Noam Chomsky pointed out in the run up to the Iraq war that the public debate was over the reason for the need of an American invasion and whether it could be successfully accomplished, it never washed over into an argument over whether or not the United States had the right to invade. The debate over American Exceptionalism was won in that it never took place. Jonathan Miller points out in his “Rough History of Disbelief” that one of the primary arguments against the heresy of atheism was that it did not exist: there were no real non-believers.
So too, the recent intense interest in pedestrian deaths in our local media has seen a free-wheeling debate on whether drivers or pedestrians bear the lion’s share of responsibility for their constant and tragic coming together. Completely absent from the debate is a discussion of how we design and construct our public realm. Alcohol, distracted driving, mobile phones, and texting are discussed. Pedestrians crossing roads outside crosswalks is analyzed ad absurdum: Even in a case where a young man crosses a country road to retrieve his family’s mail, where there are no crosswalks for miles and miles and one would need to cross a dozen streets without crosswalks to get to a crosswalk, reporters and officials find it significant to mention!
What follows as a “conclusion” then is not that anything need be changed at a grander scale, not that a rethink of our attitude towards mobility and the prioritization of speed and the automobile, but rather that a more rigorous conformity to the established paradigm must be demanded. Like the prescriptions of any impossible fundamentalist dogma, the dogmatists can always point to the fact that the theoretical model is not being applied rigorously enough. Communist societies weren’t Marxist enough, Austrian School free market principles weren’t applied widely enough, the parents of the dead child weren’t faithful enough in their prayers…
Left unsaid is that any system which requires perfect adherence from imperfect participants in order to function successfully is terminally flawed. The best systems assume imperfect adoption of standards and concepts and will function in spite of the flawed implementation of their precepts. The key then is to analyze the on-going experiment that is our modern automobile oriented society and determine where it is that people can live their lives with access to the things people want access to while limiting the risk of injury and death in an infrastructure for daily life which society can afford to build and maintain.
A perusal of the data will hint at the idea that the answer is in higher densities, and lower speeds, creating places where people can do more in smaller areas, within which people may move more slowly but accomplish not only more, but more quickly. That, however, is precisely the problem. The data indicates that our progress has been regress, that in urban planning our forefathers knew better. Yes, people who birthed children without washing their hands, had no conception of DNA, didn’t allow women to vote, and thought smoking was good for them, built safer cities for human habitation than we do. How about we just learn that lesson and move on? We’re in a hole, let’s say we stop digging.