Advocate On The Hudson

Some Thoughts On Slowing the Automobilization of the Planet

May 04, 2014

Could it be that the curious devices depicted in the famed Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs point the way toward slowing, if not ending the rise of the automobile as the dominate machine force on the planet?

Olympic-inspired monocycle

While a focus on the rewards of unbridled wealth, and the lurch towards hyper-consumerism, are two trends that I normally abhor, there is, regardless, much to be admired about the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs and their cornucopia of treats and sometimes very practical devices and objects. Next month their cover will feature my friend Rob Cotter's revolutionary “ELF”, the vehicle that has begun to change a million minds about the practical nature of hybrid human/electric powered vehicles, from its economics to its aesthetics. One of the ways that the world changes, is as a result of people voting with their wallets and generating buzz, and by earning profits and fueling entrepreneurism, inspiring more breakthrough projects.

As usual, this month the catalog features a variety of mobility devices. They range from the Worksman Trading Company's genuine ice cream cart tricycle, to a gizmo that projects laser lines on to the ground at night so you can make your own bike lane as you go along. Even stranger are two machines that are as odd as they are provocative and both use human power as their essential feature. One is an edition of the “Monocycle” that was featured in the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games [pictured above], its slowly spinning rings of light providing a serene parade, symbols of balance and coordination based on our energies, the human element. This was a beautiful, almost magical display, with a strong statement to make about our capacities and abilities.

While traveling inside a giant glowing ring has its charms, I have long felt that we could stand to make our lightweight vehicles, in such a way that the passenger can travel very close to the ground, for the sake of minimizing wind resistance, improving safety by lowering of the center of gravity and the stability that this provides, while enhancing the comfort of the rider. This still allows for this person, or even number of persons, to use pedals or hand cranks to propel the vehicle in an ergonomic, efficient and comfortable fashion. Of course, the problem that immediately comes to mind is that buses and trucks and tall SUV's, could squash you like a bug that way, plead that they hardly knew you were there, and drive away without so much as a summons.

The solution is lights, contained within thin telescoping filaments, projecting 8 or 10 feet high, deployed when needed only, flashing unmistakable signals that there is a small, perhaps hard to see, vehicle alongside you. This can also be a means of developing the personality of these modes of travel, by focusing on the graceful aesthetics of gently moving objects and how much they can lend to the landscape, instead of being huge, endlessly repetitious examples of the same massive, personality-less, potentially-lethal objects. While you ride peacefully, nice and close to the ground, all that commotion up there can be fresh and surprising, intermittent instead of continuous, colorful and fun. Accompanying this eye candy with sound displays, musical and otherwise, (the sound of a flock of birds seems appropriate), adds another variation, and one that can contribute to the safety of nearby pedestrians too.

The catalog's other featured vehicle is propelled by electric energy, which is being generated by the four passengers, through the use of rowing bars. The manufacturer claims that it can reach speeds of 60 MPH and costs $60,000. One of its most interesting aspects is the mechanism whereby their rowed energy is converted into electric energy stored in a battery, which is used to power the motor which actually propels it. It is described as “battery agnostic” meaning it can be “upgraded as future battery and motor technologies advance”. While it has the flavor of the wonderful Kinetic Sculptures from the 1980's, it is also a very serious lesson in the art of combining power-sources and having a good time. It is reminiscent of the wonderful tiny railroad-tracked vehicles, that were moved by the up and down exertions of the two operators. It is another version of Derk Thijs' excellent Rowbike from the Netherlands, a proven winner for decades, which also cleverly employs cables to carry the power to the wheels.

Getting around is recently becoming much more of a subject of interest to the geek community. Communication has been conquered. One push of a button and you are in the Land of Infinite Apps. Information is ubiquitous. We speak now of “overloads” and the impossibility of turning it off. Both have been shrunken down into something that fits into the palm of your hand, soon to be an amulet around your wrist or neck. Minimalization has proven to be the key to accelerating our access to what had preciously existed as two trivial factors, that we barely knew existed, clunky black phones and their fat yellow paper directories.

Now it is time for Transportation's close-up, to be followed by its right-sizing, which, if history is any guide, means it's on the road to virtual disappearance. It is the next mountain ready to be turned into a molehill. This will be even more fun than taking on the TV Networks and Ma Bell. This is the really big one, that fills the streets and empties out the bank accounts. There is no aspect of our lives riper for revolution than transport. This is the next step beyond Social Media to the Mobility Movement, the MoMo. Who's riding with who and where has implications even beyond the Human Be-Ins that rocked the sixties with Peace and Love and all that other good stuff.

There will be, and already is, monumental change in this arena. We are getting ready to subtract, from the personal monetary equation, its second biggest factor, your domicile being the one that requires you to take on the greatest amount of debt. (Schooling, of course, is starting to rank up there with the top causes of “voluntary” serfdom). Cars take up an exaggerated amount of both real three dimensional-space and, if you live in the country especially, virtually control the ability to access essential services. With the advent of bike share and car share though, ride share is on the horizon and nothing could be a greater threat to the hegemony of the current automobile paradigm than a sharing economy. This doesn't just threaten the auto and oil companies, this is a potential attack on the entire mall culture and a return to local shopping, slower living and an ethic of greater cooperation on all relevant issues before us.

The “Autocracy” is also a huge element in the electronic media, TV, cable and satellite. You can not avoid the pitches for brands that goes on constantly, much less the ads for car insurance and oil companies, injury lawyers and finance companies. Programs themselves feature cars as top prizes on game shows and the essential instrument of heroic cops speeding around to catch the bad guys. Traffic reports dot the news stories and horrifying accident pictures are reliable fodder. Aside from work-related associations, we have accustomed ourselves to ways of life that permit us to largely seal ourselves off, from all but family members or a few intimates, in any meaningful activities or exchanges. We treasure our privacy more than almost anything else, even though it does nothing for us but give us some seeming protection from others. Do we have so little to offer each other that we should want to remain at these distances and with these barriers in place? As the importance of what you drive becomes less important than what you have to say, (and recent surveys suggest that, in a radical departure from the past, young women are much more interested in guys with practical vehicles than flashy ones), many sacred "truths" are being questioned.

Granted, folks ignoring each other, is far better than the anti-social activities featured in the news stories about civil wars and bar fights, but does this constitute a society? We are happy to be safe and secure in our houses too, and nobody says that this is not important, but we don't even imagine a world, in which the conditions that exist are not inevitable and unchangeable. TV reinforces the same stereotypical ideas and attitudes that prevail. If you tilt right you go to Fox, Lefties congregate on MSNBC. It's almost like High School, with the jocks and the nerds in everlasting battle. So the jocks get the girls, but later on the nerds will marry them because they have a better sense of humor and earning potential. The missing element here is the artists, who don't buy any of it, who thrive on total social interaction and crave change instead of being frightened and alienated by it.

The many parents who testified at the Vision Zero hearing about the death of their children under the wheels of multi-ton vehicles were touching in their deep concern. The Chair, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, let them speak their piece and seemed genuinely moved by their stories of loss and despair. Nobody had to recruit them to speak. They are compelled to right this wrong, to bring us to our senses. Some responsible legislators are asserting a new reality, in which local streets are not allowed to be high speed highways and cars not permitted to rudely nudge and intimidate pedestrians out of the way. I like bikes but shoes are the ultimate human-powered vehicles and NY's Mayor DeBlasio is kicking an important program into gear, with his Vision of safe and friendly streets for pedestrians. He has the Police Department re-arranging its priorities and adding new programs to enforce traffic laws more stringently, especially involving the most dangerous infractions by motor vehicles. It's not going to be enough but it is a start. Smaller and slower vehicles, along with better laws and enforcement, are the best paths we have to safer streets.

Linked here is a flier we prepared for the 75th Anniversary Celebration of the opening of the 1939 World's Fair, and the Public Hearing on Vision Zero the same day. This Fair made one of the most persuasive arguments ever, for the total Automobilization of our planet. It is here, synchronistically encountering a bold proposal, to initiate severe and rarely, if ever, imposed restraints, upon oversized motorized vehicles' domination of our urban roadways and spaces. This is a remarkable conjunction of events, possessing considerable historical irony. The additional coincidence, of the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the 1964 Fair, on the same day as “Earth Day” this year, further emphasizes the urgent need for new ways to move about, in smaller, slower, cleaner and safer vehicles, to reduce our consumption of space and all other resources, before we use them all up and run out of everything, including excuses.

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