The massively inefficient external-combustion vehicles that dominate world cities can only be maintained with an array of externalized costs borne by those who benefit indirectly or not at all from the use of these machines.
The pedestrian taxpayer in downtown Toronto is daily menaced, for example, by the suburban drivers he is forced to subsidize. The poor person in Manila must breathe the exhaust of the Mercedes driver on the flyover darkening the skies above her neighborhood.
What is an exhaust pipe after all but an exuberant manifestation of the principle of externalized cost? There’s something almost admirably ejaculatory in the hauteur of the rich North Toronto driver who finds that a single exhaust pipe on her BMW burghermobile cannot begin to express the contempt she feels for her neighbors and who finds that she can hardly do with less than two, perhaps four, fat phalluses of metal piping a hymn of exhalation onto the longsuffering losers patiently waiting for the light at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton. Me, for example.
The Frito Lays truck with a chassis designed to support heavy canned goods offers little compensation (in terms of morale or money) to the pedestrian taxpayer in Toronto who knows that the entire potato-chip cargo of the truck could be hauled into the city on a strong, light semi-trailer pedaled by a single person. Better yet, the bike lane in which the truck is parked could be cultivated with root vegetables and the Frito Lays megacorp could sell its junk to someone in Peoria instead, with the additional benefit that the cyclists could move off their strip reservations.
From the towers of Babylon to the canals of old Mexico, after all, it went without saying that cities were garden cities, and the notion of a foodless urban core dependent on its periphery?a periphery now widened by jet fuel subsidies to include blood oranges from South Africa, kiwis from New Zealand, and garlic from China?is a novelty item on the world-historical calendar.
It is not my purpose here to rehearse the history of blunder, malfeasance, and outright conspiracy that is the history of the American-style automobile in its Fordist corporate conception and presence in world cityscapes of the last hundred years. Frankly, I’ve taken a pretty good crack at that in this space in the last 80,000 words. Today I want to theorize the weal itself, which is more or less the opposite of the automobile.
Weals within weals, as the good book almost says.
There are many different versions of nowtopia, but what they all have in common is the weal, wealth, welfare, wellness of all. Does the activity of a particular utopia protect the water, the food, the very life of the people in their habitat? Then its concern is with the common weal. Or does the activity refer elsewhere, to distant warlike watersheds in the Chesapeake or along the Ottawa that have nothing to do with the common weal? These should be spurned by a people who understand the urgency of protecting their own water supply and food.
Those who know me as a tireless crusader against the urban automobile (or tiresome, on some accounts) might be surprised by the ambivalence I have for bicycles. Bicycle lanes, for their part, are easy to dislike?they are so obviously reservations that spawn the worst sort of rez mentality with its groupie servility, hokie gratitude, and willingness to be content with junk real estate and other marginalia. But who could be anything but enthusiastic about the bicycle itself, the most efficient popular machine in the world, its skinny tires and slim pawprint a constant reminder of its sexy frictional coefficient?
Well, I’m partial to my own bike, it’s true. The cops cut off its lock during the recent G20 Toronto festivities, and now I leave it everywhere around the city unlocked. Its patina of rust apparently makes it theft-proof. Dependable old beast, grizzled like its owner.
But if you see the legions of grim cyclists puffing their way into the city every morning, you don’t have to be a sprocket scientist to deduce that they’re not getting a full bang for their happiness buck. I suspect that it is not only that they have to measure themselves each day against the slings and snares of injurious fortune cast by indifferent drivers in the form of splashings, airborne particulate matter, and death, but something more systemic.
Remember death, by the way? Street death, with its poignant tableaux of taxi or concrete truck or sensible Subaru in artful juxtaposition with the distraught and regretful driver, not to mention the pedestrian body itself, bound to the street like an elegant rune to the papyrus of an ancient treatise on mortality.
Is not that the very treatise whose latest chapter I here compose? If so, death’s twin is temporality, and the wheel is time. The city inhales in the morning and the cyclist is sucked into the city, into the capitalist nexus, the hub, the eye of the hurricane, and spat out at night to risk death anew.
The cyclist is different from the driver in content but not really in form. The essential form here is the wheel. If we could see the wheel as capital’s clock time we would have not just another metaphor but a practical diagram of what’s happening at the level of the real. In this sense the cyclist and the driver are not in their traditional stances of opposition but are examples of the same temporality. Both have stretched the spacetime continuum of the city beyond that of the pedestrian.
The pedestrian in the wheel-stretched city is in a very literal sense left in the dust, left to her own devices, left to what is now a long walk between nodes of interaction in the spacetime of the city. In this precise sense the villain is the wheel itself. The wheel grays out the city, makes it boring, attenuates it so that interesting people and places are far apart. To get anywhere interesting in an interesting amount of time, the walker must become a runner, and the runner then becomes a part of capital’s temporality, chugging away to find happiness. And runners do look a lot like laborers, don’t they?
The wheel?you’ll excuse the poetry?is a revolution unto itself. What goes around comes around. Same old same old.
Those interested in the many varieties of nowtopia that have as their central focus the common weal must be ever alert for ways to uninvent the wheel. Too much “environmentalist” energy is being wasted in thinking how to patch up with novelties like green cars and clever cycling schemes what is from the human perspective an unworkable temporality on an unendurable scale. Toronto sucks as a walkable place in part because cyclists didn’t resist the system enough. There are ways to walk happily in such places, but walking in stretched cities must not be dependent on external stimulation. Best to have spiritual resources and a few imaginative tricks up your sleeve for places like Toronto.
It’s dicier than you might think to use a wheel without being used by it. Wheeled societies appear to work for a time, but they can function only to the extent that they externalize the real costs to a periphery about which they can be content to remain callous (pedestrians, Chinese child laborers, etc.). The wheel is the perfect compliment to democracy, because like a vote a wheel is about being elsewhere.
Those interested in the many nowtopias of the common weal know that life is right here, right now.
It’s time to underturn the old order.
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I wrote this for the first-year students in my Mexico City course, as a way to start us thinking about the meaning of five million automobiles in one city. Some of the students found the piece a little difficult. The students are a diverse lot, culturally and intellectually. Some cultural cues were different. For example, most students consulted their chronometers by fishing a palm-sized rectangle from their pockets. Only one student had a gold circle on his wrist that resembled a pre-twenty-first-century clock. Most students did not know the meaning of the words “ejaculatory” and “phallus,” or wouldn’t fess up if they did know. On a possibly related note, one student said she’d seen me somewhere in the city this morning leaping a snowbank and shooting cars, as is my wont. Is the piece difficult? Send me examples of hard-to-parse phrases. If it’s hard, is it good hard or bad hard, hard that pulls you up or beats you down? What should be on the quiz?
DAVID Ker THOMSON is teaching a course on Mexico City. He can be reached at: email@example.com