for my sixth year studies in english, i chose as a dissertation subject 'modern visions of utopia'. aside from the required writing as a conclusion to my year's studies, there was the inevitable prior reading, titles which included lord of the rings, 1984 and, inevitably, thomas more's utopia, the latter coming as something of a revelation to a seventeen year-old. for in the pages of more's own dissertation was surely the template for perfect living?
each individual received payment for the prescribed work undertaken; unlike our capitalist society, there was no hierarchical discrimination leading to separation of the haves and the have nots. there was no unemployment as all work was for the common good and each and every individual and family was provided with accommodation, once again based on need rather than desire. if there seems to be a remarkable similarity to the principles of communism that is hardly coincidental. but of course, what thomas more failed to take into consideration was human nature.
for though his cunning plan was theoretically sound and ultimately just, as soon as human beings are added to the mix, the construct begins to fall to pieces. there will always be one or two who want to be in charge or those who consider their daily workload to be infintely greater than that of their neighbours. this is not to suggest that a capitalist society dependent on its market forces is any better, but i think you can see the point i am labouring to make.
this book entitled reinventing the automobile seems to have fallen into the same trap as beset thomas more. it's a book that is so very wrong in many ways, despite being undeniably right in many of its prognostications. from the point of view of the cyclist, its wrongness could not be more profound than in the authors' (mis)interpretation of history. if i may quote from the book's introduction:
"Horses remained a leading source of transportation power until they were supplanted, a hundred years ago, by mass produced automobiles."
at the risk of my own misinterpretation of what is meant by the word 'power', it is surely tantamount to rewriting history to suggest that there was no intermediary between the horse and the motor car? it seems that the authors have not read carlton reid's excellent 'roads were not built for cars' (in mitigation, this book was first published in 2010, the paperback version reviewed in 2015. but revisions are not always outwith the realms of possibility). it is more than likely that i am playing devil's advocate here, given that the subject of the book is the motor car and not the bicycle, but it is worth my pointing out that the bicycle receives no consideration whatsoever, even in the latter chapters concerned with 'personal mobility in an urbanizing world'.
where i think the authors are guilty of discounting human nature is in their 'one size fits all' intelligent electric vehicle. in fact the principal object on which many of their futuristic contentions rest is (perhaps not unnaturally) the mit media lab's citycar. there's no doubt that the design of this vehicle is quite impressive, allowing for a minimising of the space it takes up when parked along with a clever degree of practicality. however, i think they may have fallen into the trap of believing this to be the sole solution to the future of the automobile. any subsequent illustrations demonstrating energy use, parking, vehicle autonomy etc. are entirely based and illustrated by the citycar.
to compound this perceived failing they purport "For many urban dwellers, one automobile is too much but no automobile is too littl to meet their mobility needs. [...] (shared cars) are generally less convenient to access than privately owned automobiles. But intelligent, connected vehicles transform this picture. [...] by creating sophisticated, electronically managed mobility-on-demand systems."
the above premise completely ignores the fact that very few motor vehicles are purchased from a utilitarian point of view. if so, we'd likely all be driving fiat cinquecentos, a vehicle that can take you to the shops, school or library every bit as practically as an audi, bmw or porsche. many cars are purchased as a status symbol, even if their owners would rarely admit to the fact. that fact in no way undermines the technical validity of intelligent vehicles making use of dynamic pricing in their purchasing of electricity on the fly when connected to a sophistitated back end computer system. though this is in danger of transforming a vehicular means to an end into an end in and of itself, in point of fact, the authors are probably spot on in their prognostications.
but there will undoubtedly be a (lengthy) period of transition, where the electric cars of the future must co-exist with those of the present and of the past. the theories presented, however sound and capable of being implemented tomorrow, mostly depend on everyone driving or having immediate access to an intelligent electric vehicle.
and disappointingly, those prognostications for the supremacy of the sophisticated electric vehicle make no mention of the bicycle. in fact, in this futuristic if slightly flawed world, the motor car assumes the mantle of a simple node on a global internet of things, able to communicate with every other vehicle in proximity, theoretically eliminating traffic snarl ups and congestion. if we assume that the humble bicycle remains extraneous to this internet of things, there's every probability that cyclists will not be accounted for in the grand strategy played out on a daily urban basis.
of course, it is worth reiterating that the the book's title does not concern the bicycle at all; to have taken it into consideration in the narrative would likely have been at least partially counter productive. and these are hardly draconian imperatives that are about to be adopted by american or european governments. it is, to be blunt, a visionary edict, one that's both scary and inevitable in equal measure. taking a broad perspective, if it all comes to pass, i fear for the urban or city cyclist of the future. the combination of technology's steam roller momentum allied to a motoring lobby that has never been backward in coming forward, if we think we're marginalised on today's roads, i'm not sure it's going to get any better.
it's a book well worth reading even if, like yours truly, car ownership is total anathema. but just like the original 'utopia', i'm sure that human nature will get in the way.
sunday 30 october 2016..........................................................................................................................................................................................................