Driving Write

Seeing Edmonton from the 21st floor of the downtown tower where I work makes clear one thing about the streets and the cars below where I pedal. It's a foolscap world in the city, friends.

View from above
(Foolscap. Just saying that word is fun. Foolscap. Foolscap. Foolscap!)

Foolscap, or course, was the marvellously medieval name for the sheets of lined paper we were issued in third grade, that year when we traded pencils for pens and were initiated into the slow mystery of cursive handwriting. The horizontal lines on those pages were our borders. They kept the stops and starts of the inky flow organized and moving in something resembling the right direction of a sentence.

From my vantage point, the concrete sidewalks are those foolscap lines. The asphalt roadways they border are the stacked spaces through which the coloured dots of cars trace their paths. Under this spell, the amber lights are reimagined as commas, and the red lights as periods that mark the ends of blocks of thoughts.

The real lesson is that the going is as slow down there as the grade three kid's earnest handwriting was back there.

This is because, as Happy City author Charles Montgomery teaches, automobiles are prisoners of The Man. "The urban system neutralizes their power," he says in that good book.

"Part of the problem is that cars fail to deliver the experience of freedom and speed that we all know they are capable of bestowing in a world of open roads," Montgomery says.

The world of open roads is the world of the advertised automobile where cars glide along the dreamy Monterey coastline. Or a closed-circuit track. If the ad is set in a city, the movement is painless. It is a stream of consciousness, a run-on sentence, lusciously lit and voiced as a consolation. Do we ever see the brandless, aerial view of data point cars in the infra-structure? The jagged stop and start of the city is saved for the real city of asphalt and sidewalk borders and traffic signs and greenamberredgreenamberred. First the fiction. Then friction. Stop go. Stop.

These high-level thoughts came back to me on the ground at a red light the other day. I have added some music to make a point. And have let the video run without a cut to make another.

The first point is simply that the decision of the privileged white SUV driver to ignore three, time-triggered right-turn signs makes that driver a scofflaw. Nobody was hurt by that decision, or that obliviousness, but, still, the law says the lanes are for buses, taxis and bicycles.

The second point is it just doesn't matter. The grammar of the streets constrains the rush-hour lawbreaker. The powerful engine under the hood of that SUV is overwhelmed by the need to slow at each intersection, by the sidewalks, by the presence of other traffic, by the fear of being caught speeding, and, at 109 St, the levelling red light that meant my bicycle got there first.

Daniel Kahneman memorably writes of a self-explanatory bias abbreviated as WYSIATI. What You See Is All There Is. It presents itself in countless human contexts and encounters. It puts us on guard against the stunning power of what we can see, the power of the image. This focusing illusion bedevils those below, especially automobile drivers. The hold of the scene through the windshield often keeps hidden the view from the window above, which makes the illegal push to the next red light such an exercise in foolscar.



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