Boston traffic has been some of the worst I’ve driven in. In New York at least its everybody versus the taxi cabs and Chinese food delivery bicycles. In Boston all the good citizens are pitted against each other in small corridors of cement to see who will make it through to the other side. The urban commuter landscape has been thrown into tumult by the Big Dig, one of the largest-scale city reconstruction projects in history. Four lane highways are routinely closed down to single alleys due to road and bridge development. While this has given rise to a shitload of traffic, it has also evolved a new commuter practice: the smerge.
Traditionally when a few streams of vehicles are being corralled into a single pass (such as in the more simplistic two-lanes-into-one model) the drivers will naturally and graciously interpolate themselves. The condition of the smerge, however, is that such a confusion of road elements is converging at once that no one can decide whose right of way it is, and even if they can no one is about to let anyone else have it. Consequently a long and stressful trench-type battle is fought, inch by inch, all the way to the bottleneck. This is the smerge. The reason I would say it was particular to Boston is that no where else have I seen main arteries funnel into one strip of torn up asphalt just as two other major roads feed in, and just before a tollbooth or stop-light gives any hope of speeding away afterwards the shut-down. Any one can merge onto a highway. It takes some real effort to smerge into Boston on Route 1.
Of course a few smerge personalities are recognizable. The nice guy will on occasion let a few people butt ahead unchallenged, remembering the days when all you needed was a roll of dimes to drive cross-country. This character may be confused with the student driver, or that person who doesn’t know what to do with anything more than a rural stop sign and stays pretty much stock still unless a miracle opening occurs directly in front of the car. Then you have the bulk of commuters who stay pretty much bumper to bumper, keep pretty much within their little microcosms, listening to talk radio, thinking about some beautiful collegiate runner they saw on Storrow Drive just yesterday morning. . . but the real gems of the smerge are at the end of the spectrum. The assholes are a category unto themselves, although depending on mood swings and various other daily inconsistencies in personality even the more reserved of us can play this role. We’ve all seen asshole drivers, they’re everywhere. But the smerge is their true home; they have evolved with it and have developed a set of tactics to power their way through the pile faster than anyone else. (I am actually convinced that it is the development of these tactics that make the smerge what it is and not the other way around, but the point is academic.)
The most impressive maneuver I have seen thus far was performed by some smerging asshole in a rusting red Honda Civic. Right away if your car is busted you are in a good position, because if you start nosing in front of a Lexus or even a new family van the other driver can see you have nothing to lose by getting dinged and won’t risk that nice paint job of his. I learned this rule driving a beat up company van with a big metal grill-piece. Anyway, this asshole and I were in a clog trying to get back over the Tobin bridge. It was evening, and some kind of work had just commenced involving huge drill cranes. The asshole had been playing the lanes and stolen up on my right just before that lane was being forced into mine. I had watched him for some time and been struck by what seemed some of the most aggressive traffic jam driving yet encountered. And then there he was, trying to get in front of me. Curious as to how far he was willing to go I kept within a few inches of the car ahead of me, which at the dreadful speed we were moving was more than generous. The Civic asshole was persistent, trying to play the proximity and plight angles, forcing himself into a near-immobile squeeze in the hopes of evoking an altruistic allowance, but I was more persistent: making him come dangerously close to touching my car. The line moved forward and I was sure my grudging attitude had won the spot. Just as I was about to pull ahead to victory the asshole hooked his rear-view mirror around and in front of mine, making my forward motion contingent on my initiation of automobile contact. He might as well have stiff armed me. It was an ingenious play.