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Auto-centricity and the Tyranny of Image – Part II

| Lewis Akenji

The temptations of fashionable car use pile up in small, seductive
doses. For one, as a music lover, my Palya Bea CD sounds much better
played on the car stereo than with the home music set. Part of the plan
of the car industry for us has been to gradually move us out of our
homes into our cars. We’re drawing close to that dream. We now can, if
we choose to, eat, sleep, party and have sex in our cars. We only need
to figure out the shower and the toilet bits, though I’m sure
collaboration between Toi-Toi and the car industry would put things in
order.

Now, Budapest driving doesn’t quite compare
to that of Lagos, Nigeria. But neither is it too distant from that of Rome,
Italy, especially with the few extra fast movie-like scenes. Take, for
instance, the clean shaven guy who screeches to a stop at the traffic lamp,
comes out of his sleek Mercedes Benz with a face like a chimney of emotions,
takes long strides over to the car he has just overtaken, opens the door and
pulls the driver out of his car by the shirt, asks him why he wouldn’t let him
overtake in the first place, and leaves him with bleeding nostrils – as it
happened at the Rakoczi ut and Jozsef Korut junction next to the Blaha Lujza
square. In broad daylight; all in a few seconds.

Links of car use to human and environmental
health have been clearly demonstrated. Still one of the more incomprehensible
aspects of our car-culture is the psychology of car ownership, the tyranny of
the image. This goes beyond just comfort and ideological expression. We
personify our cars and refer to them with affectionate words similar to
vocabulary we use in intimate situations with our loved ones – baby, sexy, hot;
we relate our car and car make/size to our social status; and once we hit the
road, we leave the world and all its cares behind us.

To an unscrupulous many (though not every
car owner, thankfully), owning a car is like buying priority over everyone and
everything else, even other fellow car owners. The rules change. Hurrying to
work? Forget the maximum speed; the red lamp is not for you; the bus lane is
for flexible use; bicycle riders are noisy activists and don’t belong on the
highway; passers-by should watch out for cars; other drivers also in a hurry
are not in as much a hurry as you are. Road rage is so commonplace. We hear the
impatient honking of cars, loud quarrelsome voices of drivers; we see the
who-is-who competition – yes, size does matter! – and, of course, the show of
the middle finger and the four-letter word exchanges when the snaking lines of
cars in traffic jams bring out the venom of impatience.

In August I arrived at a scene at a street
off the Csalogany utca, where a car had hit down a cyclist at the zebra
crossing (while the lamp was green for pedestrians and cyclists). While the
shocked victim lay on the ground, bruised and temporarily disoriented, the car
owner stood over him shouting down whether the rider had been blind to not see
the car coming. Last summer my colleague got hit by a car while she was biking.
The first and only thing the driver did was come out to check if his car was
scratched. As it wasn’t, he drove off, leaving her lying there.

60,000 accidents involving cars occurred in
the last two years, in two-thirds of these cases the driver was at fault.
20,000 people died, were disabled or were left in conditions of grave casualty.
Among EU States, Hungary appears with the top five for poor road accident
records.

Our auto-centricity is filled with
contradictions, sometimes working against ourselves. Policies that need minor
adjustments from car owners in order to better public health, the natural
environment or city aesthetics automatically trigger a belligerent defence from
some owners. We drive to escape from the city and recharge in the countryside,
but protection of natural reserves and sensitive bio-habitats from being
developed into highways are seen as an affront to car owners. Oil wells where
our fuel comes from are drying up, but increasing fuel prices in order to
promote alternative energy is seen as an attack on car users. As they say, too
much traffic kills traffic – everyone goes slower – but a raise in taxes to
deal with congestion hazards and human health consequences that result from car
usage are fought off by car associations. Drivers incur high expenses in case
of accidents, but higher insurances are seen as unreasonable. To put it
bluntly, owning a car quite often makes us so auto-centred we refuse to see
beyond our personal comforts to the larger context in which we operate. Not how
much it costs others’ health, not how much it costs the environment, nor how
much it costs social infrastructure. It’s like being a kid at Christmas – we
want that toy, we don’t want to know how much it costs, that’s mummy’s or
daddy’s problem.

If we could let go of the auto-cruise
defence and just think for a while, several very little things we can each do
will make so much of a difference. It’s not about car-owners versus
non-car-owners. Like most sustainability issues that go beyond individual
ramification, the effects of the car culture are upon everyone.

Global car production has grown more than
fivefold since 1950, estimates the WorldWatch Institute. In 2005, over 60
million units were produced, bringing about some 600 million cars running on
the world’s roads.

In Hungary, more than half a million brand
new cars were sold in 2004 and 2005. This figure will be higher if the number
of used cars imported from countries like Germany is added. There is increased
affordability and access, and, in excess, the nouveau riche are flexing their
newly developed muscles. There are also other emerging patterns that engrave
car use into daily life. For example, corporations now pay part salaries of
some employees in cars – this in order to avoid or to pay less on income taxes.
(Why not pay for flats, for goodness’ sake, instead of buying employees off
with image-builders which cannot be comfortably parked in front of their rented
apartments?).

The chosen mode of personal transportation
is beginning to weaken with use of public transit, while use of personal cars
is on the increase. BKV reports indicate that the number of citizens using
public transport decreased by 9% between 1994 and 2003. Conversely, the last
five years saw car traffic increase by 31% and motorbikes by 6%.

In recent years, we’ve seen more and more
brazen, American-style advertising. A case in point is the adverts of the car
brand Chevrolet which ran just recently on TV, radio, and, interesting enough,
in the cars of the metro. In the case of the metro posters, there were two
pictures next to each other. The first of an not-so-nice gentleman who has
fallen asleep in the metro, mouth agape, while slouched against the body of a
professional type, focused woman. The woman has a look of disgust on her face
and clearly wants to move away from the man. The caption reads: “Everyone
deserves to travel with the one (s)he likes”. In a second picture of similarly
exaggerated stereotypes against public transport, another caption reads:
“everyone should travel in comfort to his or her workplace.” (I wonder if the
case of appearance in the metro tells something of BKV’s (lack of) sense of
business understanding, or Chevrolet’s prowess.)

Europeans usually raise their eyebrows in
surprise when they first learn of the reason of shrinking or disappearance of
public transit network in some major cities of the US. It was a calculated and
well-executed lobby of the car industry so that many more people will end up
with no other option but to buy cars. And so it came to be. While disappearance
of mass transit is not a very likely outcome in progressive European cities
today, it however presents a realistic scenario of how a society can degenerate
when it surrenders its thinking abilities to commercial advertisements and
corporate lobby.

Cars today are more energy efficient than
20 years back, and have less dangerous emissions. But there is a rebound
effect; gains in efficiency have been offset by the energy-consuming features
loaded in new cars, the increasing horsepower per vehicle engine, and the
increase in number of cars. Beating the illogic of this bigger and faster
capacity, the average road speed of the vehicle (the real speed at which it is
being used) has dropped dramatically. Although the manufacturer’s speedometer
has gone up in calibration, say from140 to 260km/h, the practical-use speed has
dropped, say from70 to 30 km/h. (These
estimates do not include those who don’t mind getting speeding tickets; those
who are selectively colour blind to the red traffic lamp; nor those who are
technical friends with the police). The average life expectancy of cars is also
dropping; people sooner dispose of their cars these days, not only because new
models are available but because cars are breaking down faster, too.

The temptations of fashionable car use pile
up in small, seductive doses. For one, as a music lover, my Palya Bea CD sounds
much better played on the car stereo than with the home music set. Part of the
plan of the car industry for us has been to gradually move us out of our homes
into our cars. We’re drawing close to that dream. We now can, if we choose to,
eat, sleep, party and have sex in our cars. We only need to figure out the
shower and the toilet bits, though I’m sure collaboration between Toi-Toi and
the car industry would put things in order. When you think of mobile phones,
laptops, coffee-to-go and disposable plates, a mobile home seems a logical humble
abode to a generation that has been engineered beyond the confines of nature
and communal establishment. Or maybe the mobile thing is in our genes. Our
great, great, great grandpas and grandmas were wanderers, remember?

 


Photo [cc] Lorrie McClanahan

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