Man and car: Who is driving whom this morning?

What is it about what the English call a motor car that, when an otherwise perfectly decent human enters it and slams the door shut, somehow there is a total transformation of that person gripping the stirring wheel into something, into someone who is just a little bit less decent and a little bit less human. A consistent theme of World Streets is that over the last hundred years or so our cars have not only transported us but they have also in the process also transformed us.  Oops. And in the process they have fatally (I chose my word) altered the dimensions of the space in which we live our daily lives, and in the same process made this thing that was supposed simply to transport us from A to B at our leisure, into a defining part of our daily lives — and indeed in some ways part of ourselves. A cruel critic might say, half Faust and half Frankenstein.

Were only that the end of the story.  But beyond this, there is something about that combination of speed, enclosure, solitude, often impatience  and with all of that a certain dose of indifference on the part of the “driver” that turns this semi-controlled hurtling mass of metal and glass into a murderous instrument. That seems to be part of the human comedy, but before we get too comfortable smirking in our anti-car suits, if we think about it we can also see certain aspects of this when it comes to the attitude of many cyclists toward anything that might get in their way. The young environmentalist and transportation professional Theodore M. Brown reports his thinking on this, is it anomalous?, conduct in the following short piece.  Let’s hae a look at what Theodore has to say on the subject.

Are We Part of our Cars and Bikes?

- Theodore M. Brown, Brooklyn New York

Driving is a dangerous endeavor – in fact for most people who drive to work every day it’s probably the most dangerous aspect of their lives. In the immediate, operating a motor vehicle is deadly because of physics and metallurgy: steel boxes hitting each other at 45 MPH create several spheres of danger outside of pure impact. It’s also dangerous because – and if Immanuel Kant drove a Chevy he would have probably coined the term – of a mind-machine separation. Between ignition and parking most people become lesser animals: differentiating between car and driver becomes cognitively impossible, like an elephant considering a jeep and its riders one strange beast.

Like some sort of quotidian Japanese kid’s show/videogame, a car becomes a Zord/Xenogear/Voltron, a mirror of their owner’s personalities and quirks. Anxious people make for anxious drivers, aggression begets aggression, and – this is generally the most disheartening on the highway – short fuses make for quick road rage triggers. The mind merge that happens when we get into a car even affects how we interact with other people on the road: pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles.

This, of course, isn’t good for most people as a car will typically win a joust with any number of other machinery or human. The danger to a pedestrian is obvious and well-documented, if a car hits you at anything more than say, the speed of a 7-year old’s fastball, you’ll be lucky to survive. There is also a lumpy multiplier effect here. Traffic, urban and suburban, slows cars from lethal to bruising speeds but it also introduces several other obstacles that aren’t present in ideal driving situations such as obstruction and frustration (perhaps obfuscation?) which, in tandem, can create scenarios where fleshy thuds are just collateral damage.

But we’ve all seen Red Asphalt and understand the dangers of both sides of the car-pedestrian calculus. Bikes are slightly different. They are a machine in the most classic sense: a crank, a seat, and a handlebar. Their masters think they merit their own dedicated track of travel (though we are seeing a more pronounced schism between pro and anti-lane constituents in recent months) and are legally obligated to occupy the same plane as their overgrown and combustible cousins.

Cycles are also vulnerable people movers in that when hit by a car (as once happened to me) their bodies twist and mangle rather than dent, and their operators are more likely to suffer head trauma than a bad case of whiplash. Their administrative limbo is almost Kurdish – cyclists are not wanted by (most) pedestrians on the sidewalks or (most) drivers on the streets. It seems as though corridors of travel are distinctly bicameral and any attempt to add a category overloads the Platonic idea of a street.

Their purgatory is starting to fade bit-by-bit though and a few government officials are attempting to push future policies towards vehicles with a lower metal-to-human ratio. The forward-looking policy is not so much equating as it is separating. Many areas in New York and Portland have dedicated, bordered bike paths that fabricated a third way. Bikes and their advocates have successfully espoused what they considered frustratingly obvious: that they are not skinny cars nor swift people, but a bleeding hybrid.

So why the philosophical divide between man and machine? Cyclists are of course more separate from their vehicles than drivers are but it seems like many drivers who don’t sympathize with self-propulsion devices treat them as if they are particularly annoying car owners, going too slow or swerving out of their lanes or turning without warning. It’s startling to consider that as reality, especially as a novice cyclist who goes without a fixie or coordinated spandex outfits, because the bone chilling screech-and-crash is tangible rather than just audible.

When we step – or in the case of the Escalades-and-the-housewives where I live, leap – into cars we tend to check separation at the door. Our mobiles selves become our only selves and all our terrible humanity gets equipped with a 2,000 pound steel ram (or Ram). The odd, modern quirk of this, of course, is that we’ve dedicated our main veins of travel to something rather chimeric: the modern automobile. The catholic elimination of cars of city and suburban streets is, of course, a preposterous idea that would probably cripple local economies without a completely novel approach to delivery systems, but the alteration of the prevailing dynamic and vernacular is a certain possibility.

Bikes and cyclists, for their part, deserve more room than the narrow canals on main thoroughfares. Infrastructure begets demand and reversing the prioritization could bring bikes into a better tandem relationship with their behemoth partners on the roadways. Of course this presumes a burgeoning army of cyclists flooding the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago – unfortunately that’s just not the case. But making it more difficult to drive – which is, essentially, what progressive planners are doing – does make that scenario more likely and that may just go a long way towards bringing humanity back to the roads.

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Theodore Brown is a writer and transportation consultant living in Brooklyn after five years in Boston. He has worked for the MBTA, MassDOT, and USDOT/RITA. Results of his research and reporting have been published on Next American City, This Big City, and other media outlets as well as the founding editor of Radials Blog and Unknown Concrete. Theodore graduated from Boston University in 2010 with a degree in Environmental Policy specializing in transportation studies and has spent time living in Mexico, Thailand, Singapore, and Scotland. Theodore now lives in Brooklyn after five years in Boston. Follow Theodore on Twitter, or get in touch via email.

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3 thoughts on “Man and car: Who is driving whom this morning?

  1. Some time ago (1990s), I was cycling to work, it’s a glorious, but dewy and sunny Autumnal morning with crystal-clear air and I’m wearing a fluorescent helmet, BS approved fluorescent tabard with retro-reflective stripes.
    When a heavily made-up air-hostess type [clearly heading towards Heathrow airport] driving a metallic peacock-blue Ford Fiesta approaches from behind and pulls alongside me in the RIGHT TURN ONLY lane and matches me for speed, the traffic lights ahead are at red. She clearly knows I’m there otherwise she’d be in my lane, but she’s exhibiting the ‘I must overtake all cyclists, at all costs* – mind-set’. She’d adopted the “I’m ignoring you, 1000 yard stare” and without indicating starts to drift left into my lane because she’s not going right, she’s going straight ahead. Effectively she’s decided to BULLY ME and PUSH ME OUT OF THE WAY. As she gets about a foot from my handlebar, I decide that enough is enough, she needs to be reminded of my presence, so I slapped VERY HARD on the tinny roof of her car with the flat of my hand. This loud bang awakens the dangerous idiot from her zombie-like trance and she brakes hard, the lights change and I proceed. As she passes me a torrent of abusive language pours from her mouth.

    If she had been waiting in a queue, I bet she wouldn’t have taken kindly to me barging her out of the way, because I’m bigger, stronger and fitter than her and going to win in any physical confrontation. So why did she feel she had the right to behave like she did? Because I was on a bicycle and she was driving a car and essentially because she could!

    * The ‘at all costs’ part, means irrespective of any reckless endangerment of cyclists.

    Reply
    • In the mid 1990s, an idiot Irishman tried to kill me with his back-hoe digger / JCB. I was riding in Lower Feltham, to my place of work in the the former Whiteheads sheds near Hanworth [air] park. He wanted to pass, but he could only go very slightly faster than me. He started a very slow overtake and got to the stage where the big rear tractor tyre was buzzing alongside me. A car then appeared from around a bend coming the other way. Naturally, he chose the only reasonable option – to occupying the same piece of road I was cycling on, by swerving close to the high sharp-edged granite kerb. The fact that this act would have killed me was of no concern to him whatsoever.
      It was rush-hour so I easily caught-up with him in the traffic. He claimed it was all my fault. He said “It was your fault, you were going too fast” I cycled-off in disgust. Because I was so shaken-up by his casual attitude to killing me, I stopped cycling for about five years.

      Reply
  2. To diminish the interactions (problems) between cars and bicycles, we must invest more money into bike lanes that are physically separated from cars for equality to exist, because when a conflict does occur or takes place, without question the two ton armored cocoon is automatically declared the winner and the loser goes to the hospital. Cars are bullies, period and society is supposed to a stand against it and prevent it…. what I read in the media, but never happens when I ‘m riding my bike

    Reply

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