Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Maybe my last Tom Vanderbilt post....

A friend of mine forwarded me a link from Salon describing a drive with Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt. The Salon piece is more of a feature article on the author (what an interesting freelance lifestyle, tempting but I need the health insurance) interwoven with observations about how we drive. More deep is the essay by Vanderbilt in the Wilson Quarterly. This piece is much more reflective of how the automobile has transformed ourselves and our relationship to the environment. For instance, the automobile transform distance into time, and our geographies have expanded in relationship to the proliferation of well maintained roads. The centerpiece of the article is a profile of a traffic engineer who inadvertently discovered the counter intuitive conclusion that cars and pedestrians are safer when intermingled, not when they are separated. Also of interest is the references of Marcel Proust's insights into automobiles and our view of the world.

A common misunderstanding of the Amish is that they are anti-technology, but that is not completely true as I understand it. They view their stance on technology in relation to the impact it has on their community. For instance, rollerblades were banned because it was causing the youth to be more isolated from the community, not simply because they were technological. In effect rollerblades were altering the community because they changed the dynamic between distance, time and relationship. [ed. note: I don't have a reference for the previous story, if one knows it please note it in the comments and take it with a grain of salt] One could look at the elders as trapping their youth, but another way is what are the mechanisms for preserving tradition. It's not clear that coercion or removal of choice is the best solution for cultivating tradition. On the flip side, we tend to make short term decisions that lead to global minima, and the context of any choice drives poor choices over the long term. The value of studying history is not only to be aware of the past and the successes and failures, but to provide a context of the time horizons that we as human beings exist in.

I'm not sure Amish rollerbladers has a lot to do with cars, but the amount of press coverage for this Vanderbilt's book indicates that he has definitely hit a nerve and I believe induce a healthy dose of self reflection on our default means of transportation.


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