A new spin on the car as cocoon

-By Andrew Dawson, University of Melbourne, Australia

I’ve had a bit of an itchy throat. I was thinking of going to Canberra’s new ‘drive-through respiratory assessment centre’. Since people are required to remain in their cars as they wait to be tested health workers will, so centre manager Ms Stephen-Smith explains, be protected from being exposed to COVID-19. That puts a new spin on the car as cocoon. Here it affords senses of protection to people outside the car, rather than to the driver within. But such dichotomies – inside/outside and the like – are useless. I think about what me and the health centre tester will do when we say goodbye. Maybe while s/he picks up the dreaded virus after going home to hug her/his asymptomatic kids, I’ll contract it filling up at the bowser, pressing the pin number of my credit card into the payment machine and exchanging pleasantries with the coughing cashier. Critical Automobilities punctured the bubbles of multiple myths. The myth of community in driving – as Henri Lefebvre remarked, driving, “enables people….to congregate and mix without meeting, thus constituting a striking example of simultaneity without exchange”. And, conversely, the myth of autonomy in driving – as Jörg Beckmann put it when speaking of ITS, “every new implant seems to dislocate the driver from the problematic ‘traffic community’ and enhances autonomy….however, this autonomy and independence is fictitious. The more human and non-human agents enter the roads, the tighter the actor-network is woven”. Thankfully, my itchy throat disappeared of its own accord. Part of me puts that down to choosing to drive to work rather than taking my usual ride on the crowded public transport system. But, after thinking about the drive-through respiratory assessment centre I am reminded that driving and the everyday life of the driver always and inescapably involve intimate engagement with external-to-the-car materialities and socialities. One of the multiplicity of little things that the Coronavirus pandemic may bury forever is the myth of car as cocoon.


Beckmann, J. (2005) Mobility and Safety. In.: Featherstone, Thrift and Urry, Automobilities, London: Sage, p. 84.

The Lefebvre quote is: Lefebvre, H. (1971). Everyday Life in the Modern World. Rabinovitch, S., Trans., London: Allen Lane. 

A lived reality of a moment in our future history

– by Lynne Pearce, Lancaster University, UK

Between 1999 and 2000 I found myself writing a novel set in a not too distant future stricken by climate change (principally drought) and various other environmental disasters. In line with much other dystopian fiction, urban and non-urban societies were living very different lives and communication between the different parts of the UK was severely limited – not least because very few people had access to cars or public transport. Indeed, my vision of this alternative future was driven (if you’ll excuse the pun) by my speculations on what it would be like to live in the UK as and when the system of automobility came to an end.

This fictional experiment was inspired in part by my first engagement with the academic debates vis-à-vis the future of automobility and coincided with the publication of my book chapter ‘Driving North/Driving South’ (Pearce, 2000). I remember presenting an early version of this paper to a Sociology seminar at which John Urry was present and letting out of the bag that I was also writing a novel which imagined a world without automobility. All those present were very interested, and although I never went on to do anything with the novel (which is most probably not very good as a novel given that I’m not a creative writer!) I like to think it was a springboard for some of the theorisation and speculation that followed – including one of John’s own ‘after the car’ scenarios – notably ‘local sustainability’:

In the first, local sustainability, there is the partial replacement of the current car system with a very wide range of local forms of transport and movement. Long-distance movement is uncommon because of oil and resource shortages. Many forms of life are locally centred and concentrated. Because most movement is local, feet, the bike and many new low carbon forms of transport are to be found along with more motorised forms.  (Dennis and Urry, After the Car, 2009, p. 100)

Instead of an oil shortage, coronavirus has – seemingly overnight – given us a glimpse of what it is like to live in a world in which people remain ‘in place’ – in their local communities – and also to revisit our thoughts about the motor car: what its cocooned environment offers those privileged enough to own one, what its disappearance would mean at a moment like this (imagine if we were already living in a Europe where there was only mass public transport?), as well as the knowledge that its pollution has undoubtedly contributed to the demise we find ourselves in.  Those of you familiar with my work (e.g. Drivetime, 2019) will know that much of my thinking about automobility is written from the perspective of  ‘anticipatory retrospection’ and what the world ‘after the car’ will mean to so many qualitative aspects of our lives.

Looking back, I can see that I wrote my novel, in part, to immerse myself in  the lived reality of that moment in our future history. As such, it was a nostalgic eulogy to car as well an acknowledgement of the environmental damage it has wrought.  In my novel, as in John’s ‘localist’ scenario, motor transport has not completely disappeared but is limited to essential use, the motorways almost empty, and local communities seeing only a few vehicles every day. Much of the action is set in the highlands of Scotland, where I’m writing from now, in a natural environment that is still more utopian than dystopian, and where the needs of remote communities helps to distinguish all that is good about motor transport from all that is bad. Tragic as it will prove for thousands of individuals, families, and communities around the world, coronavirus is similarly granting us an invaluable glimpse of a world in which hyper-mobility is paused and the unique benefits of automobility, alongside its well-rehearsed problems, can be re-assessed.


Dennis, Kingsley and John Urry. 2009. After the Car. Cambridge: Polity.

Pearce, Lynne. 2000. ‘Driving North, Driving South: Reflections of the Spatial-Temporal Co-ordinates of Home’ in Lynne Pearce (ed.) Devolving Identities: Feminist Readings in Home and Belonging (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate)

Pearce, Lynne. 2019. Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Self-care under circumstances of reduced mobility

By Michael Bernstein, Arizona State University, US

After a series of work trips in Europe, I’m heading back to the U.S. to, in good health, face a period of precautionary self-quarantine. After reading across a range of sources, I found it helpful to synthesize what I learned into a PDF. The result, below, is part primer on the effects of mitigation measures and part invitation to craft fulfilling responses to voluntary immobility in these novel times. 

Here is a video version:

Slowing down and moving less in the weeks and months ahead will be challenging, but can still be rewarding. For me, exploring what distancing and self-quarantine might entail felt like strong first steps for preparing. If you’re curious or facing similar situations, I hope you can find something useful here for you and your communities. My sources are in the final slide, and I’m constantly updating based on feedback from friends, colleagues, and other readings. I’ve included resources, too, for people in situations different from my own, for example those with children at home. For me, the days of reduced mobility ahead will be about self-care and physical distancing while drawing closer to and drawing strength from loved ones, family, friends, and community.

“The educator must himself be educated”

-by Richard Randell, Webster University Geneva and Critical Automobility Studies Lab, IHS

I have been reading Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. We need, Latour suggests, to stop thinking about ourselves—“ourselves” being us “humans”—as beings that are special and separate from all the other living entities on our planet: we are all terrestrials. But we (which is not all of us) have inherited a metaphysics wherein all that is not human is categorized as “nature” and is assumed to be available to humans for exploitation. We inhabit a metaphysics of a duality between all of nature (a category, Latour points out, that includes everything from rocks, plants, earthworms, to distant galaxies, black holes…and viruses)… and humans: “Nature stupid, nature brute; only human intelligent.” It is a metaphysic nowhere better articulated, as many have pointed out, than in Genesis: “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created them…. God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on the earth.’ God also said, ‘Look, to you I give all the seed bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food.’ And so it was.”

If we entertain the Gaia principle, even if only for the time it takes to read this blog entry, the Earth (the entirety of the terrestrial that is our planet of which we are a part)—terrestrial earth as Gaia—could have hardly come up with a better intervention in the crisis of our planet (of which the climate is only one dimension of the planetary wide environmental crisis) than the coronavirus. It is not the crude intervention of just killing lots of humans as a solution, which many (amongst which I don’t include myself) wish for, but an intervention that has disrupted the entire planetary economy. It has grounded air transport, reduced maritime transportation, slowed automobile production, all significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It looks almost like foresight, even intelligence, because one of the extraordinary facets of what is happening across our whole planet, the shutting down of the global economy, was not a given. We live in a world where the requirements of capital almost invariably prevail. It is not in the interests of Boeing, Airbus, British Airways, Volkswagen and General Motors, shipping and cruise companies, and numerous other industries, to restrict entire populations to their homes. Yet it has happened; this is extraordinary.

Gaia reminds me of a memorandum dated 1705 by David Gregory, a colleague of Isaac Newton. “The plain truth,” Gregory wrote in disbelief regarding the heterodox religious views of Newton, “is, that [Newton] believes God to be omnipresent in the literal sense; And that as we are sensible of Objects when their images are brought home within the brain, so God must be sensible of everything, being intimately present with every thing: for he [Newton] supposes that as God is present in space where there is no body, he is present in space where a body is also present.”[1] If we shift this sideways a little from Newton’s Christian (albeit heterodox) cosmology, it looks a lot like Gaia.

Whether we entertain the Gaia thesis or not doesn’t really matter. Whether or not there is a teacher, the lessons to be learnt are the same. One is that it is possible, in the area of fossil fuel-based mobility systems, to prohibit their use when there is a crisis that threatens our existence. The climate crisis, as Mimi reminds us in her blog post a few days ago, is such a crisis, but knowledge of that crisis did not initiate the measures that are being taken now because of the coronavirus. In the third thesis on Feuerbach, Marx observed that “the educator must himself be educated.” The educator in this case is the coronavirus.

As usual, it will be the poor, minorities, inhabitants of the global south, who will be most affected by the coronavirus, and we can expect the coronavirus to underscore that. But it will be not only them. The virus, to paraphrase Nietzsche, is beyond good and evil; its specific victims are not chosen (were it an intelligence that chose its victims, it would inhabit the realm of ethics). And so the other lesson will have to be how to equitably reorganize a decarbonized world in which the mobilities that many take to be an inalienable right are reduced. That world will have to be a very different world than the world we inhabit now.

The coronavirus has opened up what social movement scholars call political opportunity structures. Those political opportunities can, are, and will be exploited by nationalists who, in respect to mobility, are all in favor of carbon-based mobility, but against movements across their borders. Many people will get sick from this virus, some will die, those left behind will grieve, others will suffer from loves and friendships cut short because they have to go “home”; home having become a location within a closed nation state space. For those of us who are trying to get us to some other world that is not the world of fossil fuel based authoritarian nationalism, we need to recognize that whatever we learn from the coronavirus, it will be knowledge gained at the cost of much suffering. That other world must at a minimum be, to quote Hannah Arendt, “a planet fit for human habitation.”[2]

[1] W. G. Hiscock. (ed.). 1937. David Gregory, Isaac Newton and their circle, extracts from David Gregory’s memoranda 1677-1708. Oxford, p. 30.

[2] Arendt, Hannah. 1965. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 233.

Daily living and moving with the Pandemia menace in Portugal: a brake in mobility transition?

-by Catarina Sales Oliveira, University of Beira Interior, Portugal

Portugal also has declared emergency state. Until now we’ve been in alert with universities and schools closed and people advised to only do the strictly necessary dislocations. Flights to and from Europe are forbidden and the border with Spain has closed. In the islands, Madeira is fighting Lisbon’ decision of closing the airport.

At a first glance we can say that the two main restrictions are mobility and social proximity. But social proximity is still happening: family confinement increases physical proximity (bringing several problems); virtual connections are increasing with everybody using social networks and new phenomena as online classes and medical appointments.

Differently with mobility, there is no way of really substituting it. We are now much more immobile and, what is really odd in a society where mobility was mainly represented as good (Sales Oliveira, 2015), suddenly mobility is not desirable. This represents a huge and impressive change in an Europe were mobilities (Urry, 2007) were exalted and expected in almost its forms – from job mobility and students exchange to tourism – although definitely not for refugees and migrants (Czymara and Schmidt-Catran, 2017)

Cycling with my son yesterday we cross with some people in the streets also cycling or walking. We looked at each other recognizing the same will of moving while it is still possible, taking some fresh air and exercising. But at same time we all had some level of uncertain and perhaps guilt: this soft mobility is still a good mobility (Endres, Manderscheid and Mincke, 2016), healthy and sustainable as it was a month ago?

Bodies and minds are being forced to immobility, each day more at same the proportion the level of infected people is growing. Empty streets and buses. But looking to the national roads here in the inner country (Fundão, Portugal) at the end of the day you won’t notice, nothing different from weeks ago: people coming back home from their jobs.

So public transports are to avoid and we don’t dare and are forbidden of sharing space and to be in public and collective places. But to move by car is still allowed and felt as secure as inside you are protected from contamination. We can still drive.

By car we can go out!” Automobility as the only access to freedom of movements, to mobility in this time of war as some politicians are putting the question. So, for this very specific moment in Portugal automobility regained field and is curiously legitimated.


Czymara, C and Schmidt-Catran, A (2017) Refugees Unwelcome? Changes in the Public Acceptance of Immigrants and Refugees in Germany in the Course of Europe’s ‘Immigration Crisis’, European Sociological Review, 33: 735–751

Endres M, Manderscheid K and Mincke C (eds) (2016) The mobilities paradigm: Discourses and ideologies. Routledge

Sales Oliveira C (2015) (Auto) mobilities and social identities in Portugal. Sociologia: Problemas e Pra´ticas 77: 137–151.

Urry J (2007) Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Slow food… slow fashion… slow mobility… slow disillusionment.

-by Vít Masare, Co-speaker Greens Prague


Schengen space is gone. Closed borders. Tens of kilometers of trucks waiting to be checked on the way between two tiny countries. Rotting food, suffering livestock, delayed deliveries, exhausted drivers, jammed border regions, disappearing collective consumers (restaurants, hotels, eateries, leisure industry…)

The days when automotive industry left us and plans for air transportation boom turned an outlived theory

Automobile industry shutting down its factories. Its suppliers, already short on labor, entirely dependant on the mother factory’s reopening. Will it be the same after reopening? When?

Who knows what will follow? 

Airlines cutting down operation, airports shutting down, countries investing billions to save them. Do you remember the plans for 100% growth in 20 years despite any climate talk a week ago from now? What will be the cost to keep this bussiness alive? 

… when delivery-transportation jobs saved many of us

Thousands of people have already lost their job. The leisure industry is either gone, severly choked or on a long break. But the delivery of basic goods and supplies is still there, long time short on labor. Will it still have enough customers or will it shrink too? 

Kids on the carfree downtown streets

The downtown areas however, are suddenly freed of cars. We can fully realize how few people remain living in the city centres and how many cars they really need for their lives. 

The kids of the coronavirus times will once again experience their great grandparents stories of playing on the streets during economic crisis. 

Autonomy and relational mobility

-by Dhan Zunino Singh, CONICET, National University of Quilmes, Argentina

In Buenos Aires, a metropolitan area of 12 million people, due to the coronavirus the use of public transport has been discouraged and limited (only seated passengers) while private transport has been encouraged -all of this, of course, for those who cannot work from home. The rate of car use has increased. Streets are congested, but drivers in private vehicles feel safer and the public policy of reducing mass transport use seems to be successful.

The cocoon effect of the car increases the feeling of safety. Cars provide mobile form of isolation. Drivers are able to engage in social distancing while in motion, neither others infecting nor being infected. Yet automobility is a system -more than the car. Every car moves the driver and passengers inside, but others outside are also mobilized in the process. People who work maintaining and repairing traffic signals and infrastructure, at car parks, gas stations or car washes, make automobility possible. Indeed, car washing is crucial for (avoiding) infection! As a driver, should I clean my vehicle myself instead of exposing others to a possible infection? Washing, after all, is probably one of the few moments when others, total strangers, enter your car.

Those who make automobility possible are workers, mostly public transport commuters, whose mobility has been restricted. Car drivers’ safety, in other words, is based on other people’s risks. The coronavirus thus highlights what we already know but tend to overlook: mobility, even in its most seemingly autonomous form, is relational.    

Corona and contemporary mobilities

-by Aharon Kellerman, University of Haifa

One way of looking at mobilities during these challenging Corona days, is noting the sharp decline in mechanized physical mobilities. This refers to terrestrial mobilities, including mainly trains, cars and buses, as well as to global ones, performed mainly through planes. During pre-modern eruptions of widely spread plagues, such slowdowns or almost full halts of physical mobilities amounted to a temporary suspension of mobilities at large. The current global epidemics is identified by a stopping of human physical mobilities, but this occurs side by side with continued open doors for the flows of commodities and information, both of which flowing at the domestic and international levels alike. The continued flows of commodities and information amount to continued domestic and global mobilities at the present, despite of the stopping of human physical mobilities. These mobilities will further serve as the basis for renewed human physical mobilities, once the plague will be over. The mechanized means for physical human mobilities exist, so that one can assume renewed wide physical mobilities following the end of the Corona crisis. However, it might well be that border crossing may involve new restrictions, such as temperature checking (as China used to require several years ago). The major difference between historical wide-ranging plagues and the current one is the wide availability of telecommunicated media for virtual mobilities. Mass communications media, notably radio and TV, permit authorities to distribute warnings, orders and guidelines to large populations, and this may turn out to constitute a major element in the fight against the continued spread of the Corona virus. Even more significant is the contemporary ability of people, who are forced to stay at home, to continue their work and stay in touch with their social contacts through the Internet, which further permits the reaching of endless sources for entertainment, news and knowledge. Obviously, if these media would not have existed, the behavior of populations during the virus crisis would have been completely different, possibly bringing about additional sick and dead people. Autonomous automobility, notably through shared autonomous vehicles, if available already now, could assist in the maintenance of healthier mobility, by the provision of a possible automatic cleaning and sterilization of cars after each ride. However, the very availability of autonomous vehicles would not make a difference, as compared to driven cars, since there are no destinations to go to, when everything is shut down…


-by Johannes Starkbaum, CAS, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

Official curfew is on in Vienna. People are told to keep distance, especially the elderly. The streets in the periphery neighborhoods have been quite empty already during the last days. People go out for walking and running, yet not as many as usual for these spring days. The situation might be different in the inner parts of Vienna. I read a lot about current developments in newspapers and through micro-blogging. Several people go out for work or shopping, others seem to enjoy the fresh air. Social distancing does not comply well with public transport. In Social Media bubbles, biking is discussed as safe and sustainable way for arranging mobility. At the same time, I imagine other bubbles discussing the car as safe haven, where the driver and its companions are shielded inside. Either way, people seek distance.Solidarity is discussed as a key component of the current policies for reducing an exponential growth of infections. The younger population usually shows mild symptoms whereas older people and those with preconditions suffer far often from complications. People online tell each other to #staythefuckathome no matter if she/he is part of an at-risk group in order to reduce infections and thus to avoid a collapse of the health system. Solidarity is a concept also used in bioethics debates on data sharing for medical research, where larger populations give data for the benefits of others or future generations, stored in large and increasingly connected repositories called biobanks (Prainsack and Buyx 2012). Finally, today, newspapers announced that Austria’s major telecom company, A1, unleashed anonymous mobility data of citizens in order to track infection routes. Extraordinary events have caused such secondary use of data in the past – also in the field of biobanks. We have seen this in cases of serial crimes and in the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian ocean. Such extraordinary events trigger change and enable things that would have been impossible a few weeks before – ranging from people stop shaking hands to new types of data usage. I am wondering how the current situation will impact our mobility practices and our social life beyond this recent crisis. 

Prainsack, Barbara, and Alena Buyx. “Solidarity in contemporary bioethics–towards a new approach.”Bioethics 26.7 (2012): 343-350.

A return of the car?

-by Gert Schmidt, University Nuremberg-Erlangen

I doubt that my contribution is going to fit with exposing another critical reflection as a critic of automobilism. Let me say this: right now (facing corona) I am glad having a car as it is not very clever to use subway, trains, and buses for getting my everyday things done – buying food, visiting my dentist and close friends, etc. Living in Munich very near to a subway-station, I normally use public transportation — but today, and for next couple of months I will enjoy having my little Smart for all the necessary, and not so necessary activities of physical mobility … I suppose that many other people having internalized the fashionable attitude ‘be critical regarding automobility’ will have similar experiences.

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