Paradoxically, the concept of a traffic-optimal top speed for transport seems capricious or fanatical to the confirmed passenger, whereas it looks like the flight of the bird to the donkey driver. Four or six times the speed of a man on foot constitutes a threshold too low to be deemed worthy of consideration by the habitual passenger and too high to convey the sense of a limit to the three-quarters of humanity who still get around on their own power.

All those who plan, finance, or engineer other people's housing, transportation, or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration. Social scientists can build a computer model of traffic in Calcutta or Santiago, and engineers can design monorail webs according to abstract notions of traffic flow. Since these planners are true believers in problem-solving by industrial design, the real solution for traffic congestion is beyond their grasp. Their belief in the effectiveness of power blinds them to the disproportionately greater effectiveness of abstaining from its use. Traffic engineers have yet to combine in one simulation model the mobility of people with that of vehicles. The transportation engineer cannot conceive of the possibility of renouncing speed and slowing down for the sake of permitting time-and-destination-optimal traffic flow. He would never entertain the thought of programming his computer on the stipulation that no motorized vehicle within any city should ever overtake the speed of a velocipede. The development expert who looks down compassionately from his Land-Rover on the Indian peasant herding his pigs to market refuses to acknowledge the relative advantage of feet. The expert tends to forget that this man has dispensed ten others in his village from spending time on the road, whereas the engineer and every member of his family separately devote a major part of every day to transportation. For a man who believes that human mobility must be conceived in terms of indefinite progress, there can be no optimal level of traffic but only passing consensus on a given technical level of transportation.

Most Mexicans, not to speak of Indians and Chinese, are in a position inverse to that of the confirmed passenger. The critical threshold is entirely beyond what all but a few of them know or expect. They still belong to the class of the self-powered. Some of them have a lingering memory of a motorized adventure, but most of them have no personal experience of traveling at or above the critical speed. In the two typical Mexican states of Guerrero and Chiapas, less than one per cent of the population moved even once over ten miles in less than one hour during 1970. The vehicles into which people in these areas are sometimes crowded render traffic indeed more convenient, but barely faster than the speed of a bicycle. The third-class bus does not separate the farmer from his pig, and it takes them both to market without inflicting any loss of weight, but this acquaintance with motorized ``comfort'' does not amount to dependence on destructive speed.

The order of magnitude in which the critical threshold of speed can be found is too low to be taken seriously by the passenger, and too high to concern the peasant. It is so obvious it cannot be easily seen. The proposal of a limit to speed within this order of magnitude engenders stubborn opposition. It exposes the addiction of industrialized men to ever higher doses of energy, while it asks those who are still sober to abstain from something they have yet to taste.

To propose counterfoil research is not only a scandal, it is also a threat. Simplicity threatens the expert, who supposedly understands just why the commuter train runs at 8:15 and 8:41 and why it must be better to use fuel with certain additives. That a political process could identify a natural dimension, both inescapable and limited, is an idea that lies outside the passenger's world of verities. He has let respect for specialists he does not even know turn into unthinking submission. If a political resolution could be found for problems created by experts in the field of traffic, then perhaps the same remedy could be applied to problems of education, medicine, or urbanization. If the order of magnitude of traffic-optimal vehicular velocities could be determined by laymen actively participating in an ongoing political process, then the foundation on which the framework of every industrial society is built would be shattered. To propose such research is politically subversive. It calls in question the overarching consensus on the need for more transportation which now allows the proponents of public ownership to define themselves as political adversaries of the proponents of private enterprise.

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