InTrans / Oct 31, 2016

Doctor Who’s ‘Gridlock’: A vision of the future of transportation

Go! Magazine

Doctor Who image

posted on October 31, 2016

By definition, a “gridlock” is a traffic jam that affects a whole network of intersecting streets. It is not a good thing, because it means that the traffic jam could go on for a long time because the streets are so full that vehicles literally cannot move. For anyone who has ever been stuck in a really, really long jam, they know that this can create, to be frank, some powerful emotions: fear (of being late), anger (causing road rage), and desperation (often resulting in bad driving decisions).

With the future being what it is, we can expect to see some changes that could eliminate this problem in the future (AKA autonomous cars). With self-driving cars being introduced on freeways, there would be no room for driver error, which is the main cause of traffic jams.

Often, the all-to-familiar traffic jam is caused by some kind of accident or near-miss or by people cutting each other off. Even something as simple as merging and changing lanes affects the ebb and flow of traffic.

A lot of people are against the use of autonomous technology, either for safety reasons (can a self-driving car really be trusted?) or ethical reasons (who would be at fault if an accident did occur?)

So imagine this: technology improved yes, but gridlocks still happen. I’m sure in the future there will be hover cars, because well, why wouldn’t there be? But, we didn’t invest in “green” technology, so cars still produce toxic emissions. We didn’t trust in driverless technology, so everything is still manual and there are massive traffic jams.

To explore this possible version of the future, we will use Doctor Who’s “Gridlock” as a jumping-off-point. But be careful, switching to the “fast lane” could cost you more than you bargained.

Transportation in the year 5,000,000,053

In this particular episode of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC’s) long-running British science-fiction television programme Doctor Who, the Doctor takes his companion Martha in the time-traveling TARDIS to the year 5,000,000,053 and the city of New New York on the planet New Earth.

Now, despite this version of the future, what we are most interested in is the Motorway.

Through a series of misadventures, the Doctor chases after Martha (who has been kidnapped by a young couple named Milo and Cheen and taken to the Motorway). There are two lanes on the Motorway: the regular lane, which is very, very jammed with traffic, and what is called the “fast lane.” In order to use the fast lane, vehicles need to have at least three passengers (thus the reason why Martha was kidnapped). They promise to let Martha go after they reach their destination, which is 10 miles away. Now, that may not seem like a lot, but even while traveling in the fast lane, their trip is expected to take six years!

Real vs. science fiction

Imagine a traffic jam that lasted not hours, not days, but years! This could be our real life future (well, way future) if technology (like autonomous vehicles) don’t come along for the ride. Our Earth’s population will continue to grow and with that the need for more roads and better means for transportation (like highways, freeways, and even a “Motorway”). With more traffic comes longer travel times. The people of the future may choose to no longer travel, which was the case for many people when fuel prices spiked in the early 2000’s.1

Now, in “Gridlock” things are a bit different. However, the idea of a gigantic Motorway isn’t that farfetched. How do you accommodate a lot of people traveling in a common direction? Well, you build a freeway, a highway, or an interstate. And now there is a road and people to drive on it, but then there is another problem: congestion. You can’t just build the road bigger, like the Motorway in “Gridlock”), because it’s the roads themselves that cause traffic and you can’t build your way out. It’s called “induced demand.”

Induced demand is this: when increasing the supply of something (like roads), you make people want that thing even more.2 This is the reason why (besides the fact that a virus mutated with a mood-changing drug and wiped out the entire surface population) that the Motorway in “Gridlock” is so congested. Besides being the only ones left, there is so many people stuck on the Motorway that the traffic jam is backed up for years.

No matter how you swing it: Pollution happens

Now, it doesn’t matter if you are just stuck in a normal, everyday, Earth in the 21st century, traffic jam, or if you are in “Gridlock” and living out of your car (by the way here are some survival tips) on a forgotten Motorway surrounded by hungry Macra aliens, because pollution happens no matter what.

Ultimately, areas with the largest number of cars on the road see the highest levels of air pollution. Plus, motor vehicles are one of the largest sources of pollution worldwide—no wonder the air is toxic to breathe in “Gridlock.” The constant acceleration and braking of stop-and-go traffic burns up a lot of gas and therefore pumps more pollutants into the air.3


We are still many, many years away from anything resembling a hover car. However, autonomous cars could be a thing of the not so distant future. We may not even need to take a TARDIS to see it. See “Related links” for the pros, cons, and possibilities of autonomous driving technology!

Related links

(Article) ‘Green’ transportation innovations: Autonomous pods

(Article) The new dawn of self-driving cars

(Article) Driving into the future: Self-driving cars


By Brandy Haenlein, Go! Program Coordinator

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