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Speed, Equity, and the Mobility Crisis - Ivan Illich in the Digital Era

April 19, 2018

“People on their feet are more or less equal. People solely dependent on their feet move on the spur of the moment, at three to four miles per hour, in any direction and to any place from which they are not legally or physically barred. An improvement on this native degree of mobility by new transport technology should be expected to safeguard these values and to add some new ones, such as greater range, time economies, comfort, or more opportunities for the disabled. So far this is not what has happened. Instead, the growth of the transportation industry has everywhere had the reverse effect.”

-Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity

Transportation, as a topic of mainstream enthusiasm, endures plenty of long, boring stretches, but every once in a while it gets interesting and resonates widely, usually thanks to a major, visible, technological leap. Now is one of those times: In the past decade, the iPhone has reoriented the passenger’s relationship to the vehicle, enabling urban mobility to approach the economic ideal of perfect information, at least in theory, while expanding our ability to access and use cars (or bikes) that we don’t actually own. Due to this digital revolution in transportation, previously unmeasured and untracked modes produce multitudes of data that in turn support artificial intelligence, thus furnishing a necessary ingredient for self-driving cars—a real revolution in the offing, at least if it progresses anything like we expect it to.

These recent transformations, in other words, have improved the quality of mobility information, as opposed to its underlying hardware or its fundamental physical constraints. The hardware has improved too, of course, just not as dramatically. Vehicles have steadily become cleaner and more efficient in their fuel consumption, but the environment isn’t proportionally unharmed as a result, nor have other chronic problems like congestion improved, because our movement continues unabated. The smartphone’s information revolution, in fact, has enhanced transportation’s “user experience” far more than its efficiency, so innovations in the latter domain (such as electric cars) have difficulty compensating for our ever-increasing overconsumption of movement itself. Demand for high-speed travel is greater than it’s ever been; by stoking that demand, digital interfaces (and eventually self-driving cars) further entrench a slightly better version of the status quo while marginally expanding certain groups’ mobility ranges—but even this comes at others’ expense, as we’ll see below.

During transportation’s recent evolutionary phase, the dialogue about what’s going well, what’s not, and what we’re all trying to accomplish has foundered upon a couple of semantic barriers. The first is confusion about which problems are actually being solved. The transportation industry perpetually faces a handful of broad challenges that are distinct but easily conflated. Jarrett Walker divides them into four categories: communications, environmental impact and energy efficiency, labor and safety, and finally, physical space. Whenever a certain development addresses one of these four areas, it doesn’t necessarily help the others, and it often makes them worse. Lately, we have confused software improvements—that largely solve Walker’s “communications” problem—with fundamental improvements upon the physical limits of urban mobility, or Walker’s “space” problem. We remain enchanted by the notion that a technological panacea—apps, data, self-driving cars—will soon solve every problem in a complicated domain that has faced brutal tradeoffs as long as it’s existed. We have indeed solved some, but other, bigger problems remain.

A second assumption that prevails today is a false dichotomy that positions privately-owned cars in opposition to everything else—the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” fallacy.  If private cars are the ultimate evil, as it’s tempting to believe, is any alternative inherently good? Based on much recent discussion, you would think so. This is the unfortunate axiom at which useful discussion frequently stops, needlessly limiting the scope of a debate that requires far more nuance. In the 1970s, the architectural theorist Manfredo Tafuri described how modernist designers had made themselves irrelevant by seeking utopia via built form alone—the sphere they actually could revolutionize—while neglecting the broader capitalist context that would ultimately overwhelm whatever edifices they designed and constructed. Urban planners are arguably making a similar mistake now, by avoiding a more difficult reckoning with the oppressive structural conditions that dictate most individuals’ mobility choices from beyond the realm of the urban planning field itself.


The destruction that cleared the path for Robert Moses' Cross-Bronx Expressway (source)

Well before we arrived at this impasse, in 1973, the philosopher Ivan Illich recognized similar contradictions in the prevailing modern attitude toward high-speed mobility. His essay Energy and Equity is a blistering polemic against the belief that unlimited consumption of energy-intensive industrial products—motorized transportation in particular—could continue unabated, or that we would eventually eliminate the remaining costs of speed and thereby free ourselves to have it both ways. He announces his position in the piece’s opening line: “It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis. This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction and consecrates an illusion…high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.” Before he even gets around to addressing the urgent threat that energy-intensive transportation presents to the environment, Illich finds its social impact to be equally grave, and in this assessment, he sets himself apart from the majority of voices that have participated in this debate, who frame energy usage as a constrained optimization problem and would welcome as much transportation as the environment allowed, at the maximum possible speed. For Illich, by contrast, unlimited free and clean energy would not transcend transportation’s fundamental limitations, and would likely exacerbate other issues, such as congestion and inequality. “Even if non-polluting power were feasible and abundant,” he writes, “the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving.”

Speed, to Illich, was the primary villain, the source from which a variety of societal ills flowed. Today, we recognize many problematic effects of transportation, but speed is almost never the main culprit—if anything, we still crave more of it. So how, exactly, does high-speed transportation enslave us, according to Illich? Most visibly, it reorganizes space around itself: The sprawling, car-oriented city became all too familiar in the twentieth century, and while many compartmentalize that spatial reorganization as an urban design failure, Illich understands it as an inherent, unavoidable outcome of that technology’s once-optimistic widespread adoption. Cars need a lot of room to travel at 70 miles per hour, and airplanes need a lot of room to land. Traditional, pre-twentieth-century urban environments don’t accommodate either activity. Exponents of the often-violent urban transition toward modern speed landscapes, such as Robert Moses, negotiated that uncomfortable tension by bulldozing large swaths of dense, vibrant urban fabric to make room for a motorized future that was more appealing at the time than most recall now. Cars, Illich writes, create “a remoteness which they alone can shrink.” Throughout the twentieth century, actively or passively, humans helped create, and ultimately welcomed, that remoteness in exchange for greater travel speed.

A few decades later, it’s virtually impossible to imagine any alternative to the speed-dependent condition Illich describes. Nevertheless, his argument remains just as pertinent, if not more so because of all we’ve forgotten: In addition to distorting urban form, high-speed transportation wastes time, both by creating congestion and delays that offset vehicles’ mechanical power, and by forcing passengers to spend increasing portions of their money on the consumption of speed (time spent earning the money to pay for cars, fuel, or air fares is part of one’s real travel time). Hence the relationship between velocity and inequality: “Beyond a critical speed,” Illich writes, “no one can save time without forcing another to lose it.”


Biking in the speed landscape (source)

High travel speeds, in other words, create allocation problems that necessitate the technocratic administration of mobility, substituting that control for the personal agency that a pedestrian still enjoys. This brings us to Illich’s great relevance today. Having long ago surpassed the “threshold in energy consumption beyond which technical processes begin to dictate social relations,” we are increasingly consumers of transportation, and in general, decreasingly moving under our own control, on foot, by bicycle, or even via mass transit. The technocratic logic needed to coordinate and allocate motorized transportation has by now created a vast infrastructure, so ubiquitous that it’s nearly invisible. The aforementioned digital revolution has enabled that infrastructure to reach its apotheosis, finally becoming so pervasive that it even captures the “informal” types of movement that Illich preferred to high-speed modes: Bikes and scooters are now frequently enmeshed in larger platforms that require smartphones to access, while the simple act of walking is often mediated by digital maps and routing. These developments further influence and thus compromise the individual’s ability to move freely, though they are environmentally-friendly and reduce congestion. The role of mobility consumer (and now, user) is increasingly the only position available to any traveler, and if we can’t recognize what’s wrong with this, we only prove Illich’s point.

The quote that introduces this essay contains the key premise of Energy and Equity: Whatever mobility improvements a new technology enables, whether that technology is the combustion engine, the shipping container, the iPhone, or the self-driving car, that technology should not impair a society’s existing forms of mobility. Crucially, this means that any one group’s mobility gains shouldn’t impair the mobility of others. Today, we recognize this in certain cases, like accessibility for the disabled, but fail to observe it in most other domains. High-speed transportation, almost unfailingly, does impair slower but more universally available modes like walking and biking. Freeways cut cities into walled-off enclaves and disperse formerly close-knit communities into atomized housing units separated by long distances, parking lots, and dangerous, car-filled roadways. In this way, transportation embodies the essence of what Illich criticized in so much other technology, which he called “radical monopoly,” technology that undermines alternatives to itself and becomes the only means of satisfying problems that it has also created.

At this point, it’s important to note that the primary value of Energy and Equity, especially today, is less as prescription or as a program for action than as a polemic against the overwhelming status quo that forecloses so many alternatives to itself. It’s an extreme position that returns us to the fundamental purpose of transportation and clears away baggage, unhelpful assumptions, and biases, thus reclaiming a useful departure point for a conversation that has gone stale. The simplistic anti-private-car axiom, the belief in software’s unlimited ability to solve hardware problems, and the facile hope for continuous incremental improvement all prove unequipped to address the problems Illich describes. However idealistic and unrealistic, the positive vision that Illich outlines in Energy and Equity is downright appealing: a world where bikes and pedestrians dominate public thoroughfares and occasionally share the roads with gentle, modestly-paced motor vehicles (“The third-class bus does not separate the farmer from his pig, and it takes them both to market without inflicting any loss of weight, but this acquaintance with motorized “comfort” does not amount to dependence on destructive speed”). Illich invokes a pastoral version of the world many say they desire but don’t earnestly intend to pursue.

Transportation, we must remember, is not an end in itself, but a mechanism for supporting other goals a human community might have. More transportation, in other words, is not inherently better; more is often worse. We can’t solve our transportation problems with more transportation. Movement is an index of freedom but also a measurement of positional failure: the separation between where we are located and where we wish we were. Land use and the economics that dictate it should place people closer to what they want and need, to the extent possible; cars and their supporting infrastructure (along with other categories of motorized transportation) are the great enemies of that goal, even though we need them once the sprawlscape is already built. The space that cars require ensures that if anyone is able to maintain consistently easy access to the various places they want to be, they will do so at a high price and at others’ expense, a lesson currently being relearned in affluent cities like New York and San Francisco. Physical space is the crucial terrain upon which every transportation battle will unfold, one that emerges before climate change or oil shocks or deadly accidents, and one that will persist after all of those are solved. In 1973 that was already true. Driving is the party that too many people showed up to.

What, then, does Energy and Equity ultimately offer us today? Illich presents a vision of truly human-centered transportation, not the kind to which so many pay lip service, but the kind that replaces the atrophied consumer and user with fully-developed individuals who dictate their own movement. Illich forces us to acknowledge the values that inform our transportation choices, and to follow their implications to their conclusions, even if his idealism isn’t practically attainable. Why do we move, and how would we move differently if we had a chance to start from scratch? At present, our values are fuzzy, as are the goals that arise from them: We want more transportation at all scales. Yes, we want that transportation to be cleaner, safer, faster, less congested, and more convenient, but we still absolutely want more of it. This position ensures that mobility will remain an eternally scarce commodity (if for no other reason than only so many bodies can fit in a given space at once), perpetuating an allocation problem that we let the market solve, as we do for so many allocation problems. The affluent, as Illich observed and predicted, will continue outbidding the poor for better mobility and better access.

To adherents of this ideology, self-driving cars represent a rapture event: pure, commodified efficiency that solves every problem but the most important one, pushing demand for transportation to unprecedented heights without addressing the constraints of speed and space, nor ensuring equal access to that scarce supply of mobility. The value system just described is why cities feel like they’re designed for cars rather than peoplenot because of a past urban planning failure that we wouldn’t make again, but because of a mistake we still continuously repeat. We might finally fix these problems by learning to prize land use approaches that let individuals live and work closer to what they need and reclaim personal agency in their movement. Until then, we remain stuck in the condition Illich describes: “A country can be classified as overindustrialized when its social life is dominated by the transportation industry, which has come to determine its class privileges, to accentuate its time scarcity, and to tie its people more tightly to the tracks it has laid out for them.” By finally noticing the tracks, we might begin untying ourselves.