Of Mice, of Men and . . . of Penang
When I first visited Penang back in late summer 2013 in response to an invitation by Think City, I had several weeks to profit from a steady diet of site visits, lectures, master classes and intense skull sessions with ten different key groups (including media, local government, transport operators, auto industry and lobby, regulators and police, gender balance, cycling and pedestrian groups, civil society, the universities, and finally “hacking sustainable mobility”). All of which, as I travelled around both the island and mainland, gave me an excellent occasion to start to get a feel for both “halves” of Penang. Not a city, not a state, but in fact an in many ways typical and varied metropolitan area.
But the more I got out and started to get a feel for the place, the more I had this strange feeling that I had seen it all before. There was that old familiar degenerative pattern, playing itself out once again. More cars, more roads, declining public transit, ever less space for safe and agreeable walking or cycling, and ever more cars and ever more roads. More roads, higher speeds, more traffic, greater distances, more accidents, more lost time, more conflict and dissatisfaction, more outlying areas locked into the car society, and more inequity. Nature, green space, trees, quiet, air quality, all and more suffering from the bulimic cycle of an unchecked, impossible to succeed policy based on “building our way out of the problem”.
“Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity”. – Lewis Mumford, 1955.
And, incredibly — after all we are well into the 21st century and we learned all these lessons by the middle seventies. Learned, that is, those who were or are capably of learning.
But where had I seen all this before? Why yes, in our little 1992 best-seller children’s book, Family Mouse Behind the Wheel. Let’s have a look at this little book and see if indeed there are parallels or lessons, twenty five long years later. Could we really learn anything useful from a family of small mice?
It all started on a day like any other, with the postrabbit at the door.
What’s this? An invitation?
Alvin is a man of action. And hello Ziggy.
Oops, no place to go. How embarrassing!
We need to do something about this.
It is so easy to cut the trees and lay the new roads.
Oh oh. Who is that and why is he in my way?
Time for the money people to really solve the problems.
But . . the more you “solve” the problem the bigger the PROBLEM gets. Even in Mouse Town.
This was not what the Mouse Family had in mind.
And we cannot undo what we have done
So our only choice is to move . . . into our car.
What is the moral of this sad story?
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Is this just an idle tale spun from someone’s pure imagination? Or does it tell a story of a place in which perhaps you have lived and where you may have seen something very much like this process of painful unfolding take hold.
What the story does not tell us is that we do have a choice. We don’t have to go down that road. Eric the Crow, in this tale pretty much on his own has to learn to get better and making his point and gradually, person by person and piece by piece knitting together his neighbors and civil society more generally in order to avoid the worst.
Let’s hope that Eric learns that no is not enough.
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About the editor:
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Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton