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Post-Apocalyptic Traffic Jam

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Whatever happened in the city, at least there'll be plenty of vacancies!

Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped of the bare springs of the seats.
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It's Just Before the End, and the destruction of the world is imminent. Whether World War III, the Zombie Apocalypse, a Flaming Meteor, an Alien Invasion or some other Earth-Shattering Kaboom, the citizens need to escape the cities, and fast! Unfortunately for humanity, the end result when so many people try to Outrun the Fireball at the same time is a Big Honking Traffic Jam.

Cut to After the End, and our ragtag heroes fortunately escaped the doom which befell most of humanity. As they wander the roads, searching for food, other survivors, and/or a better life, they stumble across a highway leading out of the city packed bumper-to-bumper with vehicles abandoned and destroyed by the late cataclysm. These cars haven't gone anywhere in years, nor are they likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

The post-apocalyptic traffic jam is a way to show the panic and chaos which occurred during the just before and during the end. People don't leave their cars willingly in unless the car has become a detriment; thus it indicates that they were fleeing, and thought they stood a better chance on foot (perhaps because of the traffic jam having slowed the speed so much that running was a speedier escape),or that the occupants tried to flee and failed, leaving the wreckage of the car (and perhaps their corpses) where they stood. An apocalyptic traffic jam could result even if the drivers of the vehicles didn't necessarily all get incapacitated at the same time: a small percentage of drivers suddenly being unable to drive will keep anyone behind them from making much progress while still in their car, and encourage them to continue on foot. Frequently, all the abandoned cars are going in only one direction, and the part of the road meant for cars going the other direction is empty. It conveys that everyone was trying to escape (or take refuge in) a specific location (but also keeps the cars from being an actual obstacle to the protagonist's travels). Often, a Ghost City is located at the tail end of the traffic jam.

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Besides providing information about the late apocalypse, the post-apocalyptic traffic jam can serve as a source of food and equipment for our hero, or be a potential danger if those behind the wheel aren't really dead.

The Post-Apocalyptic Traffic Jam is a sub-trope of Abandoned Area. It could also be a form of Unexpectedly Abandoned if the hero Slept Through the Apocalypse or was Late to the Tragedy. It shares similarities with Ghost Town, Ghost City and Ghost Planet.


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Examples:

Comic Books

  • The Punisher: In "The End" (set after a global thermonuclear war), Frank and Peters see a lot of abandoned cars, their owners killed as they were trying to flee (Frank notes that the EMP kills the engines and the fallout isn't far behind). They spend the night in "a schoolbus full of assisted suicides".
  • Y: The Last Man: Since the disaster consisted of all men in the world instantaneously dying at the same time, many cars that were on roads at the time found themselves without a driver. Multiple factors, such as panicked reactions and simply being stuck behind dead drivers, resulted in all other cars being abandoned as well.

Film

  • The Book of Eli: The opening scene features the protagonist walking down a highway jammed with long-abandoned vehicles, thereby establishing the post-apocalyptic setting
  • The Day After: The precursor to this trope appears when the mass of people fleeing an impending nuclear attack on Kansas City becomes trapped in a doomed traffic jam.
  • It's more Pre-Apocalyptic Traffic Jam, but in Independence Day after the City Destroyers take position over major cities around the world, everybody and their dog try their damnedest to evacuate, leading to a scene in which David Levinson and his father Julius are the only people in the lanes heading towards Washington, D.C. while the other half of the highway is loaded with bumper-to-bumper traffic. A later scene in which the military tries to nuke a City Destroyer flying over Denver, Colorado has a brief shot of an APC sent to surveil the nuke's effectiveness stopping on an overpass that has the "outgoing" lanes full with empty cars.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: One of the opening shots shows a long line of burned-out cars on a highway. One of them still has the driver's skeleton behind the wheel.
  • World War Z: The movie shows a long line of stalled cars leading to a city after the Zombie Apocalypse.

Literature

  • In Ciaphas Cain, the eponymous Commissar drives along a major highway on Perlia heading towards a town that was attacked some time ago to link up with reinforcements. The highway is jammed full of (wrecked) civilian cars that were attacked by the Orks who invaded the planet a few months ago. Cain notes that most of the cars stood no chance against the ordnance used by the Orks, mentioning the grisly sight of the occupants slouched dead in them, some of them killed weeks ago.
    Cain: Whoever those unfortunate souls were, only the Emperor knew, and probably only he cared.
  • Emberverse: The series' apocalypse, the Change, caused all higher technology to suddenly cease working and happened instantaneously all over the world. Consequently, every road and highway on the planet became a graveyard of cars that would never run again, each stopped where it drifted to a halt after its systems died. They also became the graveyard of the hordes of motorists stranded there, as most of them died of starvation or exposure either while waiting for rescue or while trying to follow the roads towards a city.
  • In Good Omens one of these starts to form on the M25 London orbital motorway thanks to Crowley reshaping it into an Infernal glyph meaning "all hail the great beast, devourer of worlds." This proves an inconvenience for him as he's trying to leave London and stop the Apocalypse, especially as it comes to be ringed with fire.
  • In Nightfall (1990), the characters need to traverse a highway packed with unmoving cars in the wake of a total societal collapse.
  • In The Road, a father and son wandering the road of a post-apocalyptic crapsack world, where an undefined cataclysmic disaster (perhaps a nuclear war, a meteor, or a super volcano) has turned the earth and sky to ash, and humanity has been forced into cannibalism to survive. Whatever the cause, there was some fore-warning as the highways out of the cities are described as containing "a long line of charred and rusting cars."
  • In The Stand, there are a few along the way. Stu and Tom look through one to find a stick shift car that Stu can drive with his injured leg since Tom can't drive. Later, on the way back to Boulder, they're in an area of deep snow and Stu finds that they're actually on top of one of these, which is buried under the snow. There's also the Lincoln Tunnel which has become nearly impassible due to the jam caused by the sick and dying trying to escape New York. One of the characters is forced to make his way through on foot, navigating between the cars in pitch blackness.
  • World War Z: Occurs several times. One of the survivor's accounts is of a pilot whose plane crashed and as a result she had to parachute out over zombie-infested territory. At one point, she makes her way out on a highway for a helicopter to pick her up; she notes that the highway is full of cars and in many of the cars are zombies reaching out of the windows for her. Another account is told from the perspective of a blimp pilot; he noted that from overhead, you could see highways filled with survivors evacuating cities, with a horde of zombies following the vehicles.
  • The Zombie Survival Guide warns about these. Very often, someone was infected by the zombie virus, tried to escape in a vehicle, succumbed to the virus, and reanimated in that vehicle.
  • The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor: The main characters are forced to deal with several of these while trying to get into Atlanta, encountering more and more chaos along the way, and at one point, the entire section of highway is on fire!

Live-Action Television

  • Revolution: The first episode shows this in action. Miles Matheson and Sebastian Monroe are on their way back to their army base when the blackout occurs. Every car on the highway, including theirs, comes to a dead stop.
  • The Strain (TV series): A precursor occurs when Feraldo and her remaining police try to escape the city, at which point they get held up by a traffic jam. They get out and walk and come under attack by Strigoi. Many of the cars have misted over windows indicating that the occupants turned while inside. During the battle, a gas tanker explodes and only Gus survives.
  • The Walking Dead: In the pilot, as Rick heads into Atlanta to search for more survivors of the zombie apocalypse, the lanes of the highway heading in are empty except for him and his horse, but the lanes heading out are completely packed with abandoned cars all the way back into the city. As this foreshadows, things in Atlanta are little different from in the suburbs.

Video Games

  • In Cataclysm, abandoned cars and other vehicles litter the streets and roads. Most of them are broken, but they can be repaired if you have the right skills and items. You can also loot them for fuel, parts, and whatever items are laying around in them.
  • Death Road to Canada: The "Traffic Jam" text event involves the road being blocked by a sea of rusted-out cars. Your options to get the group through are: abandon the car, take a detour (might work), drive the car offroad (probably won't work), or bench-press a car (makes the bench-presser stronger... but doesn't work).
  • Dying Light: Encountered frequently on the highways and bridges during the Zombie Apocalypse. It is implied that the former drivers abandon their cars and were killed by the zombies, or became zombies themselves.
  • Fallout 3: A section of highway in the Capital Wasteland features bumper-to-bumper cars, all of which still retain the working nuclear reactors that power each of them, and will explode if they take enough damage. There's also a horde of bandits that roam the highway and will attack you on sight. A fun way to deal with them is to shoot a car on one end and let the chain-reaction of explosions quickly blow up the entire highway with everyone standing on it.
  • The Last of Us: Played straight during the opening. Joel, his brother Tommy and daughter, Sarah run into an impassable traffic jam while trying to flee Austin when the infection starts up. Averted during the main story proper, where Joel and Ellie rarely run into this problem in their travels. Even when they get a working truck, they manage to get to Pittsburgh on clear and navigable roads. Only force to abandon it when some Scavangers manage to total their car. Early concept art does show the two having to travel along rows of abandoned cars at one point, but for whatever reason, it was scrapped.
  • Left 4 Dead 2: One of the levels starts with the gang being unable to progress through an intense traffic jam cause via the zombie apocalypse. The final level has the protagonists have to make their way through a bridge filled with infected to reach a evacuation boat. Naturally there a few abandoned cars along the road with alarms to stir them if you misfire.

Web Comics

  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: Traffic jams like those are sometimes seen while the crew is exploring the abandoned parts of Denmark. As a couple of families from the Distant Prologue are seen escaping The Plague via leaving densely populated areas to take refuge in isolated places, the owners of those cars are implied to have gotten a similar idea.
  • The What If? page "Everybody jump" mentions the teleported Earth population trying to spread out by car before they die of thirst and hunger:
    Rhode Island’s half-million cars are commandeered. Moments later, I-95, I-195, and I-295 become the sites of the largest traffic jam in the history of the planet. Most of the cars are engulfed by the crowds, but a lucky few get out and begin wandering the abandoned road network.
    Some make it past New York or Boston before running out of fuel. Since the electricity is probably not on at this point, rather than find a working gas pump, it’s easier to just abandon the car and steal the new one.

Western Animation

  • In Rick and Morty episode "Rick Potion No. 9", Rick causes an epidemic that turns humans into mutants. At one point, Jerry is blocked off on a highway by a convoy of abandoned cars whose drivers went mutant and ran off.
  • The Simpsons: In the Treehouse Of Horror segment "The Homega Man", Homer is (seemingly) the only survivor of a nuclear war due to inspecting one of Herman's bomb shelters the moment the bombs hit. Humorously, it's not until he gets stuck in one of these that he notices anything even slightly amiss. He even punches the charred remains of Kirk Van Houten hanging out the window of his burned-out car for causing the traffic jam, and only then notices that something seems off.
    Homer: Hey... what's with all the death?

Real Life

  • Emergency management officials fear this will become a reality during hurricane evacuations. Some evacuation plans call for opening both sides of interstates/major highways to traffic traveling away from the disaster. South Carolina switched eastbound highways to westbound traffic as part of the Hurricane Dorian evacuations, and a couple of states did likewise during Hurricane Michael in 2018. During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, more than 3 million people tried to evacuate cities along the eastern seaboard, leading to cars stuck in traffic for 10 to 12 hours or more. Fortunately, the hurricane changed course. Had it hit the traffic-clogged interstate, it could have led to this trope, with catastrophic consequences.
  • During the First Gulf War in 1991, the US Air Force attacked a large convoy of Iraqi vehicles fleeing Kuwait City, destroying as many as 2000 vehicles, either killing the passengers or forcing them to flee into the desert. The news media published photos of the long line of destroyed vehicles, reminiscent of this trope, calling it the "Highway of Death"
  • During the process of easing of tensions between East and West Germany that ultimately concluded with the two countries reunifying, there were abandoned lines of cars leading into West Germany. A lot of people thought that unification would not happen and were trying to get out of East Germany while they still legally could. When the traffic stopped flowing, people abandoned their cars realizing that they would be nearly worthless in West Germany. While not an apocalypse exactly, all this was the result of what was ultimately the downfall of civilization.

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