The Politics Of Driving

Last week, I wrote about my self-diagnosed case of SUV-induced driving madness. The act of transforming into another, more horrible person while operating a motorized vehicle. gentlemenjekyllTurns out, that actually might be a thing, an ailment.

In response to the post, @trapdinawrpool sent me a 1950 National Film Board short film, Gentlemen Jekyll and Driver Hyde. Seems this has been a nasty condition afflicting drivers pretty much from the get-go of the auto age. Road rage.

We also received in our comments section a couple very interesting and pertinent links. A Wikipedia page to ‘Traffic psychology’, most of it not good or healthy. Also, a Guardian article from August 2013, Bad driving: what are we thinking?

Aside from pointing out that I’m not very original or breaking new ground here, it did feed into something that’s been percolating in my noggin for a bit now, accelerated significantly during my time spent down in Los Angeles earlier this year. Is there a link between our driving and our politics? Not necessarily big P politics but the way one approaches (or doesn’t) the political process, the expectations we hold of our elected officials and the demands we make of them.

Decades of research in traffic psychology suggests that poor driving is shaped by far more than carelessness or a subset of “problem drivers”. Even the most skilled road users are subject to loss of social awareness, intuitive biases, contradictory beliefs, and limits in cognitive capacity.

Decades of research in voting psychology suggests that political beliefs are shaped by far more than carelessness or a subset of “problem voters”. drivefreeEven the most skilled voters are subject to loss of social awareness, intuitive biases, contradictory beliefs and limits in cognitive capacity.

Strategically replace a couple words and phrases, and that paragraph still makes some sense.

In Fighting Traffic, Peter D. Norton’s book on the rise of the private automobile to the top of our transportation system heap, he points out how, in the early days when car makers were fighting for legitimacy and pushing back on the public perception of drivers as a dangerous menace on city streets, personal freedom and individual rights were evoked. Driving as a noble act, the logical outcome of the scientific age of reason, everything the Founding Fathers envisioned. I drive, therefore I am.

The automotive city arose in part from an attack on the old customs of street use and an effort to let individual liberty and free markets rule there too. From American ideals of political and economic freedom, motordom fashioned the rhetorical lever it needed.

Nearly a century later and this appeal to the spirit of individualism remains strong in the selling of cars. TV ads full of open roads, running through empty country, trekking deep into the wild frontier. getofmylawn“Long live the pioneers!”

The ascendancy of car travel and commuting contributed, not in a minor way, to the spread of the suburban design of cities that we contend with today. Detached, single-family homes on large lots, single-use building codes strictly maintained, industry here, commercial there, residential over that way, fed by and dependent upon car travel. The accentuation of private space enabled, ironically, by massive public spending in road and freeway infrastructure.

Can the leap be made, though, connecting the triumph of the car, and its emphasis on individual convenience and “freedom” (I just had to put that into quotes), to the rise in political conservatism, especially of the modern conservative type? Certainly not by me, not in this post. roadrageAnd certainly not as the sole culprit, the…a-hem, a-hem…driving force behind a political movement.

It is a concept worth contemplating further, I believe. Look, at the political dynamics here in Toronto, amalgamated Toronto. Consider those areas of the city where the residents are more car dependent and underserved by public transit. Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, for example. What wards do some of the most conservative city councillors represent, your Fords, Holydays, Minnan-Wongs, Norm Kellys? Where there is access to public transit and driving isn’t a necessity? Downtown, the old legacy city, essentially. That’s where you’ll find your most ardent left wingers, your Perks, Laytons and McConnells.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Correlation versus causation? That’s a tougher nut to crack, for sure. But I do think the overlap between how we get around our city and how we view the city is an important angle to explore. asamatteroffact(It probably has been already, extensively, and I’m just behind in my reading.) When the most significant public space to you during the course of an average day is that spot where you can park your car cheaply, your politics may be vastly different than those of somebody looking for a nice quiet spot in the sunshine to have a bite to eat during their lunch hour.

curiously submitted by Cityslikr

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