Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Metropole and Fighting Traffic

Photograph taken from the Flickr stream of Martin Tomitsch and used under a Creative Commons licence.

A man boards a plane on his way to a conference and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself not at his intended destination but in a vast, unidentifiable city filled with unimaginable numbers of people. The traveller is an accomplished linguist, but he can't begin to make sense of the jabbering language spoken by the city's inhabitants. He can't even place it in a group of languages, or identify the script. Everywhere he is jostled by crowds and ignored or berated by taxi drivers or hotel staff.

This is the premise of Ferenc Karinthy's remarkable book Metropole, a classic in Hungary for 40 years and now translated into English by George Szirtes. "Nightmarish" is overused as a descriptive term in literature but Metropole has precisely the texture of a nightmare - it is stifling, desperate, lonely. The city presents Budai, the narrator, with a monolith of incomprehension and indifference. And, like a nightmare, the aftertaste of Metropole stays with you long after reading it - I have found myself thinking of it again and again, when fighting crowds on the Tube or trying to get down Oxford Street or attempting to make myself understood in a coffee shop.

Much of Metropole concerns itself with language, and Budai's agonising attempt to comprehend the scribbled, yapping mess written and spoken around him. The city would be hell for anyone, but it must be hell squared for a linguist. Budai must find a "way in" to the language, some corner of it that can be empirically understood by him without doubt, a loose thread to grab onto and pull. This inquiry is as much a decoding of the city as it is a decoding of the language. Budai identifies taxi cabs, metro stations, religious buildings and abattoirs; and he does this through architecture and design. All the time he is looking for a railway station which might be able to transport him to an airport, a frontier, a seaport, any place other than this city - spying station-like buildings he finds instead law courts and covered markets. The physical language of European cities is revealed to be simultaneously eloquent and limited.

Physical symbols - steps with yellow handrails leading underground mean a subway, a certain look of car is a taxi - are one lexicon within a city; social codes are another. Before Budai can achieve anything he has to discern social protocols such as when to queue and where to queue. He watches what other people are doing and does the same. Cities are all built on the side of a steep learning curve - they turn people into new people. New York is an exceptional example of this, a machine that takes immigrants and turns them into Americans. (Jonathan Raban's book Soft City is the unsurpassed description of these learning processes and the interaction between cities and our identity as individuals.) The city Budai is trapped in is rarely less than hostile, but without adaptation to its social codes it could be lethal.

To take an obvious example - when and where do you cross the street? An apparently simple question is in fact encrusted with acculturated with complex cultural considerations, a topic explored in detail in a very different book to Karinthy's, Fighting Traffic by Peter D Norton. Norton examines in scrupulous detail (the book is an expanded PHD thesis) the upheaval wrought by the automobile when it arrived on the streets of the American city.

"Cities treated the arrival of the automobile as they might any other emergency," Norton writes. Rather than being a seamless technological succession from one form of (horse-drawn) wheeled transport to another, the automobile blundered into a sophisticated street-level ecology. The death toll that resulted was a bona fide emergency for cities, and the way they reacted is fascinating. We know what happens in the end, of course: the automobile not only triumphs, but routs the pedestrian and the streetcar both in theory and in practise. They are not only practically driven out of a roadway that used to be shared, but their right to that space (which previously went without saying) was withdrawn. As late as 1926, there was nothing in law preventing pedestrians in Chicago from using any part of the street to do anything they wished, such as hold a conversation; the most restrictive interpretation of pedestrians' right was that cars had an equal right to the street. Try doing that today.

How did this come about? Norton examines the story from the perspective of the three main groups involved: anti-car groups, who at first had the whip hand in the debate; the police, who affected to be neutral but whose motives were in fact more complicated; and motorist groups. Part of the story unfolds at the level of public policy, as cities drafted legislation to counter the emergency and end the bloodshed, influenced by the various lobbies on either side of the debate. Given that the crisis was handled locally by scores of municipalities, there's considerable variation in response and the story twinkles with thousands of interesting facets and suggestions of how the aggregate course of history could have gone differently. A few lessons stick in the memory, though. First is that the hugely emotional, absolutist language that was used around health and safety - "surely XYZ is better than the death of a child!" - led to poor decision-making and poor outcomes for everyone. Secondly is that the police, far from being honest brokers, acted according to what was best for the police, rather than what was best for the city or it inhabitants. Segregated roadways were easier and cheaper to police than shared roadways, so the police pushed for segregation.

Still more interesting than the public policy side of the issue, and in the end more decisive, was its psychological side. New techniques for living in cities had to be explained to the public, with the different pressure groups all advertising their own interpretation of how public space should be used, dressed up in fine language about "justice", "freedom" and so on. "Success would require the best salesmanship techniques of 20th-century marketing," writes Norton. The future of public space was decided in memespace - by a battle of messages and ideas.

At first, the anti-car safety campaigners called the shots. Drivers were maniacs, "speed demons", privileged toy-owners killing children, intruders in the city. The onus was surely entirely on them to alter their behaviour to reduce the number of road fatalities. How did this message fail in the end?

Firstly, motoring groups gathered themselves under the banner of "freedom" - a potent idea anywhere, but especially in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Their conception of freedom was connected to the greater independence and mobility offered by the car, and we still see motoring groups clinging to that idea today when those returns have diminished considerably. Also, it was essential that motorists assert their own freedom over that of the pedestrian - if they could secure a concession of equal right to the roadway, then their motorised might and speed would secure the rest.

Secondly, they adopted the language of the safety campaigners - and even started to put on their own versions of the grisly tombstone-erecting ceremonies the safety campaigners used to attack the automobile, but with the message twisted to argue for segregation and pedestrian responsibility.

Thirdly, they invented something that transformed the language around the issue. They invented the jaywalker. Walking in the street at points other than crossings, was entirely normal behaviour, and rebranding this behaviour to turn it into a faux pas (or even a crime) was a masterstroke. A "jay" was a rube, a country bumpkin, someone who did not know the sophisticated social codes of the city. Car-owners, by contrast, were better-off, better educated and - here is the killer idea - better at using the city efficiently, sophisticates speeding from one point to another while jays stumbled around in the middle of the road. Standing in the street was transformed from the God-given right of the American urbanite (this was precisely the language used to defend it) into something only a hick would do.

Thus, through branding and advertising rather than legislation, motoring groups managed to make safety the pedestrian's responsibility rather than theirs, and presented themselves as the rightful users of the roadway. They took over the safety campaigns with this message and established in social convention what would later be reinforced by law.

Which explains how they secured the advantage - but not entirely how they turned that advantage into unquestioned supremacy. That was largely the fault of well-meaning safety campaigners. The road safety debate made much of the death of children, innocents, in contrast to the worldly and by implication corrupt motorists who knew more of life. But as the scales tilted to safety being the pedestrian's responsibility as well as the motorist's, the first efforts were made to educate children into the dangers of the road. Children use the street, but they do not drive. So they are exposed to years of messages about their, the pedestrian's, responisbility for safety before they learn to drive and hear anything about the motorist's responsibility. This imbalance has become a form of generational brainwashing - conditioning, anyway - that has turned the car's ownership of the street from a purely contingent social arrangement to a hegemonic natural right. Fighting Traffic is an indispensable work of scholarship, and transforms the reader's view of the city and its uses.

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