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The Wrong Way Down A One Way Street

There’s enforced reading here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke or as Cityslikr likes to call it, Book Club. He gives out titles to be read and demands reports be written. No national bestsellers are these, no Oprah Picks. Usually the readings consist of dry takes on policy issues of the day like urban studies, our banking system, the nature of democratic dissent.

It is of my humble opinion that he doesn’t read any of the books himself but farms them out to his colleagues for 800-1000 word abstracts. Why would you comply, you may ask. At least, without proper recompense or accreditation. Well, the fun comes when you completely misrepresent the book you’ve just read and watch him pontificate wildly off the mark on it. Remember that the next time he starts on about credit default swaps or the high cost of free parking. That’s some of my finest work.

Sometimes, however, you will get steered in the right direction and so it was with Chris Turner’s The Leap. So good, in fact, I think Cityslikr actually read it. High praise indeed.

The Leap is both exhilarating and depressing, often times simultaneously which is no small feat. Exhilarating because positive change is so tantalizingly close. You can see it happening, in different places throughout the world, at various levels whether it’s making the move to alternative renewable energy sources in Germany or reviving once moribund cities like Melbourne, Australia. The depressing aspect comes from the fact that so many of us simply don’t get it, opting instead for an unsustainable, unpleasant status quo. Stay the course as they now say in Toronto 2011.

Given the events here with the death of another cyclist on Monday, one passage from The Leap sprang immediately to mind. It’s as follows and I beg the indulgence of those who have read the book already. It and/or Tom Vanberbilt’s Traffic.

“When journalist Tom Vanderbilt embarked on a comprehensive tour of the world of traffic, he peeled back the coherent veneer to uncover a place that was not just arbitrary in its logic but literally insane. His findings, compiled in his 2008 book Traffic, reveal the operation of a motor vehicle as ‘the most complex everyday thing we do.’ The act itself requires the use of a vast subset of 1,500 distinct skills, many of them so far away from our basic instincts and inborn, time-tested survival skills that, as Vanderbilt puts it, ‘In traffic, we struggle to stay human.’ Because we’re mostly moving too fast and at too great a distance from each other to permit eye contact, all of our adaptive social cues are stripped away. It’s easily the most dangerous thing any of us does with any regularity. And on average, Americans spend more time in this state – overwhelmed, dehumanized, engaged in a bewildering and potentially deadly ritual – than they do having sex or eating meals with their families.”

Not to indulge in enflamed, over-the-top hyperbole but I think if we’re looking around for a culprit for the serious democratic deficit currently facing us, the toxic public discourse that now passes for political debate, the unbridgeable left-right schism, we can stop searching right now. It’s all about car ownership.

How can it not be? According to Vanderbilt, drivers spend an inordinate amount of their time ‘overwhelmed, dehumanized, engaged in a bewildering and potentially deadly ritual’, struggling ‘to stay human’. What does that sound like to you? Being at war. For an hour or so every day, over 70% of Torontonians are in their cars, getting back and forth to work, struggling to stay human. And we expect them to simply slough it off, change into their civilian duds and demilitarize into rational, reasonable, engaged members of society?

We’re not talking post traumatic stress disorder here. This is ongoing, day-to-day traumatic stress disorder. Angry, wounded souls driving killing machines through city streets at 60 km/h.

How else to explain the barrage of defensive comments in the newspapers’ comments section to the story of the death of cyclist Jenna Morrison?

I feel very sorry for this woman and her family. But we have to admit that cycling is not a way of transportation in a big city like Toronto. We are not in Saigon for Christ sake. Want to cycle? Go to park. Cars and bicycles on busy streets are deadly mixture and cyclists are victims. Road for cars! Pavement for pedestrians! Bicycles for suburbs and parks! And the sooner we understand this the less tragedies we’ll have.
P.S. Especially when most of cyclists don’t give a damn about road rules, traffic lights, stop signs, etc.

That’s sociopathic in its lack of compassion or empathy. What kind of person would fire that sentiment off into the public realm? One devoid of much humanity, I’m afraid. A soldier in the misnamed War on the Car.

It also reveals an unwavering belief in the primacy of cars on our streets. ‘Road for cars’! Sound familiar? So obvious and set in stone that it absolves them of any blame for the carnage they inflect while going about their business.

If my nautical knowledge is sound, out on the high seas it is the responsibility of the vessel operating under the most power that must cede the right of way to one that is less able to change course or speed. Thus, motor boats give way to sail boats, sail boats to kayaks. On our roads, the opposite is true. Vehicles most able to inflict damage bear none of that burden. If a cyclist or pedestrian gets mowed down, the reaction tends toward, well, they shouldn’tve been out there, they should’ve been more aware.

To our detriment, we continue to design and build cities around this anti-social mode of transport and somehow expect a public spirited, collective outcome. Cars and community are antithetical modes of thinking. They can only exist in opposition to one another. We’ve tried the car way for a couple generations now. It doesn’t work. It isn’t healthy. We are all the worse for the attempt. It’s time to head in a new direction.

backseat drivingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat

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