Saturday, 1 October 2011

Carshare? No, don't think so.

We draw your attention to coverage of the risible failures of both "Car-Free Day" and "In Town Without My Car in Aberdeen", these active transport initiatives being handled in our town by the curious quango "GetAbout", which, according to their website is "a joint project featuring [sic] several organisations". Imagine our surprise when we noticed that they'd bought airtime on STV during Dickinson's Real Deal yesterday to screen an advert which promotes carsharing. In case you missed it:


In the video, you can follow the heartening tale of Cartoon Graeme and Cartoon Pete, both of whom commute from Westhill to Tullos every day. With the help of GetAbout's free service, they get hooked up to share cars and so save "about half" on their fuel costs. Right. So there are a few things wrong with that. Like the fact that just how, exactly, did they expect office workers on the 8.30 to 5.30 treadmill to see a TV ad-spot at quarter to three in the mid-afternoon? (We are happy to provide this "watch again catchup" service, free!)

But more fundamentally than that, the ad implies quite correctly that motoring is expensive (and, indeed, it is - costing about £550 per month for the average person running the average car, according to the RAC's 2010 figures). Counter-intuitively, this is why car-share promotion will fail in Aberdeen. It’s true that, whenever there’s a petrol-tax-hike or price increase because of record-high oil costs, we all see the STV cub reporter sent out to do his easy-peasy hack-work lazy boilerplate on “hard pressed” motorists who are “beleaguered” by record fuel prices. And there they are: motorists-in-solidarity-on-the-forecourt being interviewed; happy to be interviewed venting about paying “more than enough”. They roll their eyes and go through the motions of complaining bitterly, but if you look closely, if you examine the micro-gestures, you’ll see that their eyes are actually smiling – laughing even – with self-regarding relish. Oh yes, the motorists love to complain because in that complaining they get to boast about how much money they spend on running their cars, and how hard they work in extra overtime hours to keep the show on the road (how does car-sharing work when you're doing ad-hoc overtime, anyway?) This demonstrates that they are cash-rich and time-poor: the very badges of high status. Thus the ever-increasing cost of motoring affords the motorist a chance to perform Darwinian status-display dances. From the young contract engineer using his soft-top roadster as a fanny-magnet to the yummy-mummy piloting her oil-tanker-vast Range Rover around the centre of town on the yummy mummy money-go-round – higher motoring costs simply and conveniently serve to enhance status, for in Aberdeen motoring is now a Veblen Good; the more expensive it is, the greater its attraction. Indeed motoring today is the high status distilled essence of aspiration itself. This is why car-sharing in Aberdeen is doomed to fail. You wouldn’t want to look poor, now would you?

You see, car-sharing robs the motorist of his or her most potent status-symbol signpost. And, as our society is hierarchical, a lack of obvious signposts to status troubles the type of people (so common in this town) who have a pathological need to signal their place in the hierarchy to those around them. While the models and levels of spec of their vehicles are distinguished only artificially and superficially, it is enough - for the little cryptic collection of numbers and letters on the boot-lip is the urgent bip-bip-beep telegraph of their pay-grade, their rank, their position on the ladder; their level in the hierarchy. While of course all hierarchies are repulsive, arbitrary, artificial and absurd - they are the compelling organising principal of our society and are evident everywhere. The language of aspiration and the impulse to 'upgrade' is woven into the fabric of every aspect of late-stage consumer capitalism, and this is why the type of people so predominant in our town cling so tightly to their motorcars - for the alternative is a mode of transport which is less amenable to hierarchical status displays. Having spent a life on the upgrade cycle gathering those letters and numbers on the boot-lip of their car - those glyphs and cartouches which so shorthandedly signify their importance - to then tell them that it was all for nothing and that they must abandon these status-displays is to so undermine the foundations of their world-view that they cannot integrate it into reasonable discourse. You might as well tell them that everything they believe in and hold dear is demonstrably wrong, and that everything they think they have achieved and hope to go on to attain is just an illusion. It's like telling a toddler that Santa doesn't exist, and taking away their lollipop at the same time. The reaction you get is not good. For this reason, car-sharing will fail in this town.

But, more fundamentally even than that, we abhor the GetAbout carsharing campaign for it's wheedling compromise. We hate compromise. The premise (now uncontroversial) is that spending an hour a day, every working day, commuting by motorcar is harmful; economically and ecologically unsustainable; unbearably costly both to the individual and to larger society. It is now clear that so egregious are the harms caused by motor commuting and the normalisation of car-dependent motorcentric lifestyles, that the time has arrived for people of good conscience to demand an end to this bizarre fixation with personal motor transport. But, rather than do this, GetAbout prefer only to ask politely that those who perpetrate the harm do so just a little less, cut down a bit, please. Like nicely asking the house-breaker to burgle only houses with odd numbers, GetAbout have missed a chance to promote real beneficial change and instead choose the compromise of hand-wringing cringing negotiation with the wrong-doer. We hate compromise and we execrate negotiation. Both compromise and negotiation are signs of an initially dishonest lack of total commitment to the original premise. We must ask, what is it that GetAbout are afraid of? And why will they not commit fully to active and sustainable transport? Rather than this embarrassing and humiliating call for slightly less motoring, why cannot they just come out and deliver the message that the perceived necessity to build one's life around such an unsustainable commute to work is something which must now be rigorously questioned? GetAbout should be demanding that people make urgent efforts through their work/life choices to create a sustainable context in which to experience that life and work. This requires demanding denser mixed urban developments which allow living nearer to work or working nearer to home. It requires demanding that employers plan for, enable and compel workers to telecommute whenever possible. It requires demanding an immediate moratorium on expensive and unnecessary roadbuilding schemes (like the Aberdeen bypass motorway with its associated radial expressways) and the vast public subsidies consumed by these projects. It requires demanding continental-style commitment to diverse modes of public and active transport and a total ban on the provision of subsidised parking spaces for workers and residents.

What it does not require is the airing of a cheap silly little counterproductive cartoon on afternoon TV to needily beg ever so politely that the wrongdoers (who aren't watching anyway) do just a little bit less wrong all the while continuing to authorise and normalise their damaging levels of undesirable activity. The time for such cringing and cringeworthy compromise is over, because existential questions are now being asked of our civilisation as we enter this age of ecological crises and societal anomie. This long emergency, the slow motion crisis: Are we in it?  Has it started yet? How far in are we? Yes, we are in it. Yes, it has started. And how we behave today and tomorrow will determine how far in we go and whether it's possible to reverse the most grievous predictions outlined by the worst-case scenarios. How's your conscience?


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