might.

Robo-drive cars are being tested right now. It might not be too long before we will be riding in cars at full speed, only a few feet away from each other, with each car in constant communication with its brethren, and hence able to anticipate the road ahead so as to avoid both accidents and the human speed-up/slow-down of today’s high density travel.

Just think, those robots might not only save our lives, they might save our own, peculiar, Californian language.

It’s only a matter of time.


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