Thursday, 29 May 2008

Cars Are Driving Us Nuts

We drive ever longer distances in order to satisfy the same needs

An interview with Hermann Knoflacher

Martin Hablesreiter and Sonja Stummerer recently interviewed one of the leading traffic scientists, Professor Hermann Knoflacher. He has taught at the Institut fuer Verkehrsplanung und Verkehrstechnik at the Technische Universitaet in Vienna for more than 30 years. The 67-year-old professor became well known in Vienna for his innovative thinking on traffic issues. He developed pedestrian areas, put trams on separate roadways, and advocated a separate network of bicycle paths.
Translated by Ulrich Nehls with help from Sarah Whelan in Galway, Ireland.
Q: Are you opposed to the car?

HK: I am not opposed to the car. But I am aware of its impact on our society.

Q: Do you drive?

HK: I don't own a car, but I drive occasionally.

Q: So, what impact does motorization have on our society?

HK: An incredible one. The car is like a virus that beds in your brain and totally subverts behaviour, values, and perception. A normal person would call our present living space completely insane. We move into sealed houses more or less voluntarily, with noise-protected windows and leave the outside to the noise, dust, and exhaust of the cars. That is a full reversal of values, and we don't even notice it any more.

Q: In your opinion how did it come this far ?

HK: Our problem is upright walking. We consume a considerable amount of muscle and navigation energy in order to stabilize our body. Just think of the coordination problems when under the influence of alcohol. When driving we use only one sixth of our energy and feel incredibly fast and powerful. That is one part. The other one is urban planning that requires cars to be as close as possible to all of our social activities. That's how you destroy the natural habitat, public transit, local supply, and eventually the social network that humans have established in millennia.

Q: So the car destroys evolution?

HK: No, but the human accomplishments of past generations have been degraded by the car.

Q: Does the car era mean our cultural doom?

HK: I wouldn't say that, since a cultural doom is not the real problem in my eyes. It's only the latest layer of evolution to get lost. The permanent structural devastation caused by the car is much worse.

Q: Is driving addictive?

HK: Definitely! The car takes possession of people. The driver is more distinguished from a human than any insect.

Q: What do you mean by that?

HK: Mobility with the own body is something common between humans and insects. However, a driver does not need this. And no insects destroy the living space of their successors for their own convenience, or move so fast that it could kill themselves.

Q: In your opinion what should mobility in our society look like then?

HK: Every society needs mobility to satisfy its needs. If we could meet our needs locally we would be plants, not humans. Human mobility always emerges from local shortcomings.

Q: Why are we so proud of our mobility?

HK: You are talking about technical mobility. In historic terms we never were especially proud of mobility. On the contrary: mobility has always been a ballast. Settling down means getting rid of enforced mobility. Our mental mobility was enough to allow us to cultivate plants or domesticate animals.

Q: Is this why words such as gypsy or tramp are offensive?

HK: It's clear: The settled community have claimed their territory and refuse access to anybody else. Settled residences are seen as exclusive. Travellers challenge the ownership of the land of the settled people and are thus hated for doing so.

Q: You are both a critic of our traffic system and a planner. How does that work?

HK: At the start of my career I discovered that traditional traffic planning is merely based on assumptions. For a long time there was no consideration for the consequences for the society or the environment. Nobody cared about noise or pollution, about fatalities, about the economy being altered or unemployment being created. My goal is traffic planning on a scientific basis. Under this aspect it is my opinion that transportation is one of the most fascinating scientific areas.

Q: You criticize the lack of networking traffic planning with other scientific fields.

HK: Yes. Core statements in transportation are completely wrong from my point of view! The idea of mobility growth depends on an inchoate reflection of the system. There was the assumption of rising mobility by rising motorization. Today we know that only the number of car trips rises, while the overall amount of trips remains the same, because the use of public transportation and walking decrease at the same time. The other false assumption is that of saving time by higher speed. There are many evaluations of economic efficiency in traffic planning based on this assumption. In fact there is no such thing as saving time by higher speed. You only travel longer distances in the same period of time.

Q: How do you provide evidence for that?

HK: By critically watching the human time budget. It's interesting how the period of time for daily mobility is almost the same around the globe. But distances travelled are different. In the Sixties the philosopher Ivan Illich showed that the amount of energy invested into cars and road infrastructure would be sufficient to cover the distance by foot - and in a considerably more beautiful and peaceful environment.

Q: Doesn't social mobility increase when travelled distances increase?

HK: No. Quite the contrary. The additional distance is useless. Man covers greater distances for the same purposes as before. He does what he has always done, but travels farther.

Q: But we broaden our mind.

HK: How can I broaden my mind when I rush through the environment at 100 km/hr? You are really constricting your mind due to the speed.

Q: One experiences different things when travelling to India than to Bavaria.

HK: It does not depend on where you travel, but what you discover there. You won't experience more on a worn-out tourist trail in India than in Bavaria. Quite the contrary, with watchfulness and curiosity you may discover things in Bavaria you won't find in India. Speeds that exceed our evolutionary grown capabilities also exceed our perception. Mentally we cannot cope with the distances we have learnt to cover using technology.

Q: But we feel powerful.

HK: Of course. Mobility always equals power. By the way, studies have revealed that parents don't even consider their own children when it comes to opting for a parking space close to their front door or a low traffic zone. Restricted mobility, even at the risk of ones own offspring are accepted in favour of a convenient parking space.

Q: Is driving entirely insane?

HK: Considering the prerequisites man has created for his car driving, it is clearly the most convenient form of travelling, and thus quite rational. Look at the pedestrian infrastructure in comparison. Footpaths in their present shape are a joke! In earlier days the pedestrian was allowed to use the entire expanse of a street - for more than 7.000 years! We have pushed the pedestrians aside on the edge in last 50 years and now ask ourselves why this kind of mobility vanishes. The structures we have created forces people to drive!

Q: Are we living in a dictatorship of automobiles?

HK: Absolutely!

Q: Can this be changed?

HK: Certainly. Changing the way of organizing parking space would be sufficient. If you would pass a public transport stop, or a store - which would establish by itself - on your way to a parking lot, the demand for driving would decrease. Now a days people are taunted by fiddling with symptoms. They tack on a little parking fee here and a little congestion charge there. That is completely unfair. At first they establish conditions requiring people to use a car, and then they make them pay for it. As a traffic planner you ought to create arrangements that unburden people from the necessity to drive!

Q: That sounds like a conflict-laden job.

HK: At that time, my proposal of turning the Viennese Kartnerstrasse into a pedestrian zone was predicted to lead to its economical death. Later I was told that cycling was totally unwanted by the Viennese and that speeding up public transit by laying cobblestones near the stops would cause motorist uproar. All that was allegedly unpopular. Yet the Viennese have embraced these ideas and the city's living standard rose in international rankings. You can't only satisfy voters wishes. You don't give drug addicts tax-free drugs, even though the desire certainly exists.

Q: Could this problem, in your opinion, be solved with the gas price?

HK: No! Every gas price rise is a purely symbolic action and automatically leads into a social trap. When only the wealthy can afford filling up and the poor don't, there is still an unsolved traffic problem, with a social injustice added to it. The approach must be parking and the way to it. When you organise parking space properly, carfree spaces with a high value of living will be created. Who wants to sleep quietly must accept a longer walk to his car. And who prefers the car must live in noisy and stinky environment. Parking lots should be organised the same way as transit stops.

Q: Do you advocate more parking restriction?

HK: Look how auto-centric you think! When a pedestrian is interdicted to cross a street where he likes that's seen as pretty normal. Rearranging traffic in motor streets and pedestrian streets is demonised as anti-car, without considering that dividing the streets offers the best solution.

Q: What about the often-quoted freedom of the driver?

HK: This freedom is purely virtual, merchandised by advertisement. They show an empty road in a beautiful landscape, with one single car running on it. Would they show the reality with gridlock, nobody would be dumb enough to buy a car.

Q: Cars still sell very well.

HK: Yes, because drivers enjoy yet another form of freedom, a freedom of lawlessness. Unlike other people, they are allowed to be noisy, pollute the environment, and jeopardise public safety unpunished. A rampaging drunk may be arrested due to disturbance; motorists annoying us with noise day and night are accepted. If I as a pedestrian would spray cancerous substances from a can that would be against the law. Motorists are doing just that, unresisted every day, shortening our life span on average by 12 months.

Q: The car driver is a killer?

HK: Yes, in good faith. The car shifts us into a space-time arrangement of irresponsibility that we cannot comprehend nor handle. And there is strong lobbying: the auto industry, the construction industry, and banks that give credits for purchasing cars, who at all costs take care that studies, like the one mentioned by the WHO, are not published.

Q: Even teenagers are dreaming of cars.

HK: Because they experienced bondage in cars for years. In a car a child is radically restricted in its mobility. He is forbidden to walk to or cross a street, he must not play everywhere, he is caged for hours in the rear of a car and is even belted. That's clearly why teenagers are looking forward to regain their freedom with a licence and a car of their own.

Q: Do you think that cars are the cause of wars?

HK: Absolutely! And you don't have to look at Iraq. There is a permanent war on our streets. Every single day two people are killed on Austrian streets. Traffic physically injures 40.000 people a year. And those dying from the exhausts, as reported by the WHO, aren't even counted in this figure.

Q: What do you feel when you pass by suburban shopping centres, big box retailers, and the like?

HK: These are parasites! I feel sorry for any city with such structures. The traffic problem is in part a child of these shopping malls and outlet stores on the edge of cities. The main problem is free parking. This ought to be taxed so massively that parking there would cost as much as in the city centre. Everybody should be allowed to build where they like, but in-town businesses struggling with parking fees while everything is free in the suburbs is unacceptable.

Q: Do you expect European cities to look like those much ridiculed US cities, with sprawling suburban homes, giant shopping centres, and poor public transit?

HK: No, since there is a re-urbanisation taking place in many European cities. That is related to an ageing society. Elderly people just cannot get the needed services on the edge of a city. They simply have to move back into the city. Apart from that it's the energy issue that will make people move back into the cities.

Q: You mean gas prices?

HK: No, I mean energy prices in general. They will definitely rise and affect all areas of life. This means heating, electricity, transport - and all that carries more weight in the isolation of a suburban home than in a city centre. And elderly people need a lot of energy-rich services that become very expensive at price hikes. I don't just think of "meals-on-wheels" and the like. The more scattered people live, the more energy is needed. And we won't be able to afford that any more within a short period of time. This means we will have to create sustainable urban structures in order to be able to pay for them in the future. The actual cities with their suburbs aren't like this.

Q: Is it true that societal expenses of mobility are higher than the revenues, including employment in the car industry?

HK: That's absolutely correct. And the bill for consumers will become worse, since at the moment mobility is more or less free, and that is soon going to change drastically.

Q: Why is air travel so strongly criticized these days, in regards to climate protection and mobility, and not motorists?

HK: First of all, the damaging impact of air travel is serious and criticism is justified. No-frills airlines are activating groups of passengers that would not fly otherwise. Flying basically is the most degrading mode of travelling. Flying always reminds me of mass animal farming: Like chickens, fed like in battery farming. But unlike the humans in an aircraft chickens are not belted.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Where the Economy is Headed


Saturday, 24 May 2008

San Jose High Speed Rail Station

This is for my family in San Jose. Check out your future!

Shanghai Maglev Train: Complete Ride

A train like this could get you from San Francisco to San Jose in about a quarter of an hour. That's a pretty easy commute. Imagine how many cars that would take of the streets! I'm astounded that China has progressed so far ahead of this country.

Friday, 23 May 2008

"Real Price Of Gasoline" Report Reveals Actual Cost of Gas to Consumers Is as High as $15.14 per Gallon

A while back I mentioned that I had calculated the actual price of gas at around $10 per gallon. I estimated that rather conservatively. Since gas prices are in the news as of late, I thought this report might be of interest. Note that the date is almost ten years old! If you simply adjust to the Consumer Price Index, that amount today would be $20 per gallon. Crude oil is now $132 per barrel as opposed to $60 per barrel last year. Now is not the time to rethink driving habits. Now is the time to consider not driving at all!




Washington D.C. -- A report released today by the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) calculates that the actual cost of a gallon of gas to the American consumer could be as high as $15.14. The report "The Real Price of Gas" identifies and quantifies the many external costs of using gas that consumers pay indirectly by way of taxes, insurance costs and retail prices in other sectors. Established in 1994, the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA), is a Washington-based research organization that analyzes how technology affects society.

The CTA study examines more than 40 separate cost factors associated with gasoline production and consumption. These include subsidies for the petroleum industry such as the percentage depletion allowance; tax-funded programs that directly subsidize oil production and consumption, like government-sponsored R&D for the oil industry; the costs of protecting oil supplies, shipments and motor vehicle usage, including military expenditures for protecting the Middle East and other oil rich regions; and environmental, health and social costs including those for global warming. Together these subsidies for gas paid by consumers total up to $1.68 trillion per year.

The Report will be released at a news conference today, Tuesday, November 17, 1998, at 10 a.m. The conference will be held at the offices of the Communications Consortium at 1200 New York Avenue, N.W. (AAAS Building, 1 block from Metro Center), Second Floor, Revelle Conference Room. Scheduled panelists include Andrew Kimbrell, and Joseph Mendelson of CTA, Ann Mesnikoff of the Sierra Club and Gawain Kripke of Friends of the Earth.

According to CTA Director Andrew Kimbrell, "The real price of gas has been hidden from the consumer for far too long. Some of these costs including those associated with military actions in the Middle East and global warming could skyrocket in the coming years. Once the public understands how much they are really paying for gas we should see a tremendous increase in political pressure for alternatives."

Joseph Mendelson III, CTA legal director commented, "This Report has major policy implications. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently drafting standards for the next generation of automobiles through the "Tier II" process. This Report indicates that the EPA should encourage a significant move away from gas-powered vehicles."

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Right Wing, Left Wing…Why are they so much alike?

Fundamentalism and extreme progressivism both harbor the very same penchant for intolerance. The more I live, the more I have witnessed this tendency. What I find fascinating, is that many people who remain at these outer edges of political, scientific, philosophical and religious discourse are so very much alike. It is as though they were the same people, yet they froth at each other spewing extreme vitriol, and their intolerance borders on the sociopathic. Even more illuminating is the observation that many of these people more often than not have had their formative years spent in a fundamentalist upbringing, only to reject such notions fully and find themselves at the polar opposite those teachings. It can work the other way round, but there are far fewer examples. Yet the same behavior is continuously exhibited, and the main trait can be summed up as intolerance for divergent views. I believe much of what passes for democratic discourse today in this country is simply people on the fringes yelling at each other across the masses of moderates and centrists, hoping to capture our attention or distract us with "sound bites".

Clearly, there is something going on that is damaging to the soul, or intellect, if you prefer among people who fall into these groups. I believe the problem is essentially the fact that the act of questioning has never been instilled in them. Or better said, from a young and formative age, the natural tendency to ask questions has been denied, and its growth stunted. Within such a fanatical framework skepticism is seen as an intellectual weakness. Later on, such becomes a real barrier to achieving experiential knowledge and maintaining a healthy skepticism. It's as if these people are forever stunted from becoming who they really are, and instead, they grasp onto ideologies clinging desperately and defending them to the bitter end, even when they prove to be less than correct. It is like a scientist that is so convinced of a theory, that he'll formulate the most absurd conditions to prove it. It's like science's obsession with the "ether", until finally one day, somebody said, "hey!, maybe there's no such thing as the ether!".

Let's keep the Socratic method alive, and burn our idols!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Obama 2008

Those of you who read this blog know that I have lent my support to a number of politicians running for the presidency of the United States. I have spoken highly of Congressman Denis Kucinich, Congressman Dr. Ron Paul, and former Senator Mike Gravel. During this time, all three of these men have dropped out of the race, or their campaigns are no longer viable. I must express extreme disappointment in regards to Ron Paul, who simply chose not to spend enough during his campaign regardless of numerous campaign contributions driven mainly by grassroots organization. Dr. Ron Paul apparently was not all that serious about running for the presidency, since he switched gears to run a re-election campaign for his seat in Congress. Dr. Ron Paul has continually pronounced his belief that his campaign was not about "him" or any particular individual, and instead about the ideals expressed, namely "freedom".

That's fine by me, if you want to wax poetic. I love philosophical ramblings as much as any quasi-intellectual. But Ron Paul's musing is a cop-out. Leadership is still necessary to effect change. Anthropologically speaking, mankind is not yet a "collective" that works towards a common goal. We still behave as egoistic creatures regardless of our innate sense of love for our fellow man. And we still look for leaders to move us forward. Unfortunately, what we seem to get time and time again, are the least qualified and worst intentioned individuals that do not represent our best interests.

I have decided to lend my support to Senator Barack Obama. I have made a few contributions to his campaign and I have voiced my support for him whenever the topic is brought up. I must admit that I was not initially taken by the man, but the more I listen to him, the more I like him. I do not agree with his entire platform, but I do believe that Senator Obama will represent the average American's best interests. I also can see that his campaign is by far the more "populist" of all the rest. Neither McCain nor Clinton are viable options in my opinion. If in fact, Clinton manages to steal the show, I cannot see myself voting for her. Frankly, I'd prefer to see McCain win, because nothing will feed revolutionary change quicker than another four years of the same Bush & Co. policies!