Carlos Pardo: On Slow(er) transport?

I was thinking that, since the concept of “slow” has been around for a while, but applied to concepts such as food and “living” in general, one could think of applying it to transport policies and projects… that is, create the term “slow transport” or “slower transport”, but responsibly. Below are some notes that could generate ideas towards that direction: where the concept comes from, why and how we can apply it, and some obstacles or possible problems. I will be as brief as possible, since I could write for ages about this. My main concern would be to develop a (or yet another) way of justifying the promotion and development of sustainable transport. And my main worry is that we could just generate a new empty term related to urban transport (we have enough already).

Unicycles

In short, the message (which is implicit in many other discussions related to urban transport, urban planning and land use planning) is that greater speeds can generate greater distances traveled and consequently living farther from work or study, and then a snowball effect into greater sprawl (this part is not so new). What may be a more interesting angle is that this all represents greater energy use, greater emissions and less quality of life. Even more interesting would be to find speed-related solutions.

What is “slow”

Slow is a concept from the 1980s that was applied to food when an Italian movement rejected the idea of bringing McDonalds to Italian cities (as a sign of protest, they sat at McDonalds entrances eating pasta). This then turned into a movement that now encompasses more than food and includes “Città Slow” (Slow cities) and the broader concept of “slow living”. The concept of slow is also related to voluntary simplicity and other simplicity- related movements. The closest that Slow has come to transport is in Città Slow, but they have not really worked on the topic farther than saying “cars are the enemy” and other vague statements.

Why:

If we follow a rather simplistic approach of relativity (and some classical physics), we could say the following:

-          Time is (or could be) in a 4th dimension, or at least it varies within a fourth dimension, different from the 3 spatial dimensions we normally use. Of course, this dimension has been only relevant at speeds close to that of light.

-          Distance traveled in time is determined by speed: directly related to the classic formula which states that speed is distance over time (v = d/t).

-          Time is determined by speed: especially near light speed, time is variable to the point that it reaches zero variation at the speed of light (the Twin Paradox shows this clearly).

In more practical terms, we cannot expect to solve issues of transport, distances traveled, travel times and other transport- related issues if we do not take into account speed more explicitly (not just in road safety).

And to make it all more complex, we have followed a process of “speed desensitization”: in the 19th century, trains that went at 20 km/h were “excessively fast” and people were afraid of riding bicycles because they would suffer from “bicycle face” (your face would suffer a deformation due to the high speeds of the vehicle). People did not like the train ride because they didn’t feel they could perceive the journey and its surroundings. Today, speed limits of 30 km/h are difficult (or impossible) to enforce and bicycles and choo-choo trains are the slowest vehicles one can think of. Thus, we don’t perceive the impressive acceleration of our daily lives. This idea of speed as beauty was also perfectly exemplified by Marinetti in his Futurist Manifesto of 1909.

To reiterate the idea from the beginning: In transport and land use, greater speeds  generate greater distances traveled, which in turn can generate the tendency, idea (or action) of living farther from work, study and everything else. This normally has produced sprawl as a consequence, and thus greater energy use and increased emissions. Most of this is common to many, but the issue of speed as a factor in this is normally neglected or its importance underscored.

In conclusion, we need to go slower than today. It doesn’t mean we have to ban highways tomorrow or that we have to stop riding the TGV, it means that we have to be aware of the consequences of our current speed in daily life, and plan for solutions. It’s not about going slow, really, but about travelling at an appropriate speed in order to see details in our daily lives.

The irony...

How to implement it:

Implementation of the concept would be based on the following (nothing really new):

-          Planning for lower speeds, lower speed limits (The EU has taken a major step forward in this regard in October 2011);

-          Enforcement of speed limits

-          Promoting use of bicycles and walking for relatively short trips (8 kms for bicycles, 3 kms for walking)

-          Production of slower cars (I laugh when I write this, since the current “maximum speed” agreement on some sports automobile brands is around 280 km/h)

-          Production of slower (and 4-stroke) motorcycles (I laugh again, but I like Vespas)… or maybe e-bikes with limited speeds from the factory;

-          Development of land policies that support these ideas in terms of mixed uses and instruments that reduce gentrification.

Most of these measures are not really innovative, but if this were broadly implemented, we could see as a Result: lower speeds = reduced distances travelled = living closer to work, study, etc =more appropriate densities = reduced energy use = reduced emissions… increased quality of life. Ok, there doesn’t have to be a direct consequence but this may be a good first step forward.

Guangzhou - yay

Problems:

The problems of applying this concept would be the following:

-          Implementation: as happens with all sustainable transport measures, it can’t be implemented so easily due to resistance from most (if not all) of the people in charge of transport policies in cities – and in this case, many citizens and speed-nuts;

-          Misunderstanding: Many may (or will) misunderstand the concept and think this is about staying still or promoting congestion (since that could also be seen as a sort of “slower speed” measure). Extremes will never be useful. Again, the issue is appropriate speeds more than just going slow.

-          Being Naïve: The other extreme, where people would think we have to ban everything that goes more than 30 km/h and confiscate cars. This won’t be useful either;

-          Mass Transit: Does this mean mass transit (Subways, BRTs, etc) shouldn’t be promoted? I wouldn’t say so, even if BRT means “Bus Rapid Transit”. A nice example is Bogotá’s Environmental Axis (Eje Ambiental), where buses cannot go faster than 13 km/h due to the frequent interactions with pedestrians along that transit mall.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slowth

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About the author:

Carlos Felipe Pardo is a psychologist interested in transport. Mainly, any strategy that reduces the dependence to car use and improves access of all population to affordable transport modes.  He has worked in urban transport issues in Asia and Latin America since 2002 in work that has involved organizational, advocacy and policy-related activities. He is Director of Slow Research, served as Country Director for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) in Colombia and previously worked with a foundation in Bogotá as mobility coordinator and coordinated the GTZ Sustainable Urban Transport Project in Asia and Latin America. He can be reached at carlosfpardo @ gmail.com

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6 thoughts on “Carlos Pardo: On Slow(er) transport?

  1. Interesting concept, which fits in well the requirements for reversing growth.
    But I don’t think enforcement (as speed limit for instance) can be effective in achieving those goals without a real change of societey model first. To be specific: life is speed, too speed, and individuals are not happy, generally poor and tired, pressure is high to get a job, to arrive on time, to work late and more and more.
    Therefore: planning (physical planning for cycling but also BRT – I am afraid to cyle, for instance) which makes those modes the quickest (because having the car means then a problem) although they’re actually not speed + economical dialogue to change the pressure on small businesses and individuals, is in my sense the combination of a a new model, without imposing a single dogme.
    I like your work and aml happy to try and test demonstrations

    Reply
  2. Teach children – and re-educate transport and urban planning students – that the street is first and foremost a place for life between buildings (to paraphrase Mr Gehl). A pure street is one where a baby can crawl from facade to facade at a speed of its choosing, and safely (because a parent or someone else is watching, or watching out as he or she crosses the same path.). Everything starts from there, and anything else is a slight or huge compromise.

    Reply
  3. Nice article. I would like to add something.
    Many of the solutions you mention are in the realm of planning and technology. I fully agree that in this realm a change can still be made.

    But there is something else. For many people speed (particularly by car or also bicycle) is an outer manifestation of a state of mind. People feel rushed, stressed and have their minds running. Speeding is than a logical result of that inner restlessness.

    So what is the solution here. In my personal experience a calmer mind, for instance obtained by meditation, leads to less ‘inner speed’ and hence less speeding. Before I meditated I was a pretty stressed out individual myself. As a cyclist (I never owned a car), I had difficulties even waiting for a red light. Now it is a pleasant rest, observing the surroundings and enjoying the here and now.

    Of course landscape and urban design can be of support here. A beautiful, aesthetic environment more easily leads to a more meditative state of mind in which observing what is there (in terms of beauty and surrounding) becomes more important than moving fast. Then travel becomes a lovely experience. No longer a waste of time.

    But as long as travel is considered a waste of time and travelers have their minds spinning thinking ahead of their next appointment or thing to do, speed will be there.
    As some wise people have said: Life is a journey, not a destination.
    Why not see than that that journey can be life itself. No need to shorten it by speeding.

    Reply
  4. I would like to add that slow speed travel is applicable in practically all down town “exchanges” – places where people meet, shop have leisure. It has already happened, Look at how urban planners calm traffic or slow traffic in many down town center in European cities. It’s like saying slow down in this area. people are important. Carlos’s concept is akin to promoting safety and people first. It is a good idea and urban planners in their physical planning should continue to design or improve in their urban planning concept and design to achieve acceptable physical plan that put people first and speed second.

    In a small town in Sarawak, east Malaysia, we are working with the local council to promote safety in street through better design and a full fledged NMT routes. The idea is in the preliminary stage; I do not know how the people in this community will react seemingly everyone thinks driving personal vehicle is the norm. But as the advisor to the council, I think it is important totake the first step; slow down traffic; get involve in projects that benefits low income community by encouraging them to look for alternative transport so that a quality of life can be experienced.

    Reply
  5. I think you are onto something, and I have been thinking along similar lines following some historical research into the development of roads. Sachs (in his 1984 book “For the love of the automobile”) writes in detail of Hitler’s plan for “…colossal traffic arteries that extend through the entire country, ….allowing traffic to proceed at speeds no one every dared hope for….as flawless and powerful as the Nationalist Socialist revolution itself…”

    But at the end of his book, Sachs concludes that the automobile promised not only freedom and speed but also the ability to overcome existential angst of slowness and unmet gratification. The transport revolution was a “technological offensive against the transient nature of life.”

    Speed is inextricably linked to power – of an individual driver; of a government able to address the desires of society…but also to our deepest fears and anxieties about life and death.

    Comments?!

    Reply

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