Unchecked speed is expensive, and progressively fewer can afford it. Each increment in the velocity of a vehicle results in an increase in the cost of propulsion and track construction and---most dramatically---in the space the vehicle devours while it is on the move. Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a world-wide class structure of speed capitalists is created. The exchange-value of time becomes dominant, and this is reflected in language: time is spent, saved, invested, wasted, and employed. As societies put price tags on time, equity and vehicular speed correlate inversely.

High speed capitalizes a few people's time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all. In Bombay, only a very few people own cars. They can reach a provincial capital in one morning and make the trip once a week. Two generations ago, this would have been a week-long trek once a year. They now spend more time on more trips. But these same few also disrupt, with their cars, the traffic flow of thousands of bicycles and pedicabs that move through downtown Bombay at a rate of effective locomotion that is still superior to that of downtown Paris, London, or New York. The compounded, transport-related time expenditure within a society grows much faster than the time economies made by a few people on their speedy excursions. Traffic grows indefinitely with the availability of high-speed transports. Beyond a critical threshold, the output of the industrial complex established to move people costs a society more time than it saves. The marginal utility of an increment in the speed of a small number of people has for its price the growing marginal disutility of this acceleration for the great majority.

Beyond a critical speed, no one can save time without forcing another to lose it. The man who claims a seat in a faster vehicle insists that his time is worth more than that of the passenger in a slower one. Beyond a certain velocity, passengers become consumers of other people's time, and accelerating vehicles become the means for effecting a net transfer of life-time. The degree of transfer is measured in quanta of speed. This time grab despoils those who are left behind, and since they are the majority, it raises ethical issues of a more general nature than the lottery that assigns kidney dialysis or organ transplants.

Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few. A new dirt road through the wilderness brings the city within view, but not within reach, of most Brazilian subsistence farmers. The new expressway expands Chicago, but it sucks those who are well-wheeled away from a downtown that decays into a ghetto.

Contrary to what is often claimed, man's speed remained unchanged from the Age of Cyrus to the Age of Steam. News did not travel more than a hundred miles per day, no matter how the message was carried. Neither the Inca's runners nor the Venetian galley, the Persian horseman, or the mail coach on regular runs under Louis XIV broke the barrier. Soldiers, explorers, merchants, and pilgrims moved at twenty miles per day. In Valéry's words, Napoleon still had to move at Caesar's slowness: Napoléon va à la même lenteur que César. The emperor knew that ``public prosperity is measured by the income of the coaches'': On mesure la prospérité publique aux comptes des diligences, but he could barely speed them up. Paris---Toulouse had required about 200 hours in Roman times, and the scheduled stagecoach still took 158 hours in 1740, before the opening of the new Royal Roads. Only the nineteenth century accelerated man. By 1830, the trip had been reduced to 110 hours, but at a new cost. In the same year, 4,150 stagecoaches overturned in France, causing more than a thousand deaths. Then the railroad brought a sudden change. By 1855, Napoleon III claimed to have hit 96 kilometers per hour on the train somewhere between Paris and Marseilles. Within one generation, the average distance traveled each year per Frenchman increased one hundred and thirty times, and Britain's railroad network reached its greatest expansion. Passenger trains attained their optimum cost calculated in terms of time spent for their maintenance and use.

With further acceleration, transportation began to dominate traffic, and speed began to erect a hierarchy of destinations. By now, each set of destinations corresponds to a specific level of speed and defines a certain passenger class. Each circuit of terminal points degrades those pegged at a lower number of miles per hour. Those who must get around on their own power have been redefined as underdeveloped outsiders. Tell me how fast you go and I'll tell you who you are. If you can corner the taxes that fuel the Concorde, you are certainly at the top.

Over the last two generations, the vehicle has become the sign of career achievement, just as the school has become the sign of starting advantage. At each new level, the concentration of power must produce its own kind of rationale. So, for example, the reason that is usually given for spending public money to make a man travel more miles in less time each year is the still greater investment that was made to keep him more years in school. His putative value as a capital-intensive production tool sets the rate at which he is being shipped. Other ideological labels besides ``a good education'' are just as useful for opening the cabin door to luxuries paid for by others. If the Thought of Chairman Mao must now be rushed around China by jet, this can only mean that two classes are needed to fuel what his revolution has become, one of them living in the geography of the masses and the other in the geography of the cadres. The suppression of intermediary levels of speed in the People's Republic has certainly made the concentration of power more efficient and rational, but it also underscores the new difference in value between the time of the bullock driver and the time of the jet-driven. Acceleration inevitably concentrates horsepower under the seats of a few and compounds the increasing time lack of most commuters with the further sense that they are lagging behind.

The need for unequal privilege in an industrial society is generally advocated by means of an argument with two sides. The hypocrisy of this argument is clearly betrayed by acceleration. Privilege is accepted as the necessary precondition for improving the lot of a growing total population, or it is advertised as the instrument for raising the standards of a deprived minority. In the long run, accelerating transportation does neither. It only creates a universal demand for motorized conveyance and puts previously unimaginable distances between the various layers of privilege. Beyond a certain point, more energy means less equity.

created 95-06-20, last modified 95-07-15 by Ira Woodhead / Frank Keller