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The combination of transportation and transit that constitutes traffic has provided us with an example of socially optimal per capita wattage and of the need for politically chosen limits on it. But traffic can also be viewed as but one model for the convergence of world-wide development goals, and as a criterion by which to distinguish those countries that are lamely underequipped from those that are destructively overindustrialized.
A country can be classified as underequipped if it cannot outfit each citizen with a bicycle or provide a five-speed transmission as a bonus for anyone who wants to pedal others around. It is underequipped if it cannot provide good roads for the cycle, or free motorized public transportation (though at bicycle speed!) for those who want to travel for more than a few hours in succession. No technical, economic, or ecological reason exists why such backwardness should be tolerated anywhere in 1975. It would be a scandal if the natural mobility of a people were forced to stagnate on a pre-bicycle level against its will.
A country can be classified as overindustrialized when its social life is dominated by the transportation industry, which has come to determine its class privileges, to accentuate its time scarcity, and to tie its people more tightly to the tracks it has laid out for them.
Beyond underequipment and overindustrialization, there is a place for the world of postindustrial effectiveness, where the industrial mode of production complements other autonomous forms of production. There is a place, in other words, for a world of technological maturity. In terms of traffic, it is the world of those who have tripled the extent of their daily horizon by lifting themselves onto their bicycles. It is just as much the world marked by a variety of subsidiary motors available for the occasions when a bicycle is not enough and when an extra push will limit neither equity nor freedom. And it is, too, the world of the long voyage: a world where every place is open to every person, at his own pleasure and speed, without haste or fear, by means of vehicles that cross distances without breaking with the earth which man walked for hundreds of thousands of years on his own two feet.
Underequipment keeps people frustrated by inefficient labor and invites the enslavement of man by man. Overindustrialization enslaves people to the tools they worship, fattens professional hierarchs on bits and on watts, and invites the translation of unequal power into huge income differentials. It imposes the same net transfers of power on the productive relations of every society, no matter what creed the managers profess, no matter what rain-dance, what penitential ritual they conduct. Technological maturity permits a society to steer a course equally free of either enslavement. But beware---that course is not charted. Technological maturity permits a variety of political choices and cultures. The variety diminishes, of course, as a community allows industry to grow at the cost of autonomous production. Reasoning alone can offer no precise measure for the level of postindustrial effectiveness and technological maturity appropriate to a concrete society. It can only indicate in dimensional terms the range into which these technological characteristics must fit. It must be left to a historical community engaged in its own political process to decide when programming, space distortion, time scarcity, and inequality cease to be worth its while. Reasoning can identify speed as the critical factor in traffic. Reasoning combined with experimentation can identify the order of magnitude at which vehicular speed turns into a sociopolitical determinant. No genius, no expert, no club of elites can set limits to industrial outputs that will be politically feasible. The need for such limits as an alternative to disaster is the strongest argument in favor of radical technology.
Only when the speed limits of vehicles reflect the enlightened self-interest of a political community can these limits become operative. Obviously this interest cannot even be expressed in a society where one class monopolizes not only transportation but communication, medicine, education, and weapons as well. It does not matter if this power is held by legal owners or by entrenched managers of an industry that is legally owned by the workers. This power must be reappropriated and submitted to the sound judgment of the common man. The reconquest of power starts with the recognition that expert knowledge blinds the secretive bureaucrat to the obvious way of dissolving the energy crisis, just as it blinded him to the obvious solution to the war in Vietnam.
There are two roads from where we are to technological maturity: one is the road of liberation from affluence; the other is the road of liberation from dependence. Both roads have the same destination: the social restructuring of space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the center of the world is where he stands, walks, and lives.
Liberation from affluence begins on the traffic islands where the rich run into one another. The well-sped are tossed from one island to the next and are offered but the company of fellow passengers en route to somewhere else. This solitude of plenty would begin to break down as the traffic islands gradually expanded and people began to recover their native power to move around the place where they lived. Thus, the impoverished environment of the traffic island could embody the beginnings of social reconstruction, and the people who now call themselves rich would break with bondage to overefficient transport on the day they came to treasure the horizon of their traffic islands, now fully grown, and to dread frequent shipments from their homes.
Liberation from dependence starts at the other end. It breaks the constraints of village and valley and leads beyond the boredom of narrow horizons and the stifling oppression of a world closed in on itself. To expand life beyond the radius of tradition without scattering it to the winds of acceleration is a goal that any poor country could achieve within a few years, but it is a goal that will be reached only by those who reject the offer of unchecked industrial development made in the name of an ideology of indefinite energy consumption.
Liberation from the radical monopoly of the transportation industry is possible only through the institution of a political process that demystifies and disestablishes speed and limits traffic-related public expenditures of money, time, and space to the pursuit of equal mutual access. Such a process amounts to public guardianship over a means of production to keep this means from turning into a fetish for the majority and an end for the few. The political process, in turn, will never engage the support of a vast majority unless its goals are set with reference to a standard that can be publicly and operationally verified. The recognition of a socially critical threshold of the energy quantum incorporated in a commodity, such as a passenger mile, provides such a standard. A society that tolerates the transgression of this threshold inevitably diverts its resources from the production of means that can be shared equitably and transforms them into fuel for a sacrificial flame that victimizes the majority. On the other hand, a society that limits the top speed of its vehicles in accordance with this threshold fulfills a necessary-though by no means a sufficient-condition for the political pursuit of equity.
Liberation which comes cheap to the poor will cost the rich dear, but they will pay its price once the acceleration of their transportation systems grinds traffic to a halt. A concrete analysis of traffic betrays the truth underlying the energy crisis: the impact of industrially packaged quanta of energy on the social environment tends to be degrading, exhausting, and enslaving, and these effects come into play even before those which threaten the pollution of the physical environment and the extinction of the race. The crucial point at which these effects can be reversed is not, however, a matter of deduction, but of decision.