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Away with all cars

by Mr Social Control photo street riot

A sincere and zealous protestation against the over-abundance of motorised carriages together with some suggestions towards the elimination of this disgorge in the form of an open letter to all motorists.

Dear Motorists

The Absurdity of it All

There are these large pieces of metal hurtling around at high speed in residential areas. They are such a menace to life & limb that every journey made by any other means is chiefly spent dodging these monstrous objects. They are the single biggest cause of atmospheric pollution and global warming. They are the largest market for the warmongering oil industry. Their noise is the noise of the city. These cars are so central to the organisation of this society, especially the organisation of work, that an illusion has to be maintained that nobody sees anything wrong with the ever increasing number of cars.

Protecting ourselves from them has become our responsibility as pedestrians. It is not you who are supposed to stop, look and listen. Road safety is the very first thing that children are taught. We are all supposed to identify our own interests with that of the economy, that is to say, economic growth. One of the main indicators of a growing economy is rising car sales. Newsreaders announce a slump in the sales of cars with the same sober tone of voice used for unemployment statistics or terrorists attacks. Adverts, the Media, the very design of our cities, all assert that what is convenient for you the driver is convenient for everyone. This is part of a broader assumption that we all live in car sized family units and all want to get where we are going as quickly as possible.

In fact many people do see something wrong with this situation. But most of them are not drivers. Those people who lack the widespread privilege of a car generally lack the rarer privilege of a voice that may be heard. Most of us just mutter darkly about the subject on the top of busses and wave our arms impotently at zebra crossings. But some go further...

Your Journeys, our Bodies

"Where the MX-5 excels is in its ability to involve the driver in its every action, so that you very quickly feel you are just one of a wealth of moving parts, all in total harmony. Take the gear change, the way it snaps around its close gate is a revelation."
- Autocar & Motor

In 1991 a conference of British crime writers was asked "how would you kill someone?". Many ingenious means were proposed, some of which might make excellent mysteries: push them out the porthole, stab them with an icicle. Curiously, the commonest and most practical method suggested was to run them over with a car. Not only is the criminal already in the getaway vehicle when the crime is committed, but even if caught the punishment is likely to be footling. The alarming leniency shown towards murderous motorists is perhaps related to the dissonance between the declared purpose of penal justice and its practical results. To judge by these results, the chief function of legal punishments is not to deter crime but to create, consolidate and train an active criminal class. The spectre of such a subculture makes the rest of society more like a prison in its turn. We become fearful of leaving our cells and begin to regard our warders as protectors rather than oppressors. For criminality to be effectively terrifying it needs the figure of the rapist, the mugger, the burglar, the inexplicable outsider who strikes in the darkness, not the drunken sales rep driving home from the office party. Where fear of the outsider promotes conformity, fear of the sales rep promotes rebellion. So hit-and-run drivers do not get the publicity of serial killers. Their victims are just as dead.

In fact the laxity of punitive measures against deadly drivers is just one of a skein of double standards used to belittle the dangers of traffic. Politicians will dismiss a rise in crime figures as "mostly traffic offences", whilst becoming quite apoplectic about car theft and joyriding. Police complain that they wanted to catch villains but have "ended up on traffic duty". A single death in a rail-crash is headline news, meriting a public enquiry and the resignation of transport ministers, whilst the most horrific of motorway pileups is hardly worth a mention in the press.

In India the cow is supposedly a sacred animal to which motorists must give way. Nowhere in the world is the human being similarly sacred. The fact we cannot cross the road if you are coming is so obvious, so banal, that it scarcely seems questionable. Yet surely this was not always the case, there was a time when we had the right of way. So how did this happen? Imagine a world where you always had to stop for us. What would it be like? And would you spend $20,000 on a car under such circumstances? Perhaps this is the key to the mystery. Perhaps we should not ask: how does society tolerate the annual slaughter of 5000 people a year in Britain, of a million people globally? Perhaps we should ask: how would a society of motorists tolerate anything else? To us, this slaughter is one of the car's many drawbacks. To you, it is one of its many advantages. It is the risk of driving that makes it exciting for you. You consider your car a form of liberty because the only liberty you can imagine is the liberty to kill and maim others. Your life is planned and ritualised in its every detail. Your pension plan, your mortgage and your sexlife are finalised decades in advance. Is it any wonder you hunger for the thrill of reckless driving? Is driving not the only piece of work you do without a supervisor watching over your shoulder? Is it not the only thing you ever do, on your own terms, for your self? Is it even the only time of any sort that you get to yourself?

Could this be why you are so aggressive when you drive? Is it as much a bored kind of desperation as an arrogant kind of machismo? A man's car says a lot about him. But as you edge your way through a traffic jam at less than walking pace, you have only the potential to reach the dangerous, erotic speed promised in the advert. If this is true, then you have been sold a pup. You have been sold danger without excitement. You have the liberty to go anywhere you like, as long as there is a multistory at the other end. You have been sold a mere representation of freedom, an individuality that is just like everyone else's, that is just enough to allow you to tolerate your intolerable daily life. We do not weep for you or the time you have spent working to pay for your car and its petrol. We weep for ourselves because drunk or sober you are mutilating and killing us.

The Transformation of the City

".... the efforts of all established powers to increase the means of maintaining order in the streets finally culminates in the suppression of the street."
- Guy Debord. society of the Spectacle: 172. 1967
"Urban transportation has to do not only with moving people and goods into, out of and through the city but also with spatial organisation of all human activities within it."
- John W.Dyckman. Transportation in Cities. Scientific American September 1965

In the former Vicar Lane Bus Station in Leeds there is a notice which says: "National Car parks would like to apologise to bus passengers for any inconvenience caused by the demolition of this bus station and its conversion into a car park." That's OK lads, don't mention it. Simply in terms of passenger numbers, replacing a bus station with parking space for 20 cars is hardly efficient. And there is more to cities than efficiency. Vicar lane Bus Station was no pleasure-dome but it did at least provide a meeting place with shelter and seats. A car park in contrast is dead space, empty and functional. It is there only to allow work to happen somewhere else. Many other examples could prove the same point- that even if cars could exist without being traffic, for instance if they could jaunt through hyperspace from A to B without occupying any of the points in between, then they would still be a considerable nuisance in terms of their occupation of urban space. They are far larger than the single human being they often carry. They are privately owned and therefore stand idle much time (which makes the short life-span of their planned obsolescence all the more laughable). They take you to work, to the shops, to the cinema and home again, so that each car through parking occupies an area larger than most people's homes.

In any case, cars do not exist independently of traffic, they occupy far more space as moving traffic than as parked objects. They are such a poor mode of transport that they cannot go anywhere without special surfaces called 'roads' to drive on, without workshops to mend them, petrol stations to refuel them, without insurance offices, bridges, and of course hospitals. Car occupied land takes up shocking proportions of most cities: 23% of London, 29% of Tokyo, 44% of Los Angeles.

This would be a dreadful state of affairs in itself but it is exacerbated by the nature of the urban space that traffic has stolen. If we consider a threefold division of non-car space into:
* Private space Eg. Houses, Gardens
* Public spaces e.g. parks, squares etc.
* Corporate space, that owned by private firms or rendered inaccessible to public use by the state e.g. police stations, DSS offices, workplaces, shops and colleges;
then several tendencies can be seen within the changing economy of space. Firstly when gender power is mediated by space, it usually happens within these categories, not between them. Although sexual harassment on the street is able to cross the boundary between car space and public space. Secondly, a gradual conquest of public space by corporate space is in progress. The replacement of city squares by corporately owned shopping centres is an example of this. Thirdly while private space is obviously unaffected by the conquest of public areas it is far from being equitably distributed between its various users. Lastly car space is in a continuous state of expansion with public space as its chief victim.

These developments obviously do not provide the greatest freedom of movement for everyone. More finely guarded tiers of accessibility ranging from genuinely private (not just family) space through overlapping levels of community specific and use specific space to large expanses of genuinely public (not just traffic dominated) space, would provide far greater freedom of movement and so of activity. Though this could not happen unless everybody had at least the spatial control over their own bodies. Current spatial economies dictate activity by channelling movement along narrow corridors, which link highly controlled environments such as the toy superstore, the workplace and the family home. The prospect that a city could be something more than a convenient set of roads linking controlled spaces seems very distant today, at a time when even the most imposing buildings have an air of monetary expedience about them. But even in Victorian England, hardly a utopian society, public space was an automatic consideration of any architectural project.

Roads determine not only the relative proportions of each type of space but also their distribution. As more people have cars, or rather as more money is spent by motorists, the more places become out of reach to people who do not have cars, witness the exodus of shops from high streets to ring-roads. Ironically the machine that is sold on its ability to bequeath freedom of movement and its ability to cover distances actually creates as much distance as it traverses. So the two dominant tendencies in the spatial distribution of urban activities, namely traffic imperialism and urban zoning, are entirely due to the dominance of the motor vehicle over transportation as a whole. The car is replacing things you want to do with things you have to do, whilst simultaneously moving the things you have to do further away from each other. This impoverishes your already debased life, as you must spend longer and longer hours in front of the wheel. It also impoverishes our lives, as more facilities move out of our reach, our movements are channelled along ever narrower predetermined paths, we have more and more roads to cross and they are ever busier and more dangerous.

The final irony is that you can gain no satisfaction from all the space that is being so generously turned over to your use. you do not actually use the space that you pass through even though you prevent us from using it, all you do is try to mitigate it by passing through it as quickly as possible. As far as you are concerned you are never really in it at all, you just watch it go by, a boring television programme projected onto your windscreen. And the more space there is for you to wish that you did not have to drive through, the more unhappy you are because the more obstacles there are to your progress: other cars. You must hate cars, really hate them, more than we, as pedestrians, can ever imagine.

The Necessity of Driving

In a way though, driving has been forced on you. Many suburbs of Los Angeles do not even have pavements. Milton Keynes is little better. Life for many people is now impossible without a car. In order to either earn or spend money, the car has become a necessity. What is this doing to people? Advertisements claim that driving is a form of freedom, a kind of power. The ads are telling the truth but at the same time they're lying. Because cars are expensive, and speak of the physical control of space, they have become emblematic of wealth. Because male sexuality has been constructed as mechanical and thrusting, and because the car is a scale model of the nuclear family, cars have come to represent male power. As a driver you have power over pedestrians and passengers and urban space; so the car represents its own reality: motor power.

But the car can only take you where the car has already been. Driving is like shopping in a big supermarket. You are in a little bubble of your own and accountable to no-one. You can buy (drive to) any product (prefabricated destination) you like, but you can only chose from what is on offer. You are isolated and at the same time re-incorporated into a grand scheme of domination. You feel privileged but you are being used. The powers that be prefer roads to streets because a busy highway is just a prison with mobile cells. A driver can leave the road but can no more influence others to do likewise than a corpse can start an insurrection in a cemetery. A car is an accident looking for somewhere to happen and the more people have cars the more similar everywhere becomes, so the less meaningful is your "freedom of movement".

By arranging the space in which human activity takes place, the road network prearranges our movements. Even a 'Holiday' is nothing but one long journey, a linear sequence of experiences with no connecting structure but "What's next?". Ultimately the prescribing of experiences, prescribes emotions. You have no more power to influence the pictures on the windscreen on your way to work, than those on the television screen at home, so you feel powerless. Separation makes us feel lonely. Endless repetition of the same little rituals, enforced by the intractability of urban geography, makes us feel bored.

We can observe our boredom, just as we can observe a car park and feel as little empowered to do away with one as the other. The boredom is the consequence of the car-park and the car-park is the reification, the translation into the material world, of the boredom. This boredom is nothing less than the boredom of the market itself. It takes place within our tiny bubbles. It is a secret and lonely misery, as hidden as the misery of the widows of the motor-car, dreaming every night of their husbands burning helplessly to death, strapped to a plastic seat on a motorway.

The Transformation of the Planet

And as if this is not bad enough, it is getting worse. This traffic system can only exist in a state of perpetual expansion. It increases the distances over which goods and people must be transported. Then, ingeniously, it offers a solution to this problem: the car and the truck. It creates unsafe, empty, hateful streets, then offers the car as a form of safety. It creates a rich world greedy for status lifestyles and endless raw materials, then offers itself as an index of the degree of "development" of the poor world. Just as it is transforming the city it is transforming the rest of the planet.

Mining ores for raw materials carves great opencast scars in the landscape, often dispossessing native pedestrians of their lands and livelihoods at the same time. The ores are processed in huge plants. The metals and components are shipped across the globe in leaky hulks. Lives are warped in factories that assemble components, on plantations that grow rubber, in the mines and in the refineries, in the forges and the crippling foundries. And at every stage, up until throwing the burnt out wreckage of the finished product into a concrete ditch, hauling the used tyres out to sea by the barge-load and chucking the acid leaking batteries into a river, pollution is pumping out into the atmosphere, seeping into the hydro-sphere and being buried in the mud.

On top of this, cars need petrol which pollutes at its points of production and consumption and at every point in between: the supertanker, the filling station and the engine of your car. The fumes from burning petrol are the largest artificial source of atmospheric carbon in the world. The main carbon sinks which take carbon out of the atmosphere are the rainforests and the plankton of the southern seas. Unfortunately the rainforests are being destroyed and the plankton threatened by the ozone depletion ( a process itself accelerated by car fumes). Even without this destruction, the sinks would be unable to cope with the current number of cars. What is actually at stake here is the ecology of the entire surface of the planet.

The earth is not in itself amenable to human, or any other, life. Its current surface temperature and atmospheric composition have come about through interrelations between organism over the last three thousand million years and are even today sustained solely by the continuance of those interrelations. It is totally obvious that killing enough of these organisms and pumping enough shite into the air, sea and soil is likely to interfere with these delicate feedback loops. The surface of Earth could easily be made as hostile to life as the surfaces of Mars or Venus. The extinction of our species does not necessarily follow from this. If Moon and Mars bases can be contemplated, if artificial orbital biospheres can be devised, then life could still continue on a devastated Earth. Cities framed by geodisc domes or buried in caves of steel are no less feasible in purely engineering terms than say, the channel tunnel. It is this very feasibility of life in a completely artificial environment that belies the idea that the classes responsible for the Earth's current malaise will eventually be thanked for our salvation.

Green experts assure us they know what they are doing, and hurry up with the next 25K wage packet please, but the assertion that the holders of planetary power are not crazed enough to really, really do it is no more convincing than in the days of Mutually Assured Destruction. It does not matter which are psychotic and which benevolent, because the holders of power are always beholden to power itself. In a world governed by stock prices the buck stops nowhere. It passes Tokyo to London to New York and back to Tokyo again. Why should they care if the whole world is turned into a radiation soaked desert? If no human being can ever see the light of day with their own eyes? What does it mean for them if every beautiful and useless creature in the world is exterminated for ever? If we are reduced to drinking our own piss miles underground, dependent on them for every breath of oxygen we take? And if they are willing to save the biosphere at this late hour then why do the greenest among them proclaim that the rainforests should be rescued only in order that the plants be used to make herbal shampoo? If they care about the quality of life that their underlings lead, then why are millions striving in the south of the world to feed the debts imposed by the banks in the north?

The truth is that ecological disaster would be a stroke of luck for those that benefit from the domination of our lives. The car is an effective device for representing and extending power over space. Yet it is still vulnerable. While our air is still just about breathable, while the experience of sunshine on one's face still remains; then anyone can torch a car, pull a statue, burn down a bank or knock five terraced houses together to make a rambling commune. On the other hand the destruction of the atmosphere, would entail a massive centralisation of political power. The retreat into the silvery domed cities would make physical attacks upon the superstructure of urban life and economic power not only difficult but suicidal. In effect we'd all be living in one huge car and you can't set fire to one when your sitting in the back seat.

Life Beyond the Windscreen

"Why do people have to dash off somewhere? Just look at your kitten - it's dozing so peacefully! Machines will bring a new oppression of man. They will only stir up envy and competitiveness. The Revolution is in Jeopardy, but it will not be destroyed. If we win, then we shall annihilate these motors. Instead, we shall plant the groves of Jean-Jacques..."
- Unknown, Moscow, 1921
"We are holding this street to ransom till every car is a flowerpot and every road an allotment"
- Brighton Reclaim the Streets, Valentines Day 1996

We are not bursting with alternative methods of transport for you to go to all your ridiculous shopping centres, office blocks and so on. We are not going to sell you a ticket for the airship or a pony for the tow path. We do not believe in improving public transport. We loathe public transport. We hate paying for it, waiting for it, looking out of its windows at dirty, car choked streets.

Without traffic cities could come alive. If transport were both superseded and liberated then the countryside would become just as unrecognisable. Supersedence would allow vast swathes of public land to be freed towards making a city an exciting and pleasant place to be. Gigantic roundabouts in city centres would become the public forums once more, planted with trees and gurgling with fountains. The broad highways that slice our cities into fragments would become the genuine thoroughfares, linking communities rather than dispersing them. There would be an end to roads and we would have streets to walk down. Perhaps some would have canals cut along their centres with decorative footbridges and beautiful plumed birds stepping gingerly across lily pads. If activities were less geographically dispersed they might be forced to become smaller in scale. People would be brought into daily contact with one another. Streets would not be deserted, so street crime would become virtually impossible, making trust between diverse individuals and communities a realistic goal rather than empty liberal rhetoric. All of which would make feasible the idea of municipal democracy, the idea of small local areas being directly governed by their inhabitants. Workers councils in a factory would not bring workers control over production, if the factory just made components to be assembled elsewhere into an unknown machine. Similarly in the cities of today municipal democracy would not give people control over the conditions of their lives, they are assembled elsewhere. The supersedence of transport would, at the very least, create a possibility of democracy.

Transports supersedence would open the way to its liberation. No longer bound by the rationalities of traffic, of daily repetition, of time, economy and above all safety; no longer taking place through ravaged lifeless, empty ugliness, all journeys could become pleasurable, even frivolous. All movement could be joyriding. As I write the Crab-apple trees outside my window have just been cut down by the council because drivers thought it a nuisance to find windfalls in their bonnets. It is amazing that you spend so much time cleaning and polishing machines that make every thing else in sight a filthy stinking mess. Crab-apple trees are not a nuisance. Cars are a nuisance. Without cars we could have trees everywhere: Limes, Alders, Rowans, a line of dark poplars instead of the Westway, Great Oaks instead of the Brent Cross flyover. Where do you think oxygen comes from anyway? Out of your fucking exhaust pipe?

These changes would not be guarantied by the abandonment of cars, but the lack of these changes is guarantied by your persistence in driving them. There is nothing revolutionary about anything so rational as abolishing the car, though it might take a revolution to liquidate the multinationaly vested interests that prevents such rationality being achievable.

Rebelling Against The Car

To recap: lots of people hate cars, its just that you don't hear much about it because there is very little overlap between people who hate cars and people who own newspapers and TV companies. Campaigning against the car, its spatial domination, its destruction has a peculiar advantage over recent campaigns of direct action. Unlike warehouses, politicians and nuclear rockets, motor cars and their conduits are not hard to find. The thing that is so infuriating about them is also what makes them so vulnerable: they are absolutely everywhere.

Traffic is not just an issue to be dealt with by reformist measures like the granting of pedestrian precincts, pelican crossings and so forth. This is not to say that reformists haven't achieved reforms. However reform cannot challenge the political power of the Road as an institution, nor the power of Capital which it serves. In fact piffling restrictions on the car only serve to reinforce and legitimate the machinery of motor power, rather like the way that abuse spotting social workers can only legitimate the everyday barbarism of the Family, by picking out its most "dysfunctional" exemplers. We no more recognise the distinction between "green" cars and others, between "green" petrol and its rival products, than the macho distinction of performance between "good" and bad driving.

We hate cars because we are sick of seeing our world around us torn apart, a world where we have no control over anything we do. We are sick of watching ourselves do the necessary. We could be participating in the enjoyable. There is a distinction between watching a spectacle of life and really truly living. Unfortunately those anarchists ( whoops, out of the closet now) who have adopted this distinction as part of their opinions have often obscured practical political activities that tend to confirm their theories.

Luckily though there are many car haters turning their hatred into successful, collective, playful transgressions of the law of the motor car. For instance, in February '96 alone, cyclists in 17 towns brought traffic to a standstill in the now monthly Critical M@ss demonstrations, thousands fought the construction of the Newbury Bypass while 5 other anti road campaigns across the country occupied territory against the Department of Transport, car showrooms were invaded by activists in Glasgow, roadbuilders offices occupied in Winchester, London & Southampton, 600 raving car haters reclaimed a major road in Brighton on St.Valentines day for 4 hours listening to live bands, dozens of drummers, boinging on a bouncy castle in the middle of the street while eating pink candyfloss and loudly and lavishly proclaiming 'Snog Not Smog!'. There is a growing movement raving and ranting against the car.

But if we affect to despise this system so much, as it presents itself as all a society could ever possibly be, if we hate everything that is part of it, if we are such nihilists as to despise any silly little single issue campaign and favour only an assault on all fronts, then why pick on the car? Is it that the car is a symbol? Well symbol it definitely is but it is also a physical reality. Its ceaseless traffic in traffic is what stops us enjoying life. And maybe even what stops us communicating with you. That's why we want to smash your windscreen; we want to break through to you and tell that there's a world out here. We want to reach out to you and prise your hands from the sweaty steering wheel and gently lift you out of the car. Before we pour petrol on the seat and set light to the ugly thing. By petrol was it born and by petrol shall it die. So don't say you've not been warned.

"Things all got too much for author Kudno Mojesic. He was arrested in the street outside his Belgrade home attacking cars with an axe, yelling 'Away with all cars, they are the devil's work!'"

Reclaim the Streets

Some relevant links:
The Importance of the Car to the Modern Economy
The Ecological Effects of Roads
Oil and the Future
Away with all cars

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