This is the view from Brisbane city, Australia, at the usual ‘peak hour’ of traffic, overlooking the main highway through the city and busway routes. These roads are usually at a standstill, packed with cars and buses. Now, the area is almost empty, except for a few pedestrians and empty buses.
-By Johannes Fiedler, Architect, Graz
While vowing to abstain from general conclusions on automobility before the backdrop of the current public health crisis, I do feel incited to comment on the way car-use is handled in the restrictions of movement imposed by the authorities. The ordinance of March 15th 2020, issued by the Austrian Ministry of Health restricts the access to public places to a limited set of purposes, described in 4 Articles: 1-self-protection, 2- care for others, 3 – covering daily basic needs, 4 – work. Article 5 indicates that all other activities are allowed as long as they are undertaken only in the company of persons sharing the same residence and that a minimum distance is kept to all other persons. There is no restriction of the range of movement. In a separate clause of the same ordinance, the use of public transport is restricted to the purposes 1-4, with the effect that people are not allowed to use trains, trams and buses for non-essential purposes, such as for recreation.
The use of cars, however, is not restricted. Hence, it is perfectly legal to drive to any place in Austria, for whatever purpose – as long as you are alone or accompanied by members of your own household. Technically speaking, this regulation makes sense, as the idea of the restrictions is to limit the danger of contagion, which is given in public transport and not in a car. Socially, however, the grossly distorted range of movement between car-users and those who do not drive, poses a risk to the idea of solidarity in the combat against the spread of the disease. It leaves large parts of the population, especially in cities, confined to their immediate surroundings, while others are free to roam. Astonishingly, people assume that restrictions on the range of movement apply (which is only the case is some Alpine municipalities) and they abstain from exploiting the automotive freedom that the legal lacuna is offering.
With little traffic on the roads and in the streets, the matter of automobility is eclipsed from public discussion.
-by Hendrik Wagenaar, King’s College London, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna
Every crisis has its unique standout characteristic that later colours our memory of it. With the dot.com crisis it was the newly minted stock market millionaires, some among our family or friends, that went bust overnight. With 9/11 it was the endlessly repeated images of the slow-motion collapse of the twin towers, in large billowing clouds of smoke, dust and flames. With the 2008 financial crisis it was the repeated doomsday predictions of financial experts that the world’s financial system was about to implode.
The current Corona crisis will be remembered for its data-heaviness: its iconic image is the curve. Every day the media open with the number of new infections, the daily death toll, the number of available ICU beds projected against the number of new cases, or, my favorite, P0, the index for the reproduction rate of a disease, the average number of people infected by one person – all this presented in colourful graphs and tables. Readers and viewers are assured that the number have been compiled by authoritative, scientific sources, organizations with bland acronyms that suddenly have become household names: Public Health England, the RIVM (Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu) in the Netherlands, the IMHE (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) in Seattle. And most importantly, the pundits and commentators, can sigh their collective sighs of relief: Thank God, the curve is flattening. The daily number of deaths has declined now two days in a row. And there is, as always, the stock market to provide its own breathless commentary: Wall Street has seen the largest price decline since the 1930s. Massive gains over the last four days. And so it goes on.
The datafication of the Corona crisis is a classic meme. It is the symbolic expression of an underlying need, collectively felt but never expressed, a covert social meaning. Data, in whatever shape or form, are a substitute for certainty in uncertain times. The public, locked away in their homes, derive sparks of hope from the statistics and commentary moving across their various screens. Governments, trying to project authority in a fog of uncertainty, latch on to the scientific credentials of their data sources. The following statement by the UK Department of Health – a country where the government is increasingly criticized for its belated response to the Corona crisis – is representative of hundreds such statements by government agencies all over the world: “Our response to coronavirus – including decisions on which measures we introduce and when – is based on the latest scientific advice, modelling and evidence, and we are working round the clock with world-renowned clinicians, public health experts and scientists to keep this country safe.” (Guardian, April 8, 2020).
Confronted with the moral economy of datafication, the title of a book by Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995), one of the Netherlands’ greatest writers, came to mind. Moedwil en Misverstand in strong, resonant Dutch; Wilful Intent and Misconception, in accurate but cumbersome English . Hermans’ title expressed his bleak nihilistic cosmology of an indifferent universe, beyond pity or mercy, in which exposed, powerless individuals are driven by guilt, remorse and mutual misunderstanding. (Actually not a bad image of the Corona crisis.) I use it to typify the current attitude towards the Corona data. For despite the daily avalanche of data, its effect is mystification, deliberate and inadvertently. And, officials, experts and the media work hand in hand to create this overwhelming sense of befuddlement.
These ‘Hermansian’ thoughts came over me when I found in my Twitter timeline an article by Tomas Pueyo. Pueyo had compiled, presented and commented on a range of data on the Corona crisis in a way that, for the first time in these past months, struck me as useful and meaningful. Pueyo spoke truth to power. What did he do that the media overwhelmingly had failed to do so far?
First of all, Pueyo presents only comparative data. I understand the urge to know about the infection rate or the number of Corona deaths in your country, but this is more or less useless, and even misleading, information without the ability to compare it to other countries. At the time of writing this blog I learn that 234 people have died in the Netherlands in the last 24 hours bringing the cumulative total at 2101. The website of the IMHE allows me to put that number in perspective. Austria, my country of residence, has had a total of 254 deaths at April 8, compared to 2,420 in the Netherlands. Differently put, the Netherlands, with a population that is twice that of Austria, has almost ten times as many Corona deaths. Germany (pop. 83 million) has 2098 deaths compared to the UK’s (pop. 66,6 million) 8867. These numbers tell a powerful story, and it is a story of the success or failure of policy making. Countries that introduced stringent social distancing measures early on, that is, when the number of Corona deaths was still low, and that engaged in large scale testing, did much better than those that didn’t. Speaking truth to power.
Pueyo also asks astute questions about infection rates. Each country publishes official numbers on the incidence of infection. They are close to useless, as they merely reflect the quality of the testing regime. How can we reliably estimate the real number of infections? Pueyo argues that the higher the percentage of positives, the more likely it is that a country doesn’t test. Spain has a 50% positives rate, countries like Vietnam or Germany, which have high testing rates, around 4%. Spain’s count is surely a serious underestimate. Using the number of deaths per 100 cases, and assuming a 1% fatality rate, the numbers already double, Factoring in the time between infection and death, and then working backwards towards the infection rate, leads to an 8-fold increase in the official numbers. On April 8, the website of the Dutch RIVM registers 19750 people who tested positively, an increase of 777 compared to the day before (warning that the real number is higher because not everyone who is infected has been tested). Pueyo gives us an idea of how much higher: more likely around 160.000. Speaking truth to power.
There is a lot more in Pueyo’s article, such as the delightful trouvaille of a “Hubei”, as the standard measure by which to assess the future course of Covid-19 infections (“As a rule of thumb, a region that has more cases than Hubei but hasn’t taken the same measures as Hubei at least as early as them is very likely to end up with both more cases and more deaths than Hubei.), or his discussion of a study that links physical distancing and the speed and size of economic recovery. I am a policy analyst by training. What makes Pueyo’s work stand out, and act as a mirror to the standard reporting on the Corona crisis, is that he is a brilliant policy analyst. Before he presents data, he asks himself a relevant question. How reliable are incidence data in light of different testing regimes? What do national data tell us? How can we make accurate predictions about the rate of economic recovery? He then concludes that the traditional numbers don’t answer the questions and sets out to find creative solutions to enhance them. Some of these improvements are straightforward: national numbers only make sense in international comparison. Some are cleverly analytic: the number of deaths is a more reliable indicator of the seriousness of the crisis than incidence. Can we derive an estimate of the scope of incidence starting from mortality rates? Every move in his article is forward-looking, action-oriented. If your region is a “Hubei”, you better make work of stringent physical-distancing measures. The quasi-experiment during the 1918 pandemic clearly shows that herd-immunity strategies are associated slower and weaker economic recovery. And all this in a style that is delightfully free of academic ponderousness. This is first-rate, pragmatic, critical, useful policy analysis. So, here’s my modest proposal. Away with politicians, officials and pundits pontificating about the state of the Corona crisis. Away with journalists who uncritically pass on the self-congratulatory fabrications from, Washington, Westminster or The Hague. Give Pueyo a prime-time slot. But that won’t happen, because his message is too subversive in the moral economy of Corona reporting. I, for my part, will from now on assign Pueyo’s articles as mandatory reading in my policy classes, and award a ‘Pueyo’ for the best term paper. I hope Schools of Journalism will follow suit.
-By Ole B. Jensen, Aalborg University
The auto-mobilized flexibility of ‘drive-inn’ or ‘drive-through’ services is well known all over the world. Since the booming 1950’s American car-culture has often been symbolised with representations of drive-in movie theatres, fast-food chains, banks, home depos etc. Cultural practices such as barbecue parties held on parking lots while waiting for sports events named ‘tail gaiting’ is an illustration of how the car mediates and enact various cultural practices (1). For decades McDonalds have been offering drive-in fast food services in Europe, and today it is quite commonplace to drive through a hardware store in the out-of-town shopping areas in Danish cities. In Denmark, we have also had drive-in cinemas, however, not on any large scale and most often as a more exotic American-inspired feature.
In the early days of the corona crisis in the USA, we started seeing reports about drive-inn or drive-through corona tests facilities being set-up (2). Not long hereafter Danish hospitals followed suit with drive-in test facilities (3). Drive-in church services are now the latest twist on the ‘auto-mobilization of corona’ to be reported in Danish media. Today the Danish newspaper Politiken reports about a drive-in church service held yesterday (Palm Sunday) in Valby, a suburban neighbourhood to Copenhagen (4). The newspaper report of the event on social media reads; “Honk-Honk-Honk. Churches all over the country have been closed down for services as long as Denmark is closed down. They have found a solution to this in Valby. Drive-in church service. You stay in your car while you listen to the preaching, and you can sing along on the psalms” (my translation).
As my last blog entry here titled ‘Driving through Corona City’ (4) this re-opens reflections on the discussion of the so-called ‘cocooning’ and the car. As I stated there, I am critical of the ‘iron cage’ description of the car. Rather, I see the car as filtering and mediating the ‘I-world’ relation. In thinking about ‘driving through corona city’, I did conclude that there is an element of cocooning related to the car. The recent case of Danish drive-in church services seems to support this. What was taking place in Valby, Copenhagen yesterday was in some respect a case of utilizing the ‘car as shield’ against the real and imagined corona virus threat by your neighbouring worshipper. As the wicker of the local church lamented the lack of co-present worshipping, he realized that the solution was exactly the car as it shielded off the members of the congregation sufficiently to be able to do service. From the newspaper account we learn that it was only permitted to have the left-side car window open, and that cars had to be parked with sufficient safe distance between them (2 meters). There were, however, accounts of small exceptions as for instance a woman waving her hands up though the sun-roof of the car, or the two girls watching the service with an open backdoor of the car (hatchback model that is).
How to make sense of all this in the light of critical Automobility analysis? Obviously, this is yet another case of car-based stratification and even exclusion. How can you attend drive-in church service if you do not have access to a car? Thus, this dimension inscribe itself into the long line of other forms of ‘exclusion by the car’ (as the drive-in corona test facilities also suggest). However, here I want to return to my interest in the ‘filtering vs cocooning’ discussion. At first glance, the practice of organizing a drive-in church service seems to suggest that, yes the car is a cocoon. This is precisely why the service is doable without violating the corona security enforcement-rules. However, if you start looking more closely, this service would not make sense if the car truly were a cocoon let alone an ‘iron cage’. The visual engagement with the wicker and the band mediated via a large TV screen and AV audio systems would not make sense if service could not be seen or heard. The waiving of hands out of car windows, and the honking of horns are clear elements of an interactional reciprocity and two-way communication. Something that is impossible to do if you are ‘sealed off’ and isolated from the world. The news reporter also notices that the wicker shouts out ‘can we dance a bit?’ and the car-drivers start honking the horns and rocking the cars from side to side. Creating a technologically mediated and admittedly slightly more ‘slow dance’ than you would normally see. The cars turned into movable envelopes that register body-movement even with some friction compared to the effortless dance that would have been the situation had the congregation met at its ordinary Sunday church.
This small story provoked my sociological imagination as so much else have done in these strange corona times. However, it is also testament to why it is important that a critical Automobility analysis take point of departure in the car as a filtering and mediating device, rather as a cocooning device. The case here seem exotic perhaps but it is just another piece to the puzzle of understanding how we inhabit the world through technology of the car.
- Ben-Joseph, E. (2012) ReThinking a lot: the design and culture of parking, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press
-by Matthias Allinger, Institute for Advanced Studies & Critical Automobility Studies Lab, Vienna
While the Coronavirus animates us to pay attention to the topic of biopolitics (may it be following Foucault or Agamben), I want to focus on another perspective: The politics of emotions. Following the premises of Affective Studies, I perceive emotions and rationality not as opposites, but as constitutive for another (Baier et al. 2014: 14). Intellectualization and Rationalization in psychology remind us of this connectedness just as much as political actors fostering and instrumentalizing emotions for their agendas. In context of the current situation, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Engin F. Isin’s Neurotic Citizen lately, as looking back to the last years, we do indeed see ourselves confronted with the prevalence of severe, anxiety-inducing societal challenges: Banking crisis, financial crisis, refugee crisis, ecological crisis, corona crisis – one might only wonder which crisis comes next, instead of realistically imagining this age of crisis coming to a foreseeable end.
Anxieties played a huge role in all of these crises, related not only to physical health, but also regarding mental well-being, individual and societal prosperity, crime, culture, as well as concerning the agency to ‘take control’ and the possibilities to ‘make a change’. The concrete measures taken – both on individual and on societal levels – may be diverse, contradictory or sometimes even appear completely meaningless, but they all aim for (sustaining or achieving) some sort of normality, stability, and safety – animated by a (felt) loss of control and the envisioned impending doom to come. And in light of these challenges, it’s often times old or new authorities who are hailed to rescue the darkened world.
Interestingly enough, Isin published his Neurotic Citizen already way back in 2004. He anticipated the emergence of a new form of governance: neuroliberalism, which ‘addresses an anxious and affective subject whose freedom is released in response to insecurities it faces within the requirements of tranquil, serene and secure species-bodies’ (Isin 2004: 232). This subject is the Neurotic Citizen, ‘who governs itself through responses to anxieties and uncertainties’ (Isin 2004: 223). The most striking assessment of Isin is the following normalization of anxiety within societies, as ‘the neurotic subject is one whose anxieties and insecurities are objects of government not in order to cure or eliminate such states but to manage them’ (Isin 2004: 225). And while these anxieties must not be ignored, we must at the same time be wary that anxieties and our preparations for any disasters to come do not only shape our present, but also our imaginable futures (Neocleous: 195).
‘So, what’s the point?’, you might rightfully ask. The point is that when we conceive every crisis as an opportunity, we must take into account that emotions play a non-negligible part in envisioning and seizing these opportunities. We all rely on our imaginative potential to create change and if we want to have a meaningful impact, we are in dire need to reach out and capture the collective imagination that indeed, another world is possible. Of course, this will pose new potential risks to be taken, but also new opportunities to be had – maybe even a world in which we can strive for collectively freeing ourselves from some of our anxieties instead of developing the resilience to endure them.
Baier, Angelika; Binswanger, Christa; Häberlein, Jana; Nay, Yv Eveline; Zimmermann, Andrea (2014): Affekt und Geschlecht: Eine Einleitung in Affekt-Theorien aus einer feministischen, queeren und post/kolonialen Perspektive. In: Baier et al. (Hg.): Affekt und Geschlecht. Eine einführende Anthropologie. Wien: Zaglossus, p. 11-29, p. 42-54.
Neocleous, Mark (2012): „Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared“: Trauma-Anxiety-Resilience. In: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. Vol. 37(3), p. 188-198.
– 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.
-by Catarina Sales Oliveira, University of Beira Interior, Portugal
In this last weekend the prime minister António Costa, has forbidden weekend dislocations in Portugal. Until now there was no surveillance over people dislocations. But with the Easter as a mean to avoid the typical weekend or vacation mobility of this time of year.
Since the emergency state declaration that people could leave home just for a group of restricted reasons, like buying essential goods, provide support for vulnerable persons, walk dogs or exercise for a short period.
But it is notorious – visible not only social communication the news and stories of but also at short glance in my own village, that people are tending to use this reasons in an “extended” way: newspapers say that never dogs were so walked, the police had to do a stop operation yesterday in Lisbon’ south exit as it was highly congested in the sunny afternoon, and the exits of the elderly are getting a major problem (Pinto & Pimenta 2020).
No doubt there are a panoply of reasons for this: fear of isolation in the case of the elderly and people that are alone at home; resistance to authority, lack of confidence in the institutions (Torcal 2014), not forgetting media manipulation effects (Hanjoo 2009). But for sure one of the reasons is also the difficulty in being confined for so long. And it is this reason that is provoking my mobilities oriented mind: after decades of living in a hypermobile society and deeply used to it’s glamour (Cohen & Gössling, 2015) how hard it can be to adapt to this new forced lifestyle?
This situation has created a perfect social laboratory for mobility: with people and countries being forced to stay still, we can experimentally see the reactions, resistances, strategies to adapt to immobility and eventually measure the real importance of mobility for current society.
Cohen, S.A. & Gössling, S. (2015). A darker side of hypermobility. Environment and Planning A, 47, 1661-1679
Hanjoon Michael Jung (2009) Information Manipulation Through the Media, Journal of Media Economics, 22:4, 188-210, DOI: 10.1080/08997760903375886
Pinto, Mariana C. and Pimenta, Paulo 2020 “Não quero morrer da doença, mas também não quero morrer de solidão”, Público online (30 march 2020 6.50) retrived from https://www.publico.pt/2020/03/30/local/reportagem/nao-quero-morrer-doenca-tambem-nao-quero-morrer-solidao-1909946
Torcal, Mariano (2014). The decline of political trust in Spain and Portugal: economic performance or political responsiveness?. American Behavioral Scientist, 58(12), 1542-1567.
-by Martin Schmidt, City of Graz Holding, Head of public transport and traffic development
It’s all in our hands”, does Silke Zimmer-Merkle finish her post (https://cas.ihs.ac.at/re-a-return-of-the-car-or-staythefuckathome/). But who exactly is the ‘we’? Is it people from the academia, like many of the authors who have posted here? Or is it the hundred thousands of workers who either have to stay home now with a reduced income or even have become unemployed because of this crisis and all of them asking right now what the future will be like for them and their families? How do politicians react to their fears and how will they try to restart the economy and the regain the confidence of the people? Maybe they will create a stimulus-package with tax-free car sales in order to get the car industry and their hundred thousand workers running again? Maybe they will proclaim free parking in order to save the shops in the city-centers?
I assume, all or most of you will acknowledge that these are short-sighted measures. But who knows what the decisions will be and who will be able to guide the politicians into a sustainable future? As others have posted before, the perception of the individual car suddenly has changed: from a climate-killer to a life-saver! Since I am not only a concerned citizen but also working at a public transport operator, this will be a huge challenge for us. Even when we will get back to a ‘normal’ schedule after the crisis, will our customers also come back? Will we suddenly lack the funding for all the projects we have been working on to further improve our public transport system because it will be shifted to ‘saving the economy’? I know, a lot more questions than answers. But it is the first crisis of that enormous dimension in our life-time and may it also be the last!