Coordinator’s comment

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 105.

Image used by kind permission of TfL
Image as described adjacent

Philosophy? Today: the car. What looks like a simple thing, a mode of transport, a tool, is in fact a machine which creates its own reality. The sheer number of cars has massively changed the reality of our cities. For those who use them every day they act like a drug which distorts reality: users of cars experience a sense of entitlement to road space and to speed. Their geography becomes a sequence of parking lots and high-speed scenery. The drug of motorisation instils a vision of our roads as a network of dangerous non-places, where speed and speed chase each other, and where human interaction only occurs when another crash claims another victim. It is changing the consciousness of its users by promoting a sense that cars are unavoidable, that life without them would be plainly impossible. Like a real hard drug, cars create dependence.

Why? How? Advertisement, road engineering, limited support for public transport, urban planning, even the Highway Code and the failure to account for the costs of car use in a comprehensive manner, all these factors work together to create a cognitive system which is addictive and distortive. It and makes us prisoners in the expensive, unsustainable and unhealthy regime of cars.

Yet there is worse to come. In spite of their many victims, we are induced to experience cars as a zone of enhanced personal safety. Crumple-zone, air bags, seat belts, ABS brakes, Electronic Stability Control, warning signals, etc promise protection from the dangers that these very cars have unleashed. This is perverse enough, but it is also poisonous. We protect ourselves with air bags, by keeping the kids indoors, by cultivating an ever firmer sense of road danger. The UK had 22,660 dead and seriously injured last year. The scandal of these figures seems to disappear from public consciousness, but when you mention the word bicycle, suddenly a wave of fear and hysteria will engulf you. The more the car is presented as a safe device, the more anxiety the idea of using the road on two wheels provokes.

This distorted and hysterical sense of danger is the most striking effect of the mind-bending power of cars. Plato speaks of those who live in a cave and mistake shadows for reality. Our own exposure to 50 years of Ford, Audi and BMW has implanted such a cave in our heads, in which cars become a necessity of life and roads become spaces of death. In our delusion, we magnify the risk of being eaten by a wild beast on our roads, and underestimate the loss of happy, healthy, low-impact living which more active transport can offer.

The need for choices other than the car is overwhelming, but so far the mental grip cars exercise on our minds seems unbroken. Transport for London understood the depth of this cognitive calamity when they commissioned an image of a bike which spells out the word freedom. Where cars rule through fear and anxiety, a positive and visionary term like freedom may be able to break the spell.

It was one of the benefits of the discussion surrounding the helmet motion adopted at our AGM that it invited the public to consider that the anxieties surrounding bicycles cannot be resolved by helmets and yet more helmets. We need a larger rethinking of road space, how to offer equitable and comfortable infrastructure to all users, and a glimpse outside the Platonic cave of car mentality where our communities and our very minds are no longer hostages of motorisation.

Michael Cahn, Co-ordinator