Monday, May 3, 2010

‘Vorsprung durch technik,’
as we say on Qxytl6

Some things I just can’t explain. It’s a lonely feeling to have a deep-seated belief which is so ‘out there’ that people wont listen to your reasoning for it. ‘But, but, but…’you stammer as they shake their heads and smile indulgently, eyebrows arched as if to say; ‘Oh you and your opinions!’.

Less lonely, but also a bit frustrating, is the experience of having one of your long-cherished so-called ‘whacky’ opinions suddenly gain ground and the reaction then becomes a; ‘Oh, your one of these guys are you?’.
’No! I’m coming from a whole different angle to those guys’.
‘Yeah right. I know those guys. Not interested.’

I’m not one of these guys. This is they way I think and have thought, in a kind of lonely way for a very, very, very long time. I am not telling you what to think, I am telling you how I think. This is a notion that I should and would have abandoned ages ago for purely practical reasons, but I cant. The truth is, that ever since this opinion came into my head, I have encountered no evidence in my experience that contradicts it.

I should also let you know that this post isn’t about pollution, global warming, biodiversity, bees, carbon footprints, or any of those real and serious issues that people use nowadays to behave pious and 'holier-than-thou' because they can't use the church for it anymore: I’m talking about one thing and one thing only and I want your full attention.

It is this. Cars are wrong and a really bad idea.

They are inefficient, impractical, dangerous and lower the quality of life of those who use them and those who must share the world with those who use them.

Impractical? But my car comes in very handy! –and it can’t be inefficient, I get seventy miles to the gallon.

The inefficiency and impracticality, of motor transport as a system, becomes apparent if you imagine what would happen if aliens landed, and they just decided to liberate us all from our immediate geographic region, by giving every family in the world a car to move around in. Everyone. Chinese, South American, African, every last family; not person, family.

‘Gosh! Thank you aliens! –look mum we got a car!’

What would happen in this Autopia?
The air would turn black, the weather systems would fall apart and the petrol and diesel we have left on this planet wouldn’t last a week. In the blinking of a (smog blinded) eye, we would have a world littered with billions of abandoned cars, and no petrochemical energy left to get them as far as the wrecking yard.

But what if the aliens gave us ‘magic’ cars that made no pollution and ran on water?

‘Gosh! Thank you aliens! –look mum we got a car!’
‘Now Jimmy, you know how me and your father feel about the environment.’
‘But it’s magic! It’s totally clean and runs on water!’

Well there are only two problems with that. The first one is, that at the moment , we simply don’t have the road and car park room on the planet. That many cars just wouldn’t fit. You could argue that perhaps using ‘magic’ pollution-less water driven alien machines we could have roads everywhere and plenty of them. I don’t know exactly if this would be a prettier world but you could in theory build an operable system to accommodate all this traffic.
And if you did, what problem could I there possibly be?- apart from aesthetics?

Well I’ll answer that question with a question:
If I told you that I had invented…’something’. If I didn’t say what it was, except that it was ‘something’; an invention that would change the world in ways you couldn’t even imagine. What if I said that it made no pollution, and ran on water (alien machine scenario) and all that you had to do, to keep my great invention maintained, was drop some people into a meat-grinder to keep it going; randomly chosen, say two to three hundred a year to work my machine in Ireland. What if I told you, that as well as the people to be ground up, that I would need to cripple, burn, blind and disfigure an equal amount of people who were to be left alive afterwards? Maybe little Jimmy could be one of them.

Would you be amenable to that do you think? Or would you call me a monster and say you’re not interested?

Trains crash, aeroplanes crash, and so do cars. But the cars crash a disproportionate amount. This is because there are far more individual cars and individual car operators and they have to share far more limited space with each other. The huge magnitude of operators and machines involved means a correspondingly enormous margin for human and mechanical failure. Put simply, the motor transport system is particularly expensive in terms of human life, we are aware of this situation, but continue to look at it not as a system failure, but as a regularly occurring series of ‘accidents’.

Lets go back to little Jimmy, who you’ll be glad to hear, is alive and well and healing up nicely.

‘Gosh! Thank you aliens! –look Mum we got a car!’
‘Now Jimmy, you know me and your father feel about the environment.’
‘But it’s magic! It’s totally clean and runs on water!’
‘Sorry son it’s out of the question. It’s too dangerous!’
‘Not this car Mum! The aliens made it with special magic so it cant ever crash!’

Okay now there will be a minor digression but bear with me, and I’ll be back into the main rant soon because believe it or not, I even have a problem with that scenario.

There is a myth nowadays, that car-dealerships have no reason to discourage, that you can ‘buy’ road safety. There is a widely held belief that you can ‘buy’ road safety in the form of features, which will protect you in an accident. The unfortunate problem with ‘safety’ features is that they make drivers feel ‘safer’ and they up their speed and the aggressiveness of their driving style accordingly. They are a bit safer than those they might collide with, so there is a bit of ‘I’m alright jack’ going on here, but even people with anti-lock steering and airbags, die. As one road safety official( I forget who, but it stuck in my head) put it: ‘The greatest safety feature I can think of would be the addition of a sharp metal spike, sticking out from the steering wheel and pressing against the motorists heart’. True, it wouldn’t be an easy sell on the showroom floor, and the manufacturer would find great difficulty avoiding subsequent lawsuits, but you can’t deny that would encourage careful driving.

So where we? Oh yes! We don’t have to worry about any of that because the clever aliens made our magic car crash proof. So what’s the problem? We’ve no energy or pollution problems; we’re all safe; we have the millions of roads and car-parks that we needed. What’s the beef now? car-hater? Whassamatter? Don’t you like the look of roads?

Okay we’re coming to the end and this is the hardest bit to explain so please, remain indulgent.

It doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and Colonel Brandon is the better man.

Cars are associated with liberation, but the car-based system of life that we have; sleeping (and eating and watching tv) one place and working in another place, means that most of us spend our days, not in a higher state of freedom, but instead actually trapped. Trapped inside a moving box,- but trapped any way. We might feel freer, we are covering so much ground after all, but what happens if we recognise an old friend travelling in the opposite direction? Can we stop for a chat? No. Not unless we live in a very low density area and we have a cavelier approach to road safety, we cant.

All this space we are covering, is it real to us? can we see it? can we smell it? Or is it just some 3d television rolling by? Why do I have back pains? Why do I have heamorroids? Why do I drive 20 miles, and pay an annual subscription, so I can ride a bicycle( that doesn’t move) for a couple of hours, before getting in my car to go home again? How come these streets aren’t safe for my children to walk in the morning? Aren’t there any other children, any other people? Oh no that’s right they’re all there but not there: in their four wheeled cells enjoying their freedom, drifting along disconnected and blinded by their own speeds. Everyone of them in mortal danger, but because they are isolated they feel safe. They are traffic. Whatever horrors they might witness they cannot stop and help. They are obliged to keep moving.

When you suggest how the world and our quality of life might be improved by vehicle absence; you get a lot of ‘But how would I…?’ responses. The answer to all of them is you wouldn’t; your life would be different. You might have to live where you work, and maybe that’s not a nice area; but don’t forget that all the doctors teachers guards solicitors who work but don’t live there would be coming with you.
And you’d all be walking around the same world as each other; Who knows? You might even form a community where before was just a ghettoe.
You might have a vehicle dependant profession, but in my world your career wouldn’t have been an option. I’ll make an exception for the emergency services. But that’s it.
Our love affair with motor transport is like in Sense and Sensibility when Marriane falls in love with the cad Willoughby; who is dashing and exciting and reads all the same poems as her, and she goes all out for him before discovering that in spite of his glamour, the mans’ a useless, spineless and self-serving cad. Cars are a Willoughby, they are seductive with their promise of liberation but it's a false one: now it’s time to get real, see sense and realise that we’d be a lot happier and far better cared for by the Colonel Brandon of bicycles, trains and trams.

Maybe the impending environmental crisis is like her fever, and if we ever survive it we will wake up, smile quietly to ourselves, and finally realise that our Colonel Brandon isn’t so old-fashioned after all.

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