There is a spot along the Freeway north of Los Angeles where the road climbs into the hills on its way out of the San Fernando Valley. The spot is well up the hill, right before the road curves and the view of the valley is lost. If you pause there at just the right time of day at exactly the right time of year -- after the sun has set on an autumn evening but before full dark -- the view of the Freeway stretching away behind you is enthralling.
That time of day on weekdays the Freeway is jammed with thousands and thousands of cars -- people heading out of the city, done with work and heading for their homes in the hills. Later, when it is darker, the headlights will seem glaring, but at our exact moment of twilight they glow. The Freeway is a ribbon of light that winds across the softly fading landscape, merging in the distance with another road that leads off in a different direction.
From our vantage point you can't see the individual vehicles; they are just points of light. This distant view makes it easier to see the the traffic on the freeway as a whole -- as a single giant machine that snakes its way across the valley: thousands of tons of steel, rubber and glass; ten thousand engines producing fifteen million horsepower; ten thousand steering wheels in the hands of tired, distracted, fallable people; forty thousand brakes, not-so-recently serviced by guys with names embroidered on their blue shirts; tons of exhaust gasses dumped into the still air of the valley. It is dizzyingly insane, if you think about it. Thousands of people put themselves into this dystopian monster at least twice a day. Given all the things that can go wrong, it's a miracle that any of them get home alive.
And that's the thing, isn't it? People talk about the freeway, pointing out problems and demand that this or that be done. They collect statistics and are often quite angry about what they find. I'm sure they are right. Changes can and should be made, but still, they miss the most striking aspect of the freeway -- the ongoing miracle that it works at all.