Opinion: Slow Transportation Should Be a Human Right

Photo: Kimchi, CC
Photo: Kimchi, CC

On certain treasured Fridays, when the stars align just right, I leave my car at home and walk to meet my friends at the bar for our weekly after-work drink.

The trip is not fast — about an hour each way, versus an eight-minute drive — so if I have to work even a few minutes late, walking is off the table if I want to make the tail end of happy hour. To be honest, it’s is not even an entirely pleasant journey; parts of it take me through neighborhoods with corroded sidewalks and alongside drivers racing by at 35 miles per hour or more. In the summer, I breathe humid, 100-degree air that is thick with exhaust; in the winter, I hold my breath as I cross icy sidewalks that no one bothered to clear.

But despite these things, my slow, semi-weekly walk to the bar is a small ritual I value deeply, and I enjoy it infinitely more than any trip I take in a car. And based on the response to a tweet I fired off the other day about how much I value going slow — over 3,000 likes and 340 retweets and counting — I know that I am not alone.

You might find this deluge of support for slowness surprising. I don’t blame you. American culture, and particularly American transportation culture, is profoundly rooted in the idea that traveling fast is best — because if we don’t, that culture insists, we won’t be able to make or spend money efficiently enough to retain our position as a global economic superpower.

In a society where speed is a core cultural and economic value — what French philosopher Paul Virillo called a “dromocracy,” riffing off the Ancient Greek word “dromos,” or speed — people who move in slow ways that don’t generate or consume maximum capital are ignored, while maximizing the velocity of “commuters” becomes a policy obsession.

It’s the reason why we track journey-to-work times on every national census and don’t bother to record trips to the park or the library or to walk our kids home from school. It’s why engineers obsess over optimizing “level of service” on the roads they design — and also why they don’t overhaul those designs when speed-focused designs directly cause metrics like human lives lost to skyrocket.

When sustainable transportation advocates talk about the problems of dromocracy, though, we don’t often talk about the comparative value of slowness — or what a society that prioritizes the human right to move at human speeds might look like.

Again, I understand why.  So much of the slowness we experience when we walk, or bike, or take transit in the U.S. is not the kind of glorious, romantic diversions rhapsodized about by 18th-century flâneurs with deep pockets and nowhere to be.

It’s the hour-long wait in the rain for a bus that never comes, then being fired when you finally make it to work late for the third time this week. It’s the roundabout 45 minute slog to the grocery store in a power wheelchair that you don’t really have time to take, but you do, because there is no sidewalk on the direct route. It’s the unique dread of walking home alone at night and knowing in your gut that someone who could harm you is following close behind, and you are too slow to outrun them.

All these kinds of slowness, needless to say, are experienced to a disproportionate degree by people who are socially or racially marginalized, and they are disproportionately the invention of policymakers, professionals, police, and perpetrators who are disproportionately not.

These slownesses, though, are not the ones we choose. They are imposed upon us by a dromocratic society that either wants us to speed up, or wants us to get out of the way of those who can speed up.

Chosen slowness, I’d argue, is something entirely different. It’s the relief of your nervous system regulating itself on the bike ride home from a tough day at work, the multi-sensory experience of your neighborhood without the mediating barrier of a windshield, the serendipitous stop to look in a shop window or to help a lost dog find his way home without having to maneuver 2,000 pounds of metal into a parking space first.

It’s the pleasure of movement itself, in a society that would probably teleport us all directly to the places where we work or consume, if we could just find a way to make teleportation profitable. It is undoubtedly a privilege, in many cases, but it shouldn’t be. And it can absolutely be a form of resistance.

Of course, there is such a thing as joyfully chosen speed, and it is not always a bad thing — at least when that speed does not infringe upon another’s right to choose slowness or safety. I am not at all arguing against the high speed rail line through the countryside, or the sidewalk that carves a safe shortcut between the apartment complex and the pharmacy.

What I am arguing, though, is that America’s particular breed of dromocracy threatens these things as well. And that is because we do not just value speed: we value speed that facilitates the rapid exchange of capital, especially when the act of moving at that speed itself involves capital exchange.

Make no mistake: dromocracy does not love bus rapid transit that forces a few dozen drivers to sit in traffic for three extra minutes while delivering 75 people living near the federal poverty line to their destinations on a dedicated right of way.

A fast bus — or a fast train, or a protected bike path that carries you quickly downtown without cheating through twenty low-traffic neighborhoods — might move fast, sure, but the people on board it don’t consume quickly enough. Not enough fuel is burned. Not enough electric cars are sold. Not enough people are accumulating sedentary lifestyle diseases connected to long highway commutes that require profitable medical intervention. There aren’t enough opportunities for traffic stops that generate the fines upon which whole police department and even city budgets rely, and there certainly aren’t enough of the specific drivers — poor and racialized ones — who lack the resources to fight back. (Which is not to say, of course, that slow and shared modes don’t need to be decarcerated too.)

What if, though, we created a world where we could joyfully choose speed or slowness — by putting vehicles capable of traveling at high speed in their proper place well away from the slow crowd, and letting the rest of the world move at whatever pace feels good for their unique body and abilities?

Put more simply: what if we viewed access to safe and joyful forms of slowness as a fundamental right?

In his forthcoming essay collection, Walk: Slow Down,Wake Up, And Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Houractivist Jonathan Stalls proposed a sort of bill of rights, not just for pedestrians, but for anyone who moves through the world in a human body. It’s a long and beautiful list, but some of my favorites were these:

I have a right to move the way I am made to.

I have a right to feel safe, comfortable and connected to my surroundings.

I have a right to nourish my cells, neurons and breath with healthy movement.

I have a right to process emotion, stress, and trauma the way I am made to.

We, the beloved human story representing all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, ages, and backgrounds, have a right to safely move by foot or on a wheelchair on all public streets.

I want to live in a world where those rights are enshrined not just in our transportation policy, but in our labor policy, our civil rights policy, our healthcare system, and all our systems of justice and accountability.

I want to live in a world where it makes no sense to spend trillions of dollars on expanding a highway based on the dubious idea that punching the clock a nanosecond earlier will put real money in millions of employees’ pockets, as if employers did not always find some way to claw that fraction of a penny back.

I want to live in a world where we track metrics like accessibility and household transportation costs and lives saved in car crashes as obsessively as we currently track speeds.

I want to live in a world where we overwhelmingly invest our money, energy, and creativity into creating extraordinary, anti-racist, human-scaled places instead of overwhelmingly in highways.

I think there is a world beyond dromocracy. But we have to really slow down and think about how to get there.

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