Are Pedestrians Vermin? Philosophers Debate Anti-Automobilism: NMA E-Newsletter #678

In November of 2021, an obscure philosophy article was given inordinate attention in the press, propelled by press releases from anti-automobile activist groups. The article, “The vermin of the street: the politics of violence and the nomos of automobility” by Robert Braun and Richard Randell, appeared in the journal Mobilities, published online by Rutgers University. Its thesis is that the street—the space between the curbs—is a lawless, violent domain where drivers may kill pedestrians without penalty as if they were vermin.

The article was seized on by activists trying to sell the notion that the auto is inherently violent and can’t be redeemed—only expelled. While the original philosophical piece went largely unread, commentary on it has been widespread by people wanting to restrict auto use.

Ill-formed ideas are sometimes dressed up in foreign words. Nomos meant “law” in fifth-century-BC Greece when ownership of land was first fought over, customs were evolving into law, and the obligations of citizens were being debated for the first time.

The law of the street has evolved over the 12 decades of the automotive era, starting out as custom and progressing into standardized vehicle codes. A recent wave of propaganda says that this was not a democratic evolution but an appropriation by hegemonic automotive industries.  Should the law governing the rights of pedestrians and drivers now be overthrown, and absolute power given to pedestrians?

Democracy doesn’t like absolutes. The laws that gave motorists power between the curbs are the product of democratic government and the larger legal system. The journal authors acknowledge that the decision for automobility was the same in every country, under every system of government, even in developing countries with horrific traffic casualty rates. The present system is the result of 110 years of political decisions balancing mobility, risk, and competing street uses. It’s not going to be overthrown easily.

Sure, it’s a tragedy that most streets are no longer usable for quiet strolling, markets, or children’s playgrounds. They now have a higher function: giving the great mass of people access to their world. Activists quoting the Rutgers article evidence unashamed hostility toward mobility by the masses. Remember that auto means self. When anti-auto partisans militate against automobility, they want to deny people agency over their own movement.

The journal article describes the road as a “totalitarian” environment. This is an Orwellian shift in meaning. (“War is peace. Freedom is slavery.”) Such meaning reversals are becoming common in anti-democratic politics. In the anti-auto world view, driving is violence, the highway is totalitarian, and transit is liberating. In the real world, automobility is one of the great democratizing forces in history, while transit restricts travel to a few approved destinations and rigid schedules.

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