Hyper-Mobility and the End of the Road

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If there is anything you remember from school Physics lessons, there’s a good chance it’s the maxim speed = distance ÷ time. For most of us, this equation is no more useful in daily life than the molar mass of carbon, or anything else we forgot from that class. It is though one worthy of recalling, for its speaks of a dominant trend in contemporary life, namely the pursuit of speed and the simultaneous destruction of its co-variables, a process described by the geographer John Adams as ‘hyper-mobility’. A recent paper in the Journal of Modern Transportation suggests where this trend may take us in the near future: ‘evacuated tube transport technologies’, otherwise known as vacuum mag-lev trains. Travelling through airless tunnels and supported on magnets, speeds of 4000mph are envisioned, using only one quarter the energy required by modern passenger jets. It’s a science fiction dream that might soon become reality.

Some are already celebrating this as an eco-friendly future for hyper-mobility. At any point of embarkation however, a moment’s pause is called for, to ask how we got here, and where we might be going.

Our grinding daily commute is itself a marvel of the modern age, hard as that may be to believe. In 1800 America, the average daily commute was 50 metres – it’s now 50 kilometres. Globally, we travel 23 billion kilometres a year; by 2050 it is predicted that that figure will have increased fourfold to 106 billion.

The systems of hyper-mobility have negated the cost of distance. Today one can travel from the UK as far as the Red Sea on low cost airlines. For those on middle incomes and above, almost any human settlement on Earth is reachable for the cost of a few days wages.

The logic of speed ensures that the journey – that is the experience of time through space – is itself ever diminished, as distance slips by 36,000ft below, or is smeared across the train window at 200mph (come 2035 and High Speed 2). The proposed maglev vacuum is surely the logical end-point of this process: hurtling through a black, airless void at multiples of the speed of sound.

There is undeniably something thrilling about disconnecting oneself from the contemporary world with its ever more invasive technologies and persistent networks; to arrive unencumbered in an unknown place; to take a breath that feels like it might be your first. In such moments it is not difficult to believe in a world of infinite possibilities, and a chance for reinvention (if only for 14 nights semi-catered).

The Price of a Ticket

Of course the easier it becomes to reach a destination, the more that destination begins to resemble the point you started from. The economic value of meeting the dictates of the novelty-seeker, of selling exoticism to the jaded traveller, may ensure that traditional customs remain, but as performances for the dollar-carrying crowd, rather than expressions of cultural identity. What was a way of life becomes a poolside bar design-theme. Inevitably, over time the process of globalised tourism destroys the very thing it seeks. The adventurous have to push ever further off the beaten track, as the track becomes a road becomes a motorway.

Distant indigenous cultures are not the only human victims of this high mobility system of course. Out of town retail parks have seen our own high streets reduced to a spectacularly inane vision of dystopia, with an economy that revolves around The Big Issue; second-hand clothes that are more expensive than they were in Primark the first time around; and plywood boards, which have made great inroads into a market previously dominated by plate glass.

The high street does not suffer alone. A study in suburban Los Angeles comparing the number of neighbours residents knew, with the traffic on that street, found that increases in the latter inflict a equivalent decline in the former. Studies in London have found strong correlations between heart disease and noise pollution from air travel. Worldwide, over 1 million people a year die in car accidents, with 50 million injured.

Access to this world’s benefits is limited, yet the costs are not. As society adapts to the possibilities offered, those that cannot travel are abandoned by the roadside. The land use configurations created by the dominance of the car mean that those without one – predominantly the elderly, the young, and the poor – find their lives correspondingly more difficult. Whose houses hug the sides of busy carriage ways, and hunker under airport flight paths? Certainly not the same people who benefit most from these infrastructures. If the mag-lev vacuum train ever comes to pass, what do you suspect would be the socio-economic characteristics of the neighbourhoods that lie in the shadow of the raised 15m diameter concrete tube running over their heads?

The environmental cost of hyper-mobility is devastating. In the UK transport-related carbon emissions are second only to those from power stations. Attempts at ‘greening’ fuel by adding biofuels have led to deforestation to make way for plantations in the Global South, and been linked to price hikes in food. The 2011 Gulf of Mexico oil spill is simply the most high profile of a century of such disasters, and tens of thousands of hectares of pristine Canadian wilderness are currently under threat from plans to expand oil sands extraction.

The destruction inherent in hyper-mobility is perfectly captured in a picture book I enjoyed as a child, called Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish. A man gazes up into the night sky at a distant star, dreaming of the wonders he might find there. Driven by wanderlust, he builds a rocket, destroying his home planet to feed the smoke-belching factories which churn out the rocket’s parts. His plan is successful, but on reaching the star he finds a barren wasteland. His eyes return to the sky, and spy a new star, with new possibilities. Once again he streaks into space, sure that this destination will be worthy of his dreams. On arrival however he discovers to his horror… You can guess the rest. Well, actually you probably can’t, as this is a children’s story and prone to questionable leaps of logic. He does indeed wind up on the very planet he started from, the planet he destroyed, but in the meantime dinosaurs have emerged from the rubbish tips he left, and somewhat put out by what they find, have cleaned the whole place up. But as Bertie the triceratops is unlikely to solve our current environmental troubles, I think we can disregard this element of the analogy.

Of course, there are also a great many positives to high mobility. Along with the opportunity to escape our own lives, tourism offers us the chance of experiencing others’. On a shrinking, interconnected planet, this can’t be a bad thing. More fundamentally, the West’s affluence is underpinned by high mobility. Kunstler’s The Long Emergency details how intrinsic it is to almost every aspect of contemporary society. The defining characteristic of the 20th Century was the consumption of cheap oil – an unparalleled source of easily-accessible, concentrated energy – allowing the near frictionless movement of people and goods around the planet. This has allowed the creation of economies of scale that have washed away traditional forms of community. On the tidal wave of oil rides Walmat; Tesco; McDonalds and the other poster boys of contemporary economic success.

The entwining of late-modern capitalism, mobility, and oil, reaches its apogee in places like Las Vegas and Dubai: what are known in the sociological literature as places of excess, though I prefer to refer to them as masturscapes. Masturscapes exist for the pursuit of fleeting pleasures and the theatrical squandering of resources; their unsustainability appears a badge of pride. How else to justify the construction of Dubai’s World Islands at a time of rising sea levels? With its vertiginous towers built on slave labour just as Egypt’s pyramids were, this desert monument appears to be putting its faith in Mammon to hold back the waves. Their physical existence in such inhospitable locales is impossible without the easy fix of cheap energy, and it is this borderlands existence, beyond the reach of civilisation, which allows them to offer up a netherworld of unhindered desires. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” goes the ad slogan, but of course only the most unfortunate stay in Vegas: the stripper, the croupier, the bellhop that – Groundhog Day like – are tasked with endlessly acting out the ephemeral fantasy. For the traveller its purpose is to exist momentarily, and to be departed from before the cost can be counted, as if some Air Miles collecting locust.

Rebalancing the Equation

Contemporary concerns ensure that techno-utopian dreams like that of the mag-lev vacuum train are sold to us as offering ever greater speeds but at decreasing environmental cost. It’s claimed that the train will travel eight times faster than planes, at a quarter of the environmental cost. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the easier travel is, the more people travel. The ‘predict and provide’ model underpinned transport planning for the second half of the 20th century: figure out where a road would be beneficial, build it. Infrastructure does not simply respond to our needs however, it also shapes them. Motorways that began as gushing arteries of goods and people begin to clog up, even become blocked entirely, as society reconfigures itself around this new possibility. New roads create new traffic, and for that reason the predict and provide approach has fallen from favour amongst policymakers. We don’t have the space or the cash to meet its demands indefinitely. Similarly, if people can get from London to New York or Moscow or Cairo in less than an hour, more people are going to do it. A lot more.

Of course this may provide an economic boost, and the other benefits that mobility brings, but the costs cannot be escaped from, and the world’s carrying capacity for such costs is at breaking point. It’s worth considering the UK Government’s own Foresight report entitled Intelligent Infrastructure Systems (2006). It puts forward four mobility-focused scenarios describing life in 2050. What is perhaps most striking is that not one of the scenarios tries to suggest a world in which we have managed to both address our environmental challenges and maintain hyper-mobility. It’s simply not plausible.

I do not mean for this excursion to resemble an advanced single to Skegness: I would like there to be some light at the end of the tunnel. For this we must return to where we started out from, that is speed = distance ÷ time. The alternative to our speed fixation is to reassert balance to the equation, to restore the value of time and distance. We must start by asking what the purpose is of all this travel? At the danger of sounding like a Christian billboard – where are we rushing to all the time? The vacuum mag-lev train promises to render distance and time inconsequential, yet is there any intrinsic value in being able to physically move through space at such speeds (in an airless black tunnel)?

What happened to the pleasure of the journey? It was lost in the indignity of airport security’s molestations; in budget airline seats that would contravene livestock welfare guidelines; on groaning draughty train carriages and in carbon monoxide infused traffic jams. Now we simply wish to get as far from where we started as possible, hoping that our iPads block out as much of the intervening period as possible. Yet the system that offers this possibility of escape is the same one that kills it: with identikit high streets and homogenous cultures. If distance and time are allowed back into the picture, less (speed) can indeed be more. Those faraway places we value so highly might take longer to get to, but when you get there, you’ll actually be there.


Murray Goulden has a background in sociology and STS, and is a Research Fellow at the Horizon Institute, University of Nottingham. Having written his PhD on scientific and popular constructions of human ancestors (‘missing links’), his current (eminently more fundable) research interests concern energy and transport in the context of climate change and emerging digital technologies.


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