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2007 12 28
Techne-City IV: Better Ways

Guess it was alright for another laugh. Since my best friend hadn’t killed the cyclist he drove off the road thirty years ago.

We were joy riding that cube van it was his job to drive. Not much clue what we were laughing about in the first place. Most anything. You’re high off the ground in a cube van. Almost right up there with the truckers. Looking down on traffic. Feeling that the road is yours. Knowing what doesn’t belong had better get from your road. And fast.

“Watch this,” he said, swerving around the cyclist. Idiot cyclist riding like someone gave him charge of the right hand lane. Like the lane was his personal property or something. Then, slowing to approximate the cyclist’s velocity, my best friend swerved back in. All the way back in. I could feel the front right wheel kissing the curb.

And I could see, in rear-view, how flattened far up the curb the cyclist wound up. Still moving, though. Good for more laughing.

Hell. I’ve been driving almost thirty years myself. It’s only been five since I first saw cars for the evil they really are. Because that’s when it happened to me about ten times in a row for the first time.

Happened the winter I decided to bicycle courier. When I figured on saving the planet one delivery at a time -– and got all nine-to-five about it. That’s why I was biking to work that particularly early mid-January morning. After it had snowed all night and the plough went through -– once. It was tight. Barely room for me between cars. Thing of it was, those cars weren’t looking to sparing me room. Weren’t looking to sparing me whatever. Kept honking and driving me full tilt into snowbanks like it was national sport.

Maybe it should have reminded me how, decades back, my then best friend had driven the cyclist off the road. Maybe. But it reminded me nothing of the sort. First few times getting off the ground, I was cursing at drivers like there was no tomorrow, no yesterday –- cursing like there was no today. No way was I recalling decades past. Not while shouting stuff like, “You wan’na kill someone? Come on! I’m still here, you ****! Come and do it with your bare hands! It’s better that way, you ****ing coward!”

The weirdest thing was this, though. I stopped cursing drivers about the fifth or sixth time it happened. Fifth or sixth time I scrambled from under wheels and tottered to my feet -– drenched, bruised and twitching in my own adrenalin -– I was raging at the cars themselves. The distinction between cars and drivers had ceased to matter. I’d finally seen what abomination cars and drivers jointly were. That’s when I began to think in terms of war-hammers. For self-defence. So that, when cars would come at me in future, at least I’d have the chance to strike back one blow. To do some –- however slight -– damage in return.

Yeah. Sounds crazy. It’s true, though. There’s no separating drivers from cars. Identity alters utterly behind the wheel. Physically -– not just culturally and psychologically. Imagine getting behind the wheel, starting the engine -– and someone leaning on the car. One feels the outrage of it physically. Right? When we’re behind the wheel we transform, instantly, into our motor vehicular selves. Our bodies extend in space, taper in time and escalate in mass. Once in accelerating motion, our every reaction and basic reflex adjusts appropriate to motor vehicular space-time mass. No video game. No fantasy. It’s immediate and real as anything gets. Bodies bucketed, rocking and rocketing in that balance, we thread trajectories and flinch from obstacles as if our hairs became triggers. We know the reality of it down to the most instinctive reflex and reflexive instinct. And once velocity accelerates sufficiently, our choices become less debatable and more hard wired than blinking.

It is an outrage and physical violation of personal space if anyone leans on the car. How mistaken they are relating to the car as if it were some inanimate object. And how they leap to realizing their error when we gun engines. Why not gun engines? No harm. Natural as breathing greenhouse gasses.

Meaning, of course, that there’s nothing natural about it. Never mind loose talking about cyborgs and singularities. Talk that loose largely confuses issues. Thing is, ever since that damn club of Moon-Watcher’s, we can scarcely avoid McLuhan-type metaphors about our tools extending our natural bodies. Metaphors which make our tools seem no more than natural extensions. As if our tools were just natural. Fair enough. So long as our tools remain inert like Moon-Watcher’s club used to be –- before it turned into a space-station. So long as our tools don’t get powered independently of our bodies. So long as our tools remain firmly in hand. But when our tools cease being inert? When our tools get independently powered? When operating manuals replace any and all our best intentions? That’s our tools getting totally out of hand.

This is not to say our tools are about to declare independence. Or stack all our switches against us and flick us off. It’s not to say family cars are apt to going intercontinentally ballistic soon as we unhand steering wheels. So long as our tools depend on our hands and eyes to guide them, such issues remain futuristic. Our tools aren’t ready to take us in hand or wipe us out of hand quite yet. But we’d better watch out. We'd better take care. Futuristic days are coming. Our independently powered tools started getting out of hand the moment they got independently powered. And even while continuing abiding our telling them where to go –- they take exponentially increasing charge when it comes to getting there.

By underscoring the vital intimacy between our selves and our tools, those McLuhan-type metaphors cut both ways. Hand powered tools become naturalized –- as extensions of our natural bodies. But independently powered -– never mind networked –- tools attach us no less intimately. And, however intimately extending our bodies, independently powered tools don’t get naturalized. Precisely the contrary. Independently powered tools de-nature our bodies and our selves. They pervert and transform all things natural in and around us. Because while dragged in the manic wake of independently powered tools, accelerating to ever sorrier dread ends, we become irretrievably unnatural. Monstrosities.

Nobody suggests shutting down all our independently powered tools at once. Nobody sane, anyhow. But getting dragged into any future defined by traffic patterns entails collective and ecological catastrophe. It is vital that our choices relating to our tools become more thoughtful –- and far less reflexive. We simply must stop to think and to choose. Each time. Before getting behind the wheel. Before rushing to our car trafficking. Because, more than anything else yet, taking car trafficking reflexively for granted has turned us into the roadkill civilization.

If only we’d stop pretending there aren’t alternatives. Our alternatives aren’t just myriad -– many are absolutely brilliant. For instance. Unlike bike lanes –- which by impracticality only perpetuate and entrench the myth that only motor vehicular traffic is realistically viable grownup transportation –- one particularly brilliant alternative is named velo-city. In the vision of engineer Joseph Adler and architect Chris Hardwicke, elevated bike tunnels transform every aspect of Toronto’s transportation culture –- for the incomparably better. In terms of obvious viability –- is it ever. On any cost-benefit analysis. For mere fractions what the subway extension to York University alone will cost, Toronto could get spanned entirely as Hardwicke proposes. And unlike TTC faring, it would fast turn profits –- at relative pittance compared to current TTC fares.

Incomparably better ways – at fractions of the cost

But viability must evolve far beyond cost-benefit analyses. Fortunately, that’s no issue. Not in this case. Seeing past merely short term profits requires no more than glancing at velo-city’s site:
velo-city is a sustainable rapid mobility system for the City of Toronto.. a high-speed, all-season, pollution-free, ultra-quiet transit system that makes people healthier… The elevated bikeways are enclosed in tubes to provide protection for all season cycling.. separated by direction of travel to create.. a natural tail-wind… velo-city increases speeds, reduces spent energy and eliminates intersections to produce total travel times that rival any other form of high speed transit… Users of velo-city understand the value of distance and its relationship to the environment because they put their own energy into their mobility… People make cities. velo-city is people powered rapid transit.
Viable. Profitable. Sustainable. Healthy. Liberating. Personally, collectively and totally ecologically responsible. And tragically unlikely to get implemented -– precisely but not only because it entails rethinking how we relate to our tools and to what remains of the natural.

Why velo-city is so unlikely to get implemented -– and what we might do to fight for it -– next installment.

[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University.]

[Photo illustration(s) by Marc Ngui, posted to the velo-city Website. Used via Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 12/28 at 11:46 AM

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