Heavy Freeway TrafficWriting for New Geography (an always interesting site run by Joel Kotkin), architect Richard Reep conveys a vivid anecdote and draws an interesting conclusion from it, a conclusion that some readers may consider strained but which I think is justified and of rather great moment.

Reep starts with the anecdote, which takes place on an interstate highway near Orlando, Florida:

Along with my family, I was caught in a traffic jam as we headed east on I-4 outside of Disney World. I have been stuck on this very spot many times. But on this trip, as we sat listening to Janis Joplin, something new happened.

Along this stretch, one can take an off-ramp that runs parallel to the interstate, linking it to one of Central Florida’s toll roads. It travels for a couple miles in close proximity, and is elevated along a ridge of grass about 10 feet above the surface of I-4.

A ditch and a grassy embankment separate the off ramp and the interstate. As we watched, a driver in the right lane of I-4 turned off of the interstate, crossed the shoulder, went down into the ditch, and climbed up onto the parallel road, speeding away and out of the traffic jam. At first, one person did it, and then others followed. And then, about 500 feet ahead, we saw another stream of cars doing the exact same thing. And then, ahead of that stream, yet another stream of drivers drove over the embankment. It wasn’t one or two cars, it was dozens and dozens; an en masse sheet flow ripping up the grass. People, fed up with the traffic mess, had taken matters into their own hands. And they were speeding away.

That is a phenomenon I haven’t seen before: collective abandonment of a pathway, even one that is highly discouraging. But then, maybe it’s nothing new. I-4 has inspired bizarre and unusual behavior for years.

After a few paragraphs describing how horrible I-4 is in general, Reep then returns to the anecdote and the meaning he sees in it:

2009 and 2010 were years that really beat people up. By 2011 and 2012, many had adjusted their expectations and gotten really cynical about the future. Last year, things changed again. For some, the world has gotten worse. For those who were so swiftly unemployed and have become re-employed, the new working conditions are different. They work much harder, for less than before. They face uncertainty every single day, a holdover from the white-knuckled years. The stress wears on the inner compass, and the temptation to cut corners gets greater and greater.

When brazen self-interest spreads like wildfire, a sort of highway mob rule, if you will, I think that we as a society may be on the edge of something new and wild, as if the guardrails of rationality have weakened.

This little incident on Interstate 4 may be isolated, or it might be a symptom of a sea change. People who have been patient and docile have taken a beating over the last several years. We have put up with mental and emotional abuse as we’ve tried to make the world better for our children. In doing so, we’ve — mostly — stayed grimly entrenched in the collective good; the shared social values and the rule of law over men.

But when one or two people break off and steer their own course, how quickly many others follow. These are dangerous times, and our inner moral compasses are more important than ever before. We didn’t preserve our collective sanity through all of the wicked and sorrowful events of the recent past, only to lose it all now. In the coming year, we must hold on for a little longer, and rebuild moral capital for future generations.

I think Reep may be right: “the guardrails of rationality have weakened.” We see it everywhere today, don’t we? There remains much good in this nation and its people, but civilization remains a fragile thing.