The pandemic on wheels

-By Robert Braun, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

The European Union and Austria fell in love in tandem with the electrification and automatization of automobility. This is no surprise.

Among others, the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), a lobby group of the biggest European companies, CEOs of mostly automobility related companies have met with European Union Commissioners more than 400 hundred times within one year. This means more than two meetings between CEOs and Commissioners each day. Public funds are now poured into electrification: installing new infrastructure, offering subsidies, and building more roads.  Automatically slowing down vehicles to meet speed limits in specific areas that would reduce automobility death and injury, as shown in tons of research papers, is less top on the agenda. After a decade long struggle, the European Commission accepted automatic speed control, the Intelligent Speed Assistance, as mandatory for all cars sold after 2024, but only to be switched-on on a voluntary basis.

The argument that automobility’s benefits outweigh their harms has a long history. Every year approximately 1.3 million people are killed on the road. In the age of automobility, more than 80 million people were killed; this is more than the casualties of all wars combined in the same period. Between 20 and 50 million more people suffer non-fatal injuries. Automobility death and injuries cause considerable economic loss to individuals, their families, and to nations as a whole. Human related cost of automobility violence reaches 3% of gross domestic product in most countries. More than 90% of road traffic deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. Even within high-income countries, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be involved. Road injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years. It is a century long pandemic on wheels.

Negative impacts are often compared to benefits such as freedom, jobs and profit. When industrialists speak of their mission as “driving sustainable growth and prosperity in Europe” their drive (pun intended) is to sustain automobility in the first place. Promises of electric and autonomous automobility fail to deliver even on their own terms. Electric cars, cradle to grave, cause more harm than traditionally propelled vehicles. They push problems elsewhere: to the mines of Africa, to landfills of battery deposition, to places where fossil fuel cars end up in later stages of their life when their users have been nudged into shifting to electric. Electrification of automobility offers the illusion of less environmental harm, but all else can remain the same. 

Driverless cars are a similar promise. Autonomous mobility requires interoperable and seamless data flow, something the European Union is busy creating, called urban dataspace. This hands over decisions to algorithms and black-boxed technologies even their makers think are inscrutable and wrought with socio-political biases. Driverless mobility offers the illusion that people will be out of harm’s way but all else can remain the same.

Automobility as we know it cannot be sustained. The biggest problem with automobility is its often-occluded violence. Automobility is not about cars but about inhumane speed, the illusion of power, and appropriation of publicly accessible space. Violence, the harm done to human and non-human lives, is a devastating consequence.

There are many people and institutions that suggest this is fixable. Just change the propellant, substitute the driver, create better infrastructure, or bring a new safety technology. However, these fixes amount to more of the same. What needs to be done instead is a change in focus. Post-automobility is not about getting from A to B faster or slower, or causing more or less pollution, injuries or death. It is about bringing an end to the pandemic on wheels.

Automobility is a health and climate hazard. Public policy is perfectly equipped to deal with such hazards. Just think of tobacco. The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing more than 8 million people a year. The economic costs of tobacco use are substantial and include significant health care costs for treating the diseases as well as the lost human capital that results from tobacco-attributable morbidity and mortality.

Tobacco industry has for decades argued that smoking is not lethal, and tried to sell a dream of freedom, power and jobs. When this did not work, they used science to fund research that showed that nothing is settled and there is enough uncertainty in our knowledge about causes to warrant doing more of the same. Until it changed. Through various measures considerable reduction of tobacco use and consequent deaths was made possible – at least in Europe and North America.

Automobility should be addressed as a health hazard and addressed as the tobacco epidemic: control, warn and ban. The public policy discourse should shift from mobility to health – this legitimates policy control of access and use. Warning signs should be made visible on cars, on roads, in cities and highways. Public memorials should be erected to commemorate road deaths. Advertising, points of sale, use should be limited and controlled; in certain places use and purchase should be banned, as in the case of tobacco. Basically, all measures applied to control the tobacco epidemic are applicable to the pandemic on wheels.

Arguments against such a shift are many. “It is a rant against cars, drivers, free men who just enjoy driving. It is detrimental to efficiency, to growth and jobs.” Whoever takes these claims up should know, s/he is denying a pandemic and the effective control of death and injury, including friends and family. Because everyone knows someone who knows someone who has died or has been injured on the road. Doing anything less equals to what the pandemic denials have achieved. Blocking public policy to save lives when a pandemic strikes. The pandemic on wheels has been with us for a century and all what has been offered is doing more of the same. 

Edited German translation published in Der Standard, 5 July:


Mobility Justice in Times of the Corona-Crisis

– By Mathias Krams, University of Vienna, Austria

Some of the preceding blog posts have already dealt with the comeback of the private car in times of Corona: Mystified as a safe haven, it is supposed to glide through the dystopian, Corona-contaminated outside world and reach its destination virus-free thanks to the lifting of parking restrictions.

But from the perspective of mobility justice, a similar question arises here as in pre-corona times: Who can actually claim the privilege of automotive, corona-free mobility? 42% of Viennese households have no car at all. Nevertheless, 67% of Vienna’s traffic areas are occupied by cars. However, only 25% of journeys are made by car with an average occupancy rate of 1.15 persons. In terms of space consumption, the car is therefore the most inefficient means of transport in Vienna. This unequal distribution of space is particularly noticeable in times of the Corona-crisis.

When I want to leave my apartment to get some fresh air, catch a bit of sunlight and at the same time avoid the noise of traffic, my choice is limited to very few places that are reachable by foot. Inevitably, I am immersed in a bustle of joggers, cyclists and walkers. Even though everyone tries hard to keep their distance, the requirement of one metre distance is hardly feasible with so little space for non-motorized mobility. For society as a whole – beyond privileged car drivers – the dominance of automotive mobility is thus not a protection against the virus, but rather increases the risk of infection.

The Greens are currently demonstrating what Mobility Justice practically means in times of the Corona crisis: To ensure that the required minimum distance can be maintained, Vienna’s Deputy Mayor Hebein demanded last Sunday that selected roads will be closed to cars and opened to pedestrians. As expected, the car-friendly SPÖ opposes the proposal and tries to play off parks against corona-free pedestrian mobility. But for safe mobility and a good life for all, even in times of Corona, both are needed: access to green spaces and the fair distribution of public space for everyday mobility with the lowest possible risk of infection. This step is only possible if the privileges of the car are reduced, not extended.

Driving Through Corona City

-by Ole B. Jensen, Aalborg University

Last night I took the car from my house on the city edge to the centre. My daughter lives there, and as a senior medicine student she is getting ready to join the Corona crew at the local hospital. I brought her some food and freshly baked bread, and a few other things. She is not isolated, but needs to minimize social contact in order to be ready for ‘the call’.

As I drove through the city, I clearly sensed the lack of traffic compared to an ordinary evening. I also noticed the lights in the flats – many more people seemed to be at home. When I reached her street, she came down and picked up the things from the trunk of the car. This way she would not get into contact. We briefly chatted at a safe distance through the window, and I returned to my house.

This trip made me think of the old debate about the car. Is it really a cocoon or an ‘iron cage’ of modern mobility as John Urry (2004) claimed? I often refused this interpretation in my advocacy of seeing the car as ‘filtering’ rather than ‘isolating’ (Jensen 2013). We are sensing-through the car as it mediates the ‘I-World relation’ (Ihde 2009). Speed, street surfaces, lights, and smells are not ‘gone’ but rather transformed and mediated. However driving through Corona City seems to suggest that there is an element of cocooning as well.

I felt rather protected and safe in this iron box (and I do not drive a ‘Hummer’). However, I still prefer to think of the relationship as one of human/non-human hybridity, where the car mediates my senses through a filtering process of ‘osmosis’ (Jensen 2016). We might want to think about it with Sloterdijk’s metaphor of ‘foam’ (2016) pointing to the interconnectedness and the porous relationship between inside and outside, between cell and cell within a foam structure. This is echoing Latour’s point that ‘we are enveloped’ (2008), and my car is such an envelope.

The trip re-enacted an understanding of the embodied and emotive attachments to the car, what Sheller describes as ‘automotive emotions’ (Sheller 2004). As I realized during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull back in 2010 (Jensen 2011), extreme disruptions are windows into the psycho-practical bonding between mobility technology and humans, and between humans and the infrastructure/city. To move towards a ‘critical automobility perspective’, we need to appreciate this affective dimension. My trip through Corona City was moreover a reminder that disruptive events may work to ‘think with’, and ‘thinking with Corona’ opens up to understand how car-drivers are attached to the car by this strange effect of protection, mobility, and mediation.


Ihde, D. (2009) Post-phenomenology and Technology. The Peking University Lectures, New York: SUNY Press

Jensen, O. B. (2011) Emotional Eruptions, Volcanic Activity and Global Mobilities – a Field Account from a European in the US During the Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Mobilities, Vol. 6, No. 1, February 2011, pp. 67-75

Jensen, O. B. (2013) Staging Mobilities, London: Routledge

Jensen, O. B. (2016) Of ‘other’ materialities: why (mobilities) design is central to the future of mobilities research, Mobilities, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 587-597

Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), Keynote lecture for the ‘Networks of Design’ meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3rd September 2008

Sheller, M. (2004) Autoemotive emotions: Feeling the car, Theory, Culture & Society, 21 (4/5), 221-242

Sloterdijk, P. (2016) Spheres. Volume 3: Foams. Plural Spherology, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e)

Urry, J. (2004) The ‘system’ of automobility, Theory, Culture & Society, 21 (4/5), 25-39

Some Thoughts on What Comes After A Mobility Shock

-by Mimi Sheller, Drexel University, Philadelphia

As the coronavirus sweeps around the world, outpacing public health efforts to contain it, all human mobilities have been brought to an abrupt halt. People have stopped going to work, children are kept home from school, many businesses have closed their doors, airplanes have stopped flying, cruise ships are turned away from ports, borders are closing, factories have stopped churning out products, and the shipment of goods globally has vastly slowed. The governing regime of mobilities has been thrown into sudden disarray, and with it the world economy. Under these exigencies to de-mobilize our lives, we are forced to adopt new routines, new habits, and new ways of stilling ourselves, our economies, and our social interactions. Universities, of course, have also closed, and I write this from home under orders of social distancing, while I prepare my Spring term course for online teaching.

Additionally, shortly on the heels of this global slow down there is also a mounting shift towards new patterns and kinds of mobilities: we hear of evacuations of travelers returning from abroad, essential workers getting to their jobs by bike or walking, and university students moving out of their dormitories. Governors are calling for surge capacity, mobilizing the National Guard, and perhaps the military armed forces. Local communities are planning for drive-in virus testing, online working, delivery services, and logistical processes to re-fill grocery store shelves. We learn that if governments do not extend the social safety net, at least here in the United States, we will soon see evictions, homeless people roaming the streets, and further uncontrolled spread of CoVid-19. Amid these unfamiliar mobilities we hear calls for social solidarity, as much as social distancing.

Crucially, there has also been a global slowdown of fossil fuel consumption, and a collapsing price for oil. As transportation and production seize up, and international travel shuts down, the demand for fossil fuel is plunging. If airlines go bankrupt, if trucking is severely reduced, and consumers stop buying new cars, will this actually kickstart the transition away from fossil fuels? As countries seek to recover and pull out of this mobility shock, will we seek to return to the high-mobility, high-energy, high-carbon economy of the past? Or will we begin the urgently needed shift to a low-carbon economy, one premised on more resilient, regenerative, and circular forms of local exchange? Could this be the push we needed to truly implement the low-carbon transition that scientists have warned us is necessary to stop the global climate emergency?

While some might see this as the wrong time to worry about climate change — in the midst of a viral emergency that needs immediate response — for others these two things are connected. While it may not be clear yet whether climate change has facilitated the jump of new coronavirus from wildlife to humans, certainly scientists have been predicting increasing risks of pandemics. Even more to the point, though, our response to CoVid-19 may share crucial elements with our needed response to climate change. Both problems remind us that the world is interconnected, and we cannot wall ourselves off. And while some societies might veer towards authoritarian and military responses, demonizing outsiders and rallying nationalism, others are recognizing the need for international cooperation, mutual solidarity, and shared resources and knowledge.

Above all, though, it is becoming clearer that the response to both coronavirus and climate change share common elements. Proponents of the Green New Deal in the United States, or the Green Deal in Europe, have been calling for a massive transformation of our energy infrastructure, housing, and transportation systems through public investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and low-carbon transportation. These proposals are exactly the kind of government stimulus that could also help pull our economies out of the current slump, and build more resilient communities with greater social solidarity.

So, while we are still in the midst of the immediate emergency response, it is also worthwhile to begin to envision and plan for our recovery and rebuilding process. Mobilities theory is crucial to this planning because we have been focusing for the last fifteen years on the problem of low-carbon transitions and understanding how everyday social practices are embedded in complex systemic change. Changing the ways that we do mobilities will be crucial to the post-CoVid-19 world. And making sure we do so in a socially equitable and just way will be crucial to the future of the world.

About blog posts

Every crisis is an opportunity.

Call for photos: (auto)mobility and Covid-19

As pictures tell thousand stories, we would like to complement our blog reflections with pictures: photos reflecting on how mobilities, personal and social timespace was rearranged the world over due to the virus and the measures taken.

Please send us your personal photos about (auto)mobility life in coronatimes. We will publish them on the blog and later, maybe, create an exhibition at the Institute for Advanced Studies, in Vienna.

Please send them to

By sending the photos, you agree to their publication on the CAS website, the potential presentation at a public exhibition at the IHS, and its use for creating scientific reflections on these (publications).

We want to collect your experiences related to the current rearrangement of personal and social perspectives on mobility. Please continue also to send us (personal) reflections, approx. 250 words, in an academic blog fashion (personal reflection, but also some level of learned explanation, maybe reference in literature etc.). You are, of course, invited to write about anything that is of interest to you in this specific situation animated by corona.

Please send your entries to and we will notify you once it is online.

Thank you!

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