Sidewalk Semiotics: "Auto Mobility"

[An utterly useless sign in Saint Paul]

I was doing what I do best the other day -- surfing the internet while the earth spins around -- and I came across an entry that launched me down a long slopingly green hill of thought, rolling and spinning and gathering grassy bits of brain dirt all about my person. It got me spinning and tumbling until I knew not which way was up. My head spun as I wondered about this idea of freedom... What is it to be free? What do we think of when we think of freedom? Close your eyes, and repeat to yourself, "freedom... freedom... freedom..." Go head, and try to conjure up an image of the free-est freedom you can imagine. What do you see?

Chances are you'll be seeing a car commercial. For half a century now, every third ad on the television is a car commercial featuring some one or two beautiful people, winding down an empty black mountain road in their fastback, flooring it in a freeway, or fourwheeling Devil's Tower in a Freelander, looking down at an sublimely untouched natural like some Enlightenment painting. For so many of us freedom means the open road and a full tank of gas, the wind whilstling past your window as the radio belts CCR past the Big Gulp-ful cupholder. This, the cockpit, is the terrian of absolute control, the landscape of freedom and auto mobility.

Well, the thing that got me thinking about freedom was this rather innocuous part of a recent non-political post on M(i)N(nesota)C(ampaign)R(eport) dealing with those panhandlers with cardboard signs by the interstate onramp. Joe Bodell is writing about how easy it has become to ignore these people, but I was thinking about whether or not freedom really lies behind the wheel of a car. Here's teh quote that pushed me down the hill:
Admit it -- there's something uncomfortable about being stuck at an intersection with someone holding a cardboard sign outside. You're a captive audience -- on foot it's easy to ignore such an indigent, but when you're in a car you have a choice either to stare or be painfully obvious about not staring.

Think about it. At least in this instance, these panhandlers have found a captive audience. When we're sitting there at the red light, we're some of the least free people on the planet. We sit there trapped, literally strapped into a one ton piece of steel, and our only graceful exit is to turn our heads and stare at our shoes. This is why the onramp panhandle is simultaneously so awkward and effective.

And this isn't the only time when drivers are highly constrained. In fact, most of the time you're behind a wheel, you're incredibly un-free. You have to stay between the lines, stop and go at various lights and signs. You can only go as fast or as far as the car in front of you. You can't even really go much slower than the car behind you, either. (A friend of mine drove 22 mph down the length of Smith Avenue the other day, just to prove this point. It was incredibly, painfully awkward.) No, the car is the last place you're going to want to be if you want a feeling of limitless freedom. Sure you occasionally find yourself alone on the open road, driving through a car commercial on your way to the lake cabin or Aunt Ida's farm, but probably 75% of the auto time spent by most people is insufferably restricted.

In fact, if you want the freedom of limitless mobility, the best thing you can do is walk on your feet. For an easy example, look at the photo up above, of the 'sidewalk closed' sign. What percentage of people walking down this street obey this sign? My guess is something like 2% of all pedestrians wouldn't actually walk right around this sign, and continue on their merry way down the street.

In a cars, on the other hand, you're constantly at the mercy of the orange traffic cone. How many time have you been driving down a road, found yourself at the clogged end of a meaningless, empty 'road closed' sign?

On foot, one can walk or not walk. Run or not. One can continue forward, and suddenly reverse course and walk backwards. One can skip, jump, turn left, turn right, turn around, go forward and then suddenly turn backward for no reason whatsoever before continuing onward again. Try doing any of that in a car. (Possible exception: those lowriders with hydraulic suspensions.)

Take it from me, brothers and sisters. There's nothing so free as feet. What is liberty, if not the ability to do what you want?

I suppose this all sounds silly and trite. It's painfully obvious, and nobody really likes their bumper-to-bumper, do they? Sure road rage springs eternal, but feet are so slow!

I thought so too, and I wouldn't have mentioned any of this, only I was reading Flesh and Stone, a wonderful look at the interrelated histories of the city and the body by high-minded urban theorist Richard Sennett (who along with his wife, Saskia Sassen, have pretty much cornered the market on high-minded urban theory), and came across this passage in the introduction.
The look of urban space enslaved to these powers of motion is necessarily neutral: the driver can drive safely only with the minimum of idiosyncratic distractions; to drive well requires standard signs, dividers, and drain sewers, and also streets emptied of street life apart from other drivers. As urban space becomes a mere function of motion, it thus becomes less stimulating in itself; the driver wants to go through the space, not to be aroused by it.

Sennett's point, as I see it, is that our ultra-boring, ultra-monotonous freeway landscapes (and their neighborhoods) reflect precisely these constraints of auto-mobility. After all, if nobody can stop and smell the flowers, why have flowers?

[Free running -- like a car commercial for feet]


Lisa Reade said...

Hey, I found your blog through my friend Sam Cha. I really like it!

I feel incredibly restrained when I'm driving. If anything else, just the knowledge that I am completely responsibility for this enormous metal scrap of dinosaur is god-awful.

I often think of 'coyote' by Joni Mitchell.
Prisoner of the white lines on the freeway?

CitySlicker said...

I agree with the authors you read, as most true urbanists do. But you sometimes stop short of committing to what you really want to say, that automobilization is the opposite of urbanization. There are many things I like about your writing, but the biggest is probably how you manage to get your point across without pissing anyone off! Sometimes I find that hard to do after I've been biking through downtown, lulled by the block-long walls surrounding me and almost squashed by F-350s.