Reinventing Reinventing the Automobile

I’m halfway through Reinventing the Automobile at the moment, which I figure represents the final comprehensive statement of Bill Mitchell’s thinking about urban mobility. As you’d imagine, it’s a passionately-held and painstakingly worked-out vision, basically the summation of all the work anyone with an interest in the space has seen in dribs and drabs over the past few years; it’s clear, for example, that this is what all the work on P.U.M.A. and MIT CityCar was informed by and leading towards.

In outline, Reinventing presents the reader with four essential propositions about the nature of next-generation urban mobility, none of which I necessarily disagree with prima facie:

- That the design principles and assumptions underlying the contemporary automobile — descended as they are, in an almost straight line, from the horseless carriage — are badly obsolete. Specifically, industry conventions regarding a vehicle’s source of motive power, drive and control mechanism, and mode of operation ought to be discarded in their entirety and replaced with ones more appropriate to an age of dense cities, networks, lightweight materials, clean energy and great personal choice.

- That mobility itself is being transformed by information; that extraordinary efficiencies can be realized and tremendous amounts of latent value unlocked if passenger, vehicle and the ground against which both are moving are reconceived as sources and brokers of, and agents upon, real-time data. (Where have I heard that before?)

- That the physical and conceptual infrastructure underlying the generation, storage and distribution of energy is also, and simultaneously, being transformed by information, with implications (again) for the generation of motive power, as well as the provision of environmental, information, communication and entertainment services to vehicles.

- That the above three developments permit (compel?) the wholesale reconceptualization of vehicles as agents in dynamic pricing markets for energy, road-space and parking resources, as well as significantly more conventional vehicle-share schemes.

It’s only that last one that I have any particular quibbles with. Even before accounting for the creepy hints of emergent AI in commodity-trading software I keep bumping up against (and that’s only meant about 75% tongue-in-cheek), I’m not at all convinced that empowering mobile software avatars to bid on road resources in tightly-coupled, nanosecond loops will ever lead to anything but the worst and most literal sort of gridlock.

But that’s not the real problem I have with this body of work. What I really tripped over, as I read, was the titanic dissonance between the MIT vision of urban life and mobility and the one that I was immersed in as I rode the 33 bus across town. It’s a cheap shot, maybe, but I just couldn’t get past the gulf between the actual San Franciscans around me — the enormous, sweet-looking Polynesian kid lost in a half-hour-long spell of autistic head-banging that took him from Oak and Stanyan clear into the Mission; the grizzled but curiously sylphlike person of frankly indeterminate gender, stepping from the bus with a croaked “God bless you, driver” — and the book’s depiction of sleekly silhouetted personae-people reclining into the Pellicle couches of their front-loading CityCars.

Any next-generation personal mobility system that didn’t take the needs and capabilities of people like these — no: these people, as individuals with lives and stories — into account…well, I can’t imagine that any such thing would be worth the very significant effort of bringing it into being. And despite some well-intentioned gestures toward the real urban world in the lattermost part of the book, projected mobility-on-demand sitings for Taipei and so on, there’s very little here that treats present-day reality as anything but something that Shall Be Overcome. It’s almost as if the very, very bright people responsible for Reinventing the Automobile have had to fend off any taint of human frailty, constraint or limitation in order to haul their total vision up into the light. (You want to ask, particularly, if any of them had ever read Aramis.)

Weirdly enough, the whiff of Gesamtkunstwerk I caught off of Reinventing reminded me of nothing so much as a work you’d be hard-pressed to think of as anything but its polar opposite, J.H. Crawford’s Carfree Cities. That, too, is a work where an ungodly amount of effort has been lavished on detailed depictions of the clean-slate future…and that, too, strikes me as refusing to engage the world as it is.

Maybe I wind up so critical of these dueling visions of future cities and mobility in them precisely because they are total solutions, and I’m acutely aware of my own weakness for and tendency toward same. I don’t think I’d mind, at all, living in one of Crawford’s carfree places, nor can I imagine that the MIT cityscape would be anything but an improvement on the status quo (if the devil was hauled out of its details and treated to a righteous ass-whupping). But to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, you go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want. I have to imagine — have to — that the truly progressive and meaningful mobility intervention has a lot more to do with building on what people are already doing, and that’s even stipulating the four points above.

Bolt-on kits. Adaptive reuse. Provisional and experimental rezoning. Frameworks, visualizations and models that incorporate existing systems and assets, slowly revealing them (to users, planners, onlookers) to be nothing other than the weavings of a field, elements of a transmobility condition. And maybe someone whose job it is to account for everyone sidelined by the sleek little pods, left out of the renderings when the New Mobility was pitched to its sponsors.

Bottom line: this book is totally worth buying, reading and engaging if you have even the slightest interest in this topic. Its spinal arguments are very well framed, very clearly articulated, constructed in a way that makes them very difficult to mount cogent objections to…and almost certainly irrelevant to the way personal urban mobility is going to evolve, at least at the level of whole systems. And that’s the trouble, really, because so much of the value in the system described in these pages only works as a holism.

Like my every other negotiation with Bill Mitchell’s thought, including both engagements with his work and encounters in person, I want to be convinced. I want to believe. I want to be seduced by the optimism and the confidence that these are the right answers. But ultimately, as on those other occasions, I’m left with the sense that there are some important questions that have gone unasked, and which could not in any event have been satisfactorily answered in the framework offered. It may or may not say more about me than it does about anything else, but I just can’t see how the folks on the 33 Stanyan fit into the MIT futurama.

5 responses to “Reinventing Reinventing the Automobile

  1. Martin Brynskov says :

    IFEZ u-City (clean-slate futurama) vs. u-Seoul (building on an existing city, with all it’s limitations, compromises) are the most striking real-life examples of this dichotomi I’ve encountered. And yet, both cases are serious, city-scale efforts 30 mins apart.

  2. Karen Quinn Fung says :

    I’ve heard what you’re saying here before, except it came out of the mouth of Jarrett Walker, when he was speaking in Vancouver last week.

    He too was critiquing the “holism” you describe as being the stuff of visionaries; he stated that in presenting a new system, every intermediate step between present reality and the vision needs to in and of itself function as a viable city and work for every one of the interlocking parts (infrastructure, people, institutions). It feels quite similar to the quote you included that, “You go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want.”

  3. AG says :

    (Vis à vis Mr. Walker, I just want to point out, as well, that while the kind of dynamic pricing markets for resources like parking that the authors advocate in their fourth point may seem like the most science-fictional aspect of all of this, they’re already starting to happen.)

  4. Ralph says :

    Oh… “Reinventing” our favorite mode of transportation could not only benefit our living environment… but could also mean a tremendous boost to the economy and to people, in terms of jobs and savings. Read also:

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  1. Rezoning « Magical Nihilism - 11 August 2010

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