Saturday, 2 June 2018

"People Don't Like Traffic Jams"

"What we need," he said, "is for the motorway to be some sort of travelator. That way, even when there's traffic, at least you're moving."

"But what about merging? And offramps?" said his friend. "There'd be crashes."


The truth is that we already have such a system. Except it doesn't involve cars at all. Cars just aren't efficient.

Truth be told it doesn't actually involve travellators either (geeze, how do you spell that?).

The only way the system that the two schoolboys vaguely quoted above entertained could work is if the entire network worked this way. And, broadly speaking, this is what trains do.

Now I use this conversation as an introduction to my brief treatment today for a simple reason: trains are efficient. If you want to get buckets of people somewhere specific quickly, the best way to do that is by train. This has never not been true. Nothing else even comes close.

Okay, actually a few things do come close. Except, well, they're basically trains themselves. Or, rather, they are trains... just not heavy rail.

The thing is, back in the day, that trains used to be more than just the efficient way of doing things. They used to be the absolutely fastest way of doing it.

It used to be that if you turned up at the station, missed the train and the next one wasn't until the following day, waiting the whole rest of the day was the fastest way of getting where you were going... for even fairly short distances. Basically, anywhere you couldn't walk to. Give or take.

Trains weren't about speed, though. It was freedom, liberation and modernity.

Which is how cars are sold these days.


It's true... cars can go places trains can't. Trains are always going to need rails... it is what makes them work (and by God do they work).

You're never going to be able to have an offroad holiday with a train or even drive out way beyond where anyone wants to go. No-one's ever going to build a railway out that far. The best you're going to get is, say, a train station out to some lake at the foot of a mountain. It'd be a great holiday spot: but the whole point is that everyone would go there... and, well, it is called Lonely Planet, isn't it?

Doesn't say much for cars if their selling point is holiday-making, right?

Oh, but Harry, they don't just sell cars like that, do they?

Well, no. But have you ever stopped to think about just how many car ads rely on messages from outside everyday life? It's a lot. Probably most of them. A lot of the rest don't even try and make you think about how you use the car, it's all about the technology... which is still what the car could do, not what it will do.

People don't like traffic jams.

As a cultural moment I think cars are done.

I look at the world these days and everything seems to be moving on from the car itself. Sure, the second biggest movie franchises in the world right now is about driving fast cars, but it's not. Wait, what? Yeah, the Fastchise actually demonstrates my point perfectly. Trust me... I've seen all of them.

In the first Fast and Furious movie, Dom tries to explain who he is. He lives life a quarter mile at a time. In the third film, the reason he comes to Tokyo is for a race. Both these concepts are out the window by... certainly the fifth and probably the fourth film (the transitional one). By the time Dom actually gets to Tokyo in the seventh film (catching up the parallel events of Tokyo Drift) he's got an entirely new motive and raison d'etre.

Don't get me wrong, if you like fast cars the Fastchise is probably going to be your kind of movie. Even in film 7, probably the most family-centric one, it's got a line about a car kept in a penthouse that goes, "Nothing's sadder than keeping a beast locked in a cage." It doesn't stay in its cage. Let me tell you that. But the point is that the context of the Fastchise has completely changed around this line. It was never just the cars, sure, but the way the movies used to try and connect the audience with the characters was. Not. Any. More.

Unconvinced? How about the hysterics about self-driving cars? People just can't wait until they're a thing. People are so hyped they've convinced themselves Elon Musk is the second coming of Christ... something else people are notoriously hysterical about.

The thing with self-driving cars is... well, look at what we were just talking about. The whole cultural moment of cars is that you are the driver, that you are in control and that you are free. You don't sell cars with traffic jams and it's even rare to sell them with avoiding traffic jams (even ads about driving in cities are about parkour but with cars; well, I'm sure such an ad exists but this Top Gear segment will have to do). You do, however, sell self-driving cars with traffic jams. It might even be their raison d'etre.

The entire point of self-driving cars is to be everything we spent years telling people cars weren't. They take the man out of the machine, and put the machine back in.

Look, cars aren't going to go anywhere. Despite Elon "Look at me I'm a Genius" Musk's proclamations, self-driving cars are a long way away. They can drive, sure, but only in very specific conditions... such as those featured in... car ads. Which, as I've mentioned, basically ignore real human usage of cars. Even a total flip on societal perceptions won't kill cars. Hate-driving will become a thing. And, let's be honest here, trains survived the car age. Not everywhere, to be sure, but they lived. And not just as luxuries.

What's probably more concerning is that motorway mania isn't likely to die with the car. It takes a long time for the human brain to catch up with the reality of its existence. We keep, for instance, asking ourselves about academic arms races or a tertiary education bubble, but what if we're living in an age which assumes a university education? Perhaps Americans too, now, look at Plankton's "college education" lines with the same puzzlement I used to (college is high school in NZ), "But isn't everyone?"

With motorways we have decades of planning, educational and institutional cultures to move beyond. Decades of contracts and business models. It's why we have roads of National Significance in NZ that no-one actually drives on. Roads where you can actually experience what life in a car ad is like.

The car is done. It's time is over. Trains are once more ascendant. Not because they mean anything, but because they work. Although, to be fair, I would say that societal concerns are more Victorian than they've been in a long time. Not in the sense of specific values (which are clearly very different) but in the sense that the markers of having made it now look a lot more like Victorian expectations. No longer do you have gadgets that help you do something, you have technology that does it for you.

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