It was a glorious adventure, the two weeks spent in Vietnam with the family. Rural one-crop villages locals in conical hats vs. teeming metropolises with fashionable teenagers. Emerald bays of such beauty they felt like movie backdrops vs. the acrid smoke of a busy intersection at rush hour. But while the countryside felt like nothing else in the world, the cities felt like New York, with all its requisite energy, enthusiasm, rushing and hustling. We all need to stop our bitching and moaning that the traffic here is bad: Honey, if you ain’t been to Saigon, you ain’t seen nothing like traffic.
Traffic is no 20th century invention: before the car or even the trolley, New York was already well-known for its foot, cart, horse, buggy, railcar, omnibus elevated and bicycle traffic. Before the end of the 1800s, traffic wasn’t even controlled, let alone supervised. It was a Darwinian process of helter-skelter passage, allowing any nerve-charged driver to travel any direction upon any side of the street. The first ever traffic-related arm of the NYPD was formed around 1860 and called the Broadway Squad
; their principal purpose was to escort pedestrians from one side of the thoroughfare to the other, from Bowling Green to 59th Street. Minimum height requirement was 6 feet. In 1895, to catch up with the Bicycle Craze of the era, Police Chief Teddy Roosevelt started the “Bicycle Squad,” more commonly known as the Scorcher Squad. Upon noticing a speed demon on their velocipede (or even the newfangled automobile, hitting the streets at about this time) exceeding the speed limit of 8 mph, a Scorcher would telephone another Scorcher stationed ahead, who would jump out on his bicycle and arrest the perp on the spot. The state legislature didn’t give the NYPD power to issue summons until 1910.
We can thank the tireless efforts of Theodore Bingham, Police Commishioner in 1908, who required turning signals (be they hand, whip or the still-to-come blinker), and for all traffic to stay to the right on the road. Thanks to the newly opened Interborough Rapid Transit subway service in1904, more New Yorkers were traveling underground, but street traffic was still high — 1907 was the peak year
of immigration, when 7,000 immigrants were processed daily at Ellis Island, one third of whom stayed in the city. In 1915 the first traffic control towers were installed — these crude devices were manually controlled semaphores boasting the words STOP and GO on four-arms at each intersection. The following year a better, more ornate creature was born — the precursor to our beloved stoplights. These “traffic towers” were cast from bronze, sixteen feet high, boasting sixteen-inch diameter electric stop lights in the three colors we know today, and required one policeman to occupy and run each tower, sixteen hours a day. The first tower stood at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, and with each policeman operating each light at a separate schedule, it was generally impossible to get anywhere. It wasn’t until 1924 when the NYPD took to their next traffic revolution — the electrically synchronized traffic light.
In 1927, the Holland Tunnel opened. In 1931, the George Washington Bridge. ’34 saw the West Side Highway from Canal to W 48th Street, then one year later saw the East River Drive (now the FDR), then right after that both the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the Triborough. Soon enough, Robert Moses’s automobile empire had begun, so it wasn’t a moment too soon to coordinate the traffic signals in this city. Today, according to the Encyclopedia of New York, more than 758,000 vehicles enter Manhattan south of 60th Street every day.
What we have today is, if not the automobile moving smoothly around the Monopoly board, still nothing in comparison with the traffic in Saigon, Vietnam’s most populous city. With eight million inhabitants covering 809 square miles (we have about the same number of people squeezed into 321 square miles), you would expect there to be some calm order to the streets. No way in car-hell. Honda Om – the ubiquitous motorbikes that swarm the streets — are the most common form of transport, the cheapest to buy (about $400), and Saigon has four million of them. Despite the occasional car and bus inching their way into the intersection, the Om (which means “to hug,” inferring how backseat passengers prevent falling into traffic) dominate —going the wrong way, going over sidewalks, turning in the middle of the corner, turning in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking any progress at all during rush hour. But, astonishingly, there’s no road rage. The Om drivers use their horn like New Yorkers use their scream (“GET OUTTA THE WAY!”) but it’s more of an announcement, a note, a warning, a claim to the few inches of open road available. “I’m here! Let me into the scrum!” Nobody wants to kill anybody else — they’ll all get to where they’re going whenever it happens. Makes you think about alternative translations for the Om: Ommmmmmm . . .