Michal Paszkiewicz

review: The Traffic Power Structure

Even before I opened this book, I was shocked by the fact that Planka.nu admitted in their "About Planka.nu" section of their book that they engage in supporting fare-dodgers in their criminal activities. However, Planka.nu tells us that we shouldn't call them "fare-dodgers" - they should now be referred to as "passengers in public transport engaged in an anti-fare strike". I was going to be in for a hell of a ride.

Disclaimer: I work in ticketing for transport, so I may be biased on the subject.

The book gets off to a start by arguing that social classes are largely defined by their automobility and that different forms of transport form a hierarchy where the automobile always comes out on top. Planka.nu argues that society is "based on automobility" and that cars are one of the major causes of egotistical behaviour.

The book then suggests that "automobility" is a compount noun "bringing together autonomy and mobility". Upon checking in any respectable dictionary, one will find that this is not true - "automobility" is actually a blend of automobile (which is a blend itself of greek autos and the french mobile) and mobility. The words automobility and autonomy are not composed of each other going either way, but instead share the prefix auto which derives from the Greek word meaning "self". It is surprising that a book that is trying to argue a political point so passionately would allow errors to be made on page 3.

Furthermore, p.3 starts a precedent for the book of making biased offhand remarks that are both unsubstantiated and clear examples of ad hominem attacks. On this page, for example, the author writes that:

"Motorists drive on roads planned by technocrats and move between residential areas and workplaces whose locations are selected according to economic interests."

Whether areas are "selected according to economic interests" isn't really discussed in the book and it is a gross misstatement - since any planning of new development isn't just subject to economic, but also social and aesthetic factors. The use of the word "technocrat" in this context is clearly meant to be read as an insult.

In fact, the whole book seems to generally be a rebellion against experts of any form - the book tries to persuade the reader that there is no need for experts in the realm of transport and that everyone should have a say in these decisions. On p.6, the author is upset that "problems of traffic are primarily seen as technological problems" even though there are "close ties between the political economy of movement and questions of urban development, climate, environment, energy, justice, equality, migration and accumulation of capital". The page finishes by saying that "the question of traffic, and of human movement in general, is too important to be left to politicians, corporations, and so-called experts". I couldn't believe my eyes when I read that. The statement was not only a call to reject the opinions of experts, but also a claim that the experts truly do not have any expertise. In fact, on p.70 it is stated that "the challenges posed by transport can never be solved technologically". Nuclear power is rejected as a viable choice for energy, because it is "simply too complicated to leave relevant decisions to laymen".

These last two statements are particularly ridiculous. Running a transport network is an immensely complex operation - from cooling to managing traffic flow. Even ticketing requires experts like myself to keep everything running. It is stupid to claim that none of the problems of transport are being solved technologically. I see them solved every day and I work on a minute part of the whole operation. As for Planka.nu's rejection of nuclear power due to it being complicated, I am lost for words - any piece of technology will be too complex for a layman these days. That does not make it bad - why can I not see Planka.nu also rejecting Solar Cells and Wind Turbines, since a layman wouldn't be capable of building these themselves?

Planka.nu let their anarchist colours shine through when they write about any form of rules, which seem to upset them. On p.4 it is stated that because there is a highway code, "the alleged freedom of the road correlates to a strict control of movement". Nevermind that these rules are there to keep everyone safe and to improve traffic flow. Later on in the book (p.55), the author suggests that flying does not give freedom, since "airplanes and airports are subjected to even stricter rules and regulations than cars and motorways". I am surprised that the author is surprised by this, since we are talking about putting enormous machines into the air rather than rolling some boxes along on wheels. Furthermore, flying has been shown to statistically be the safest form of transport - this is no doubt partly due to the fact that airlines have to comply with all the strict flight regulations. It is shown that the author truly does not understand that rules can help protect people's freedoms and give them safety when the book states:

"What kind of freedom is compatible with a control apparatus that would be unthinkable anywhere else."

Various arguments are also applied to only one side of an argument. On p.4, it is stated that "the biggest enemy of mass traffic is mass traffic itself". When there is a lot of traffic, traffic is slower and functions worse. This is an argument repeatedly used against automobiles and roads. It is never pointed out in the book that the same happens in public transport - for example, Victoria Station has had to close its gates due to overcrowding almost every day of the working week (as far as I can tell).

The book makes some great points as well. The section on accessibility makes the point that we can solve a lot of the problems of transport by creating small communities within cities that will have all of the services the people in the community needed provided within the community. If everything anyone ever needed was within walking distance, then indeed there would be much less traffic and movement of peoples. However, the book doesn't mention that capitalism naturally creates this scenario - demand for a service in area will drive supply in that area naturally. It makes no sense to stockpile every single service or product in every single area if no-one in that area will make use of it. It is definitely true that there is currently a strain on public services and we need to improve our public service infrastructure, but in England this isn't entirely related to Transport - since you won't be able to use the Fire Brigade, Police or the GP in an area distant from you (unless you want to pay extra). One thing that definitely IS needed for the small communities within the cities to develop is work. The book definitely highlights this fact - that we need more jobs within the many areas of urban environments, rather than having them clustered in central areas. Personally, I believe that a few steps in this direction could be easily made - employees that can work from home should be encouraged to do so and a definite way of decreasing commute distances for work would be to force companies to pay for their employees' travel costs and travel times on top of their normal pay. Of course, this isn't necessarily that simple, as employers may try to lower wages as a response to having to do this, but there are many different ways this problem could be solved.

The book also criticises politicians for always siding with the automobile industry when it comes to decisions about transport. This may be indeed the case in Scandinavia, but in Britain there are humungous pushes towards improving public transport as a priority. In London we have a the constantly expanding Underground. On the roads we have bus lanes (with constant attempts at improving bus services via new types of buses and routes), bicycle lanes (and now also Cycle Superhighways and Cycle Hire), and we have the congestion charge, of which all the revenues are always reinvested in public transport. There are talks of closing off more areas of London just to pedestrians (such as Oxford Street) and there are new forms of transport constantly being developed for pedestrians, such as the river boats and the Emirates Airline cable car. Outside of London, new high speed trains are being developed and there is an excellent network of coaches that can be taken across Europe. Large sums of money are invested in struggling train lines, such as Southern. Some cities in England have gone even further. For example, you cannot park your car inside Oxford and there is a clear preference for pedestrians and cyclists.

The chapter entitled "Metropolis" doesn't seem to be particularly applicable to Britain - it is stated that after a snowstorm "cars usually roll through the city as if nothing has happened". I can imagine this being true in Scandinavia, where if nothing was done, there would be no road visible whatsoever. In Britain we do not have this situation - here we find that in most places we only ever get rain, sleet and maybe a few snowflakes at best, all of which are capable of stopping traffic on both roads and rails. Further on, it is criticised that Police Officers are being used as ticket inspectors. This is definitely not the case in London, where all ticket inspectors are employed by the London Underground. There are of course the British Transport Police, who help keep the tube safe and are there for protection of both travellers and staff, but people would not be happy if this was a private security force, which they may not trust to do what is in the public good. The chapter goes on to talk about the amount of road rage that occurs in surface traffic and that this is not something that often occurs on public transport. This is definitely not the case in London - in 2017, there were over 6000 cases of violence on buses alone. The London Underground and DLR also had over 4000 and there were plenty of violent crimes to go around the other lines. The amount of criminal damage was also noticeable - over 1000 cases on buses and over another 1000 on the Underground and DLR. These cases of both violence and criminal damage are often caused by fare dodgers - the same people that Planka.nu would insure to keep their criminal habits going.

I recently met a station staff member who told me that since he had started working for the London Underground, he had been hospitalised 13 times. This isn't particularly surprising to most station staff who all know that these things happen and that this is why they get good wages. Staff on the Underground aren't expected to have to deal with abuse and violence. Their main job is to assist people on their journeys, yet every staff member will face aggressive behaviour many times throughout their career. The book claims that road users are worse, because they feel they have the right to offend or abuse people that get in the way, but people on the Underground also seem to feel that they are entitled to get angry and violent whenever a delay happens. Many of these delays will also occur because of customers through their determination to get onto a train will forcefully hold the door open - which can damage the door and force a train to be put out of service.

Planka.nu states that fare-dodgers often belong to low-income classes and depend on fare-dodging for moving around. This is in no way a justification of committing the crime. I have heard these sorts of arguments before - when some of my classmates used to shoplift from the local supermarket. When I challenged them, they claimed it was all fine, since they were poor and the chain company could easily afford to lose the few small items they had taken. People that subscribe to this line of thought are worrying for society - they do not understand the consequences that their actions may have on their surroundings. While they are loosening and losing their morality, these people may also cost the shop assistants their jobs. Similarly, fare-dodgers are the most common cause of damaged gates at station, which will have to be repaired or replaced, taking money from funds that would have otherwise been spent on improving the public transport service. If activists are truly interested in helping the poor to use public transport, they should campaign for funds to be provided to those too poor to afford travel, rather than encourage crime that will damage the system they are trying to develop.

At the end of the "Metropolis" chapter, there is an excellent point made - parking takes up a lot of space in a city. Most cars aren't used for the majority of the day and spend most of the time filling up space that could be better used. Public transport is much better in this respect, since most buses and trains will be used throughout the whole day. For road users, taxis are an excellent form of transport that can provide road travel directly between two destinations. Unfortunately, the cost of a taxi is too expensive for most people to use regularly. Although Planka.nu criticises them a lot, self-driving pods should provide both an excellent road-sharing form of transport that will reduce costs and space wasted by parked cars.

The section entitled "Age of Transport" is a bizarre collection of statements promoting hedonism and analysing songs by Bruce Springsteen. This absurd chapter is followed by a chapter entitled "High-Speed Society" which claims that car-drivers believe that speeding is the highest form of freedom and that they are forced to eat disgusting food at gas stations. It also warns us about the upcoming resource and energy crises and suggests that we should invest in slower transport, since it might be more energy efficient. A cry is heard about the fact that flights are not taxed - but this is simply not true.

The section entitled "The Security-Industrial Complex" is fairly readable and discusses various problems faced by transport, especially by airlines. We were all shocked recently when it turned out that United Airlines cares so little about their customers that they got a private security firm to assault someone before dragging them off a plane, after needlessly forcing customers to give up seats to off-duty staff. In this we can see a clear reason why we want Police on transport - the Police serve the public, so can't be used as muscle for assisting private companies.

The summary of the book suggests that traffic causes people's behaviour to change and that they behave like cars even when they are walking. Although many of the arguments presented here seem very logical, few are scientifically supported (unsurprisingly, since Planka.nu reject the opinion of experts). With the final message of:

"We are organized, our hearts are burning, and soon your cars will be burning, too. Danos mas gasolina!"

I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. Most of the book was not only poorly researched, but also vastly biased and inciting rebellion against a mythical agent that is trying to stop society from travelling, while forcing them to travel at the same time. I despair at the thought that this book made it through the publishing process.


published: Thu Aug 03 2017

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Michal Paszkiewicz's face
Michal reads books, solves equations and plays instruments whenever he isn't developing software for Lowrance, B&G, Simrad and C-MAP. His previous work at TfL has left a lingering love for transport.