Getting Somewhere Slowly

Getting Somewhere Slowly

Mar 02, 2014

25 years ago we put on a show at the Municipal Art Society in NYC called “Going Nowhere Fast”. It covered a full range of transportation modalities and identified the problems and possibilities inherent in them, from Rail Freight to Solar Cars. It was a largely dismal survey of the state of our services, some history and some opining as to the future. During the months that it was up there, we held panels and attracted some attention to the issue, but an honest assessment of the results would conclude that it wasn’t going to make much of a difference. I’m glad we did it but its title was far more prescient than I would have wished. The same show could go up again, (and I still have all of the original 6′ tall panels,) it would be very hard to find anything that was not as true today as it was then.

The direction that we are headed has been established for at least the 75 years, since the GM FUTURAMA dominated the 1939 NY World’s Fair. Now better known as the title of a freaky but funny TV cartoon show about robots and intelligent crustaceons, this pre-war giant, 3D, moving panorama, was a full-immersion spectacle. It was calculated to sell the maximum number of cars, which, ironically, at that moment were becoming impossible to buy, since every plant was soon fully engaged in war materiel production. The picture that is painted of the world to be, was not far off in many respects too, even if the automated roadway that it promised for 1960, is only now coming into focus. The suburbs, stretching out forever, the little houses and their little yards, once the nasty war was out of the way, became the shape of our suburban universe, from Long Island to Catalina Island.

At the same moment, the MAS exhibit was being prepared, what the NY Times’ energy maven, Matthew Wald, accompanying us, referred to us as a “ragtag” crew of vehicle designers and builders, was making its way slowly from Washington DC to NYC. This caravan, that we labeled LightWheels, over a week’s time, stayed in college dorms and other available venues and made its way across the landscape in short bursts, setting up, in each location, for a local show and tell, and press event. Since we had the beautiful Stanford University Solar Racer as our glamorous centerpiece we attracted positive attention and lots of stories about the technologies that could change the direction of our transportation systems and put us on a more sustainable path. Electric bikes and handmade Solar vehicles converted electric cars and utility vehicles all demonstrated the possibility of non-highway-centered, or petroleum-fueled and human-scale transportation options. We even gave people a chance to try them out.

It was certainly not as impressive as the 10-day Tour de Sol events taking place in Switzerland throughout the 80’s, with hundreds of vehicles and thousands of spectators. We probably did give some impetus to those who decided to try to reproduce the European event here, the Northeast Solar Energy Association. They spent years doing an Americanized version of the Swiss event, found some corporate sponsorship, mostly from car companies, and eventually banned human-powered vehicles entirely, thus forsaking the central rationale of the original event. Our demonstrations in DC were difficult to arrange and greeted with considerable indifference but we persevered nevertheless. In the days before Lithium-Ion batteries, the burden of dragging so much lead around in order to advance the technology of personal transportation was really too much to bear, and hard to justify, and electric vehicle acceptance stalled for decades partly over this lack. There were those like Jim Warden of MIT, who worked around these limitations in the 80s and bragged of vehicles with hundreds of miles of range and other remarkable accomplishments, but even hard information about advances was so badly covered, that it made little difference. Bravo Bill Moore.

One of those who we expected to be supportive of us in DC, for all of its irony, was Jay Rockefeller, Senator from West Virginia, scion of the great Rockefeller dynasty. When I called his office I expected a rousing welcome and invitation to visit, along with the sponsorship of a reception on the steps of the Capitol. Instead, I was given a short lesson in economics and a friendly rebuff. It was explained to me that Mr. Rockefeller was, indeed, a strong proponent of electric cars. The reason for this was his understanding that these nice, big, heavy cars would consume a large quantity of electricity which would end up being generated by the burning of coal, which was mined in his state and he was strongly in favor of this. But, since I had explained to her that we had a double purpose, to promote the virtues of electric-powered mobility and the benefits to be garnered by the scaling down of our needs, to emphasize the virtues of human-scale applications of this technology in electric bikes and other minimal configurations, her interest disappeared. She was, at least, honest enough to explain to me that this was not going to require the massive consumption of coal, which was the primary interest of the Senator, and therefore he would not be interested in being helpful to us.

There is a similar disinterest in this subject evidenced by the major media. There are no bike ads or electric-vehicle commercials on TV. The biggest individual advertisers may be mobile phone companies, but overall, the Automobile industry is the biggest factor in all paid media. The bicycle industry has always suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to heavy-duty promotion. The only exception to this in modern times is the popularity which the Tour de France had occupied, since an American became the biggest winner in the race in history. TV coverage improved and the beautiful French countryside is very photogenic, the non-stop picnic by the side of the road pleasant-looking and engaging. Of course we now know that this was not the pure athletic spectacle that we had been led to believe it was, but rather a wild, cross-country drug-fest. Cycling, an activity considered so healthy that it decorates an amazing percentage of prescription drug ads, is a victim of the same over the top, insanely competitive and out-of-proportion tendencies, rampant in every other aspect of our lives.

As transportation, cycling is in its infancy. Denmark may be the leader of the pack, but once upon a time it was Vietnam that was reknowned for the ubiquity of its bicycles. There is no doubt that this was a feature of a society with meager access to resources, a poor country where the population could not afford anything but a bicycle to get around on. It can be romanticized as a portrayal of a place with unusual balance in its habits, or one which is close to the ground and essential, rather than caught up in Western materialism. Regardless, increased prosperity has brought with it a flood of scooters and motorbikes with plenty of automobiles thrown in for good measure. Bikes are for those with no choice.

Mechanization is surely one element of the process which enables populations to begin to enjoy the comforts and pleasures that come with a consumer society. It is not a sign of cultural decline when peasants can educate their children, get their goods to market and do less back-breaking work, although factory environments can surely be life-deadening. It is, nevertheless, the slippery slope that we call “advanced” and “developed”. Those of meager means, the vast majority of all of those who are alive now, here and around the world, are constantly being reminded of the wonderfulness of all of the goods that will be their ticket to a better way of life.

Whether it is a pack of cigarettes or a new TV, the game is on, the girls in the ads are very pretty, and we will be judged by our success at climbing this ladder into status and prosperity. It is a seduction, plain and simple and more sleaze, tease and wheeze than the promised Stairway to Heaven, but at least it suggests that there is a way forward and maybe even a way out. Climbing over the bodies of your neighbors to gain elevation has its hazards though, and unless dizziness is your goal, whatever you do, don’t look back and don’t look down.