The Traffic Power Structure

The Traffic Power Structure



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The modern traffic system is ecologically unsustainable, emotionally stressful, and poses a physical threat to individuals and communities alike. Traffic is not only an ecological and social problem but also a political one. Modern traffic reproduces the rule of the state and capital and is closely linked to class society. It is a problem of power. At its core lies the notion of “automobility,” a contradictory ideal of free movement closely linked to a tight web of regulations and control mechanisms. This is the main thesis of the manifesto The Traffic Power Structure, penned by the Sweden-based activist network was founded in 2001 to fight for free public transport. Thanks to creative direct action, witty public interventions, and thought-provoking statements, the network has become a leading voice in Scandinavian debates on traffic. In its manifesto, presents a critique of the automobile society, analyzes the connections between traffic, the environment, and class, and outlines its political vision. The topics explored along the way include Bruce Springsteen, science fiction magazines, high-speed trains, nuclear power, the security-industrial complex, happiness research, and volcano eruptions. rejects demands to travel ever-longer distances in order to satisfy our most basic needs while we lose all sense for proximity and community. The Traffic Power Structure argues for a different kind of traffic in a different kind of world.

The book has received several awards in Sweden and has been hailed by Swedish media as a “manifesto of striking analytical depth, based on profound knowledge, and a will to agitation that demands our respect” (Ny Tid).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629631530
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 09/01/2016
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author is a network of local organizations fighting for free public transport. It was founded in 2001 in Stockholm, Sweden, by activists from Sweden's Syndicalist Youth Association. Apart from engaging in public debate, direct action, and guerrilla media, the network administers the “P-kassa,” a solidarity fund covering fines for people commonly known as fare-dodgers, although they are more aptly described as passengers in public transport engaged in an anti-fare strike.

Read an Excerpt

Traffic Power Structure

By, Felix Hetscher, Gabriel Kuhn

PM Press

Copyright © 2016
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62963-265-0


The Traffic Power Structure

You're not born a motorist, you become one.

Mobility and class are tightly linked. Not only because mobility depends on economic resources but also because a society based on the current mobility paradigm — what we call auto-mobility — contributes directly to the increase of economic and social injustice.

It is self-evident that a society prioritizing automobile traffic benefits motorists. It is also true that affluent white men are overrepresented among motorists. A society that prioritizes automobile traffic and sees mobility as a magical recipe for progress sharpens the contradictions between individuals and social groups.

The traffic power structure establishes a hierarchy among different means of transport. The automobile comes out on top. At the bottom we find pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transport. The resources allocated to different means of transport reflect this hierarchy. The superiority of the automobile is the result of a society guided by the principle of automobility, that is, a society in which the automobile gets to define our existence.

This book was written to shed light on the traffic power structure and its consequences. A society based on automobility is not only ecologically unsustainable but also leads to economic and social segregation. Investigating current transport policies while outlining different ones can, in our opinion, contribute to solutions for many social problems.

Automobile traffic turns us into competitors. Who has never felt turning into a bona fide motorist once he or she sits down behind the wheel? Driving a car seems to lead to egotistical behavior almost inevitably. Everyone tries to win at the cost of others. Our fellow human beings — other drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and the passengers in public transport — turn into obstacles. Let's be honest: who has never personally felt the aggressiveness and the competitive egoism caused by the automobile? Since we don't want to encourage such behavior and are convinced that you're not born a motorist but become one, our aim is to end this particular chapter of human evolution. This requires not only changing the traffic power structure and removing the automobile from its pedestal but also building a society that is based on other principles: a society where no one is forced to participate in the traffic power structure, neither actively nor passively; a society where the satisfaction of human needs and desires comes first; a society that we create together and in which we live together; a society consisting of (local) societies.


First, the term automobility refers to all of the institutions and practices that determine the social role of the automobile. Second, it emphasizes this role. Finally, it refers to the discourses that make the automobile the social engine of our time and associate it with freedom, progress, movement, individuality, and independence. The automobile is the socio-technological cornerstone of modernity.

The term automobility is a compound noun bringing together autonomy and mobility — the wordplay with autoin the beginning gives it a nice twist. Today, it seems as if autonomy can only be realized through mobility, and mobility only through autonomy. Automobility is closely linked to the ideology of liberalism, which emphasizes our role as individuals with freedom of choice and, in the most extreme case, questions the existence of society altogether. The notion of the free individual is produced by a certain form of society, and so is the notion of automobility. Without roads, oil, and the auto industry no one could drive a car. But the notion of automobility is an internal contradiction. Motorists drive on roads planned by technocrats and move between residential areas and workplaces whose locations are selected according to economic interests. There really isn't much free choice.

It is indeed strange that the automobile of all things has become the ultimate symbol of freedom and individuality. The truth is that the automobile belongs to the Holy Grail of modern liberalism: it is subjected to a plenitude of public and private techniques of control. Numerous regulations are required for the automobile society to function: how fast you are allowed to drive, where you are allowed to drive, which direction you are allowed to drive, where you are allowed to park, what amount of emissions you are allowed to discharge, and which risks you are allowed to take. These regulations, and many more, need to be considered whenever you start the engine. In order to enforce them, an apparatus of control disciplines motorists and nonmotorists alike. The alleged freedom of the road correlates to a strict control of movement.

The automobility regime is characterized by a number of immanent, unsolvable, and destructive tendencies. Mass traffic means congestion. While automobility encourages individual use of the automobile, it turns into immobility as soon as people follow the encouragement. Traffic congestion is not an anomaly of the automobile society but its logical consequence. The biggest enemy of mass traffic is mass traffic itself. While mass traffic is required for the image of the motorist's freedom to shine, it is mass traffic that denies this very freedom.

Mass traffic also means destruction: the climate, our natural resources, our cities, we as human beings, and indeed the entire geopolitical system are affected by acute crises. Climate change is an inescapable overtone to the humming of the engines. The residents of our cities are robbed of their space. Peak oil creates geopolitical crises, even wars, as access to cheap oil must be secured. Every year, 1.2 million people die in traffic crashes.

Again, we are not talking about temporary disruptions of a system working fine otherwise. The exact opposite is true: what we describe is the system's normality. The roads and the cars that have been built for automobility to prosper kill three thousand people every day. But when was the last time we heard a politician criticize mass traffic? Given the current political climate it seems unthinkable that any politician would dare declare war on the automobile. Yes, in Sweden we have "Vision Zero," that is, the aim not to have a single person killed in traffic, but this vision is little more than a paper tiger. This is hardly surprising when people try to relieve the symptoms of a problem while ignoring its causes. The traffic deaths are a politicalproblem, but no one sees it that way. It is as if we have surrendered to murderous machines taking over our planet.

It is obvious that in its practical implementation, auto-mobility is not functioning and far from rational. The notion's inadequacy is also revealed on a theoretical level. Automobility as a system is an impossibility. What is celebrated as a way to freedom and autonomy rests on a tight-knit net of control.

* * *

The idea of automobility is directly linked to mass traffic but it also characterizes many other parts of society. If we use the term correctly, it is an excellent tool for analyzing society as a whole, but also for creating radical alternatives, both social and ecological. The term helps us understand the idea of the modern individual and the possibilities (and limits) of his or her movement. The myth of the free and autonomous individual often makes it hard to see these connections, which makes the attempt to disclose them even more urgent.

In order to illustrate the potentials of the term automobility as an analytical tool, let us turn to the concept of the podcar. In Sweden, the podcar is often promoted as a solution to those aspects of automobile traffic that many see as problematic: emissions and urban decay. Essentially, the podcar attempts to solve these problems by adapting public transport to the needs of automobility. But how is this going to solve anything? After all, it is exactly these needs that create the problems. In the best case, the podcar motivates some motorists not to drive their car every day. But is this going to change the structure of our cities? Hardly.

It is especially Greens and Liberals who — in an ominous union with companies profiting from personal rapid transit — beat the advertising drum. This is not surprising. It shows how deeply rooted the liberal conviction of separating the individual from society has become. It also illustrates the difficulty of conceiving mobility as a political problem, even if the influence of transport on our lives is striking. Still, problems of traffic are primarily seen as technological problems. Their solutions are left to engineers, no matter the close ties between the political economy of movement and questions of urban development, climate, environment, energy, justice, equality, migration, and accumulation of capital. The traffic power structure determines not only the relationship between car and bus but also between human being and human being. The question of traffic, and of human movement in general, is too important to be left to politicians, corporations, and so-called experts. It is a question that must engage all of us.



"Cruel town, it's a cruel town / Cold people, cruel town Cruel town, it's a cruel town / If you fall, you stay down Cold city, cruel system / Nothing's made for people"

— Broder Daniel

Now we have identified a political problem. What's next? Is there anything beyond the paradigm of automobility? We suggest replacing it with the paradigm of accessibility. Instead of vast road and rail networks, accessibility should be the guiding principle for how we plan transport and traffic.

The paradigm of accessibility suggests that all people should have access to necessary and desirable social services in the places where they live. It is an approach that subverts the idea of mobility as a value in itself. This cannot happen overnight. It requires enormous adjustments in the planning of residential areas and workplaces. In addition, automobile traffic needs to be reduced and movement by foot, bicycle, and public transport increased. Even a commission appointed by the U.S. Congress made proposals leaning in that direction. The commission recommended adding a vehicle miles traveled tax to the gas tax. This would mean that all motorists, regardless of the vehicle they drive, need to pay a fee for the distances they cover. The proposition does not focus on emission but on usage of the automobile itself. This is an interesting development.

Interesting are also the experiences in Copenhagen, after many heavily trafficked roads were narrowed down and parking sites in the city reduced by 2 to 3 percent a year. As a result, automobile traffic was reduced, since people got an incentive to use other means of transport. The number of pedestrians, cyclists, and passengers in public transport grew in proportion to the dwindling number of motorists. Meanwhile, the urban space that was freed by the reduction of parking sites was transformed into public space in the form of pedestrian zones, bicycle lanes, squares, and outdoor cafés.

There are further means to reduce automobile traffic that are concrete, cheap, and relatively easy to implement: congestion charges (under the condition that the revenues they bring are invested in public transport), car-free zones, additional lanes for buses, trolleys, and bicycles, broader sidewalks, and stricter legislation against illegal parking. Bicycle-sharing systems can be extended from the inner cities to entire urban areas, with stations at each bigger traffic junction. Public transport needs to become true public space. This would not only increase its attraction relative to automobile traffic but also establish it as a counter-pole to the automobility paradigm altogether. While the automobile defines a private space in which every traffic participant is an obstacle, the quality of public transport as a social space increases with the number of people using it. If we can make public transport free of charge, and hence accessible to everyone, this social aspect would be emphasized.

We stress the social aspects of public transport because we enjoy sharing our lives with other people, but also because a lively public space is a requirement for people to feel safe. We envision a public transport system that reflects the diversity of the society we live and move in and that constitutes a space that is inviting to all.

At this point, we have not only identified a political problem but have also outlined ways to reduce automobile traffic for the benefit of ecologically and socially sustainable means of transport. But this does not answer the crucial question about the structural changes necessary to move from the paradigm of mobility to the paradigm of accessibility.

First of all, it must be clear that nothing about the current traffic situation is "natural" or "necessary." The traffic power structure is the result of political decisions. All the billions invested in motorways could just as well be invested in public transport. Slogans like There Is No Alternative are nonsense. The opportunity to make different decisions always exists. Yet nothing will change as long as those responsible will not stop the private interests that destroy our social relationships. If we want to change things, we must focus on local communities destroyed by mass traffic, development plans, privatization, and social segregation. We must believe in the possibility to halt this process and in the possibility of political change. Without these beliefs there is no hope for a different kind of life.

Public transport must become a central aspect of urban planning. How often we have to travel in any given city depends on how that particular city is built. And this does not concern only the city center. Of course, city centers with fewer cars, more trolleys, more bicycle lanes, and more liveliness are nice. But how about the city's other areas? In a city like Stockholm, most people do not live in the center but in the suburbs, and it is there that social change needs to begin. The middle classes in the city centers will always manage, inspired by the likes of Jan Gehl, the famed Danish urban designer. Our attention must lie elsewhere. Yes, suburbs can be inspired by car-free city centers. But this inspiration alone will not transform our suburbs into stimulating and welcoming places. It is impossible to say how exactly this transformation will unravel. It depends on the specific circumstances. But each transformation must begin with the affected communities and their needs and desires.

In recent years, "local organizing" has become a popular slogan in Sweden. We have seen many community-based struggles. In Stockholm, the campaign Rädda Aspuddsbadet received much attention. It fought to save the public bath in the suburb of Aspudden. The plans for shutting it down were a logical consequence of the automobility paradigm: all social services are moved to designated places, while most suburbs are reduced to sleeping quarters. This is the reason why Rädda Aspuddsbadet touched such a nerve. It was about more than just saving a local bathhouse. The trigger could have been the closure of a youth or community center anywhere in Sweden.

The campaign advocated for the right of the people to be able to satisfy their needs and desires in the places where they live. It entailed a struggle against automobility insofar as it challenged the notion that people must move between places, whether by car or public transport, in order to access services. Cash machines, daycare centers, and clinics have to be available to people without them having to travel long journeys.

Fighting for seemingly small changes in the suburbs is an important first step in rejecting our dependence on transport. But there is more. The principle of automobility is also linked to class. A concentration of social services in specific places means that the upper classes will find it easier to access them than the lower ones. The principle of accessibility is essential. Everyone must be able to use social services near their homes and everyone should be involved in keeping their standards as high as possible. After all, it is only folks with higher incomes who can afford to travel to social service institutions farther afield as soon as they are dissatisfied with the local ones. When low-income communities from public housing complexes and high-income communities from single-family homes share social services, the quality improves for all.

Our suburbs need to be filled with people even when we are not moving to and from work. Lively suburbs reduce our dependence on transport and provide a sense of security that guards, steel doors, and monitoring cameras never can. People feel safe around other people; it isn't more complicated than that. A city with open and attractive public space is a city full of life, and a city full of life has open and attractive public space. The way our cities are structured impacts our behavior and our relationships.


Excerpted from Traffic Power Structure by, Felix Hetscher, Gabriel Kuhn. Copyright © 2016 Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


The Traffic Power Structure,
The Metropolis,
State and Capital Travel in the Same Car,
The Age of Transport,
High-Speed Society,
Speed and Discipline,
Suffering in Traffic,
The Highest Stage of Liberalism,

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