Dangerous cars and cycling in the suburbs

-By Karol Kurnicki, WIRL-COFUND Fellow, Warwick University, UK

In today’s situation, when every journey on public transport poses a risk to you and others, it seems that cars became one of the most reasonable options for travel. There are cities, like London, which suspend their restrictions on automobility, such as congestion zone and ultra-low emission zone. Or cities like Warsaw and Glasgow, where parking charges have been temporarily suspended. The reason for these measures is to help those people who really need to get somewhere quicker and easier, like “key workers” or those visiting their family members that require help. But these examples also reveal that means of mobility can be prioritised according to their social usefulness, at the same time revealing the potential for changes after we can all get back safely to our trains and buses. Cars will stay with us as in one form or another as very capable and flexible vehicles, largely irreplaceable for certain task. Now is the time, however, to realise that it is a matter of choice and planning, and to imagine making our daily trips differently.

In the area where I currently live – cradle of UK’s motorisation – car is still the king. On my way to the campus or nearest supermarket, I need to pass through two large, multi-lane roundabouts, which combined have only one safe pedestrian crossing. The area is crisscrossed by highways connecting even bigger highways, leading do sprawled suburban neighbourhoods. The suburbs we know from American movies and TV series, where teenagers spend their time after school cycling about, exploring and having exciting adventures is not the reality around here.

In recent days, as road traffic visibly decreased because of social distancing measures the bike rides that I occasionally take to go to the supermarket became much more dangerous. Fewer cars means that speeding is common. I cannot ride in the flow of traffic anymore and taking my space in the middle of the lane does not discourage those who want to overtake at high speeds. Moreover, closed campus also means fewer cyclist in the area, so drivers expect bikes on the roads even less than in usual. Result? For me, one near-miss at the roundabout and at least a few times when I was convinced that I am going to be hit by a car approaching fast from behind. This is not something I experienced commuting on the same roads in the months before.

This makes me think about how many changes have to be made in this area to overcome the domination of cars. And how easy they are actually to make, especially in those circumstances. People are told to avoid others, but also to do some daily exercise. They also have more time to get groceries and do things at a slower pace than even two weeks ago. They are often confined to the area close to their houses.

As I write these words, the UK government is introducing stricter social distancing measures – even less reasons to be on the road. Being inside a car does not automatically provide us with protection from the virus and there are not many places where you would could or need to drive anyway. Cycling is in especially good position to replace car travel and has additional advantage of being clean and cheap. But the decision has to be made to make it safe and convenient. For safety – create separate lanes on the road. Traffic is low and this will not cause much congestion or disrupt public transport. Convenient – remove obstacles and bottlenecks, provide clear signs to shops and pharmacies, install new bike parking spaces. Organising bike-through shopping also should not be that difficult for supermarkets looking for solutions in those extraordinary times.

As a healthy white male, I can make my way on my bike even against dangerous, inconsiderate, speeding drivers. But many other people need to be convinced that cycling is a viable option and can remain one even after the emergency policies. This is the time to implement changes, mainstream cycling and walking and find limits for car use.

The bike as iron-cage

-By Ondřej Mulíček, Masaryk University, Czech Republic

It is ten past seven in the morning in Brno, Czech Republic. As in other European cities, there are measures in place to control the outbreak of COVID-19. I am riding my bike to my office at the faculty – as usual, I would say. Still, I can see a very subtle shift in the way of feeling and thinking the journey (and the compulsory face-mask is not the reason).
Firstly, I am more sensitive to the street traffic. However, my attention is not focused on the cars passing by. I watch other cyclists and pedestrians thoroughly as their level of “cocooning” is as low as mine. They represent potential risk to me, I represent potential risk to them. We play a ‘spatial distantiacion’ ballet (Jensen, 2010) when we meet at the traffic lights, when we pass by on the narrow bike path. We all try to keep some reasonable distance. It seems to me there is developing a kind of spatial ethics, an emerging set of rules applicable exclusively to the moving entities unprotected by the car body.
Secondly, in somewhat of a contradiction to what was written above, I perceive my bike as an “iron cage” (Urry, 2004) isolating me from the others. It is the speed of my movement that encapsulates me and builds a virtual barrier between me and the passers-by. The higher the speed, the shorter the time I am exposed to possible contact, risk and uncertainty. The speed of the bike, however low, is sufficient to evoke the illusion of being cut off from the surrounding world.
It is as if some features of car and automobility were projected onto other modes of movement.  I always perceived ‘safe distance’ and ‘cocoon-like encapsulating’ as the attributes of car mobility. Nowadays, I meet them every day in my head when biking.

Jensen, O. B. (2010): Negotiation in Motion: Unpacking a Geography of Mobility. Space and Culture  13(4), 389–402.

Urry, J. (2004): The ‘System’ of Automobility. Theory, Culture & Society 21(4/5), 25–39.

Return of the private car, act 2

-By Kalle Toiskallio, Aalto University,  Finland

This is just a short note on how public traffic provision in pandemic times can lead to contradictions. As everywhere in Europe the public rule is to avoid participating in, let alone organise public gatherings. Another, decades old public message is to use public transport in urban commuting instead of the private car. In the Helsinki region a very strong transit actor, the Helsinki Region Transport (HRT, owned by 22 municipalities of the Helsinki region), has a monopoly over planning all public transit by public or private providers. It has also successfully promoted public  transport for a long time. Now HRT has restricted the frequency of metro line services as there are fewer passengers, but also because of not having enough metro train drivers. However, and this is my point here, although being a public organisation, HRT seems to be unable to ask people to minimise their use of public transport during corona times. Their only advise to people is to cough correctly. For individuals in social media discussions, however, it seems to be a basic health argument not to use public transit these days at all if possible. In practice this is also much easier now than usual, as main roads and public parking facilities are much less crowded during these days. Even the 10-20c lower than usual gas price nicely supports this “healthy behaviour” of individuals…

There will be no ‘after’

-By Robert Braun, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

In a recent debate of philosophers about the politics of coronavirus measures[1] Giorgo Agamben, one of the leading philosophers of our times, was of the opinion that the (im)mobility measures taken across the Globe to stop the virus are an extreme form of what he calls biopower. According to Agamben, described in his Opus magnum Homo Sacer, twentieth century biopolitics is not the sovereign’s intervention ’to make die or to make live’ and thus her ability to govern (an essential form of modern politics as Foucault had it), but something as old as politics itself; a specific form of politicized natural life that is constitutive of the political: life exposed to death, especially in the form of sovereign violence (Agamben, 2017). According to Agamben, however, in the twentieth century, especially in Hitler’s Germany, the exception –  bare life –, originally situated at the margins of the political order gradually begins to coincide with the whole of the political realm and what was the exception becomes the norm. His criticism of the current ‘corona-actions’ is exactly this: measures are being applied in a ’state of exception’ that focus on’ bare life’ only – politicized biological life as opposed to qualified or good life. This is risky biopolitics: absolutization of biopower to make live intersect with an equally absolute generalization of the sovereign power to make die.

Jean-Luc Nancy disagrees: as an entire civilization is in question, he argues, the current situation is a sort of ‘viral exception,’ and governments are just grim executioners taking diversionary maneuvers, not making true political reflection. He claims that biopolitics is an inadequate term under current conditions, as life and politics challenge us together, and scientific knowledge tells us that we are dependent only on our own technical power together with its uncertainties. Others, like Roberto Esposito, argue that what we actually see is less a dramatic totalitarian grip on power than a total breakdown of public authority. Sergio Benvenuto dismisses Agamben altogether, claiming that everything that’s being done is preventive, and saving people is an ethical rather than biopolitical choice. He also looks optimistically beyond the crisis and hopefully argues that our (im)mobilities will stay for the better – “working remotely” or “wfh” (working from home) and life will be “hearthed” or “homeized:” avoiding the office, sleeping in and working on computers from homes will be the norm; Amazon and Netflix will do the shopping, bringing theatres and movies home; schools will disappear and sedentism or „generalized seclusion” will become our habitual way of life. Massimo De Carolis also argues that it is reasonable to hope that the epidemic will eventually end and that the measures being applied are inspired by a principle of common sense.

In the philosophers’ debate I tend to side, like Shaj Mohan, with Agamben: it is as surprising as it is frightening how easily we gave up our basic liberties, freedom of movement, rights of choice and making ethical decisions, to accept biopower as the ultimate form of control and life-goal. Mohan adds technological determinism to the list of biopower: entrusting hyper-machines that make machines which humans can neither build nor comprehend making decisions (aka Big Data), rendering humans immobile and resigned like animals caught in the deadly headlights. Focusing on bare life only, the short term ‘flattening the curve’ by concentrating on biological life and dismissing the precautionary principle of assessing political and social impacts, is equally frightening.

Decisions of this kind are generally made by upper middle class (mostly) white men living in decent apartments or houses, with proper access to online tools and appropriate bandwidth to transfer social interaction to the home office or online connectedness. Impacts on a whole generation of schoolkids, less privileged, missing the social as well as the intellectual essentials is mind-boggling; not only of the missed knowledge, but the lacuna of social interaction and shared peer compassion. Families being crammed into flats without appropriate private space, women potentially having to endure domestic violence as police are engaged elsewhere to keep law and order distancing on the streets; the setback to feminism and gender as women across the Globe are taking the lion’s share of the troubles both public and private as they manage work and care (this being, counterintuitively, an equally important reason as the virus for the breakdown of the medical system as 80% of health employees, women, have to tend to their children as schools close) – these are just the most immediate impacts that come to mind. Rarely do I quote current American leaders approvingly, but  Larry Kudlow, President Trump’s top economic adviser is right in arguing that “[t]he cure can’t be worse than the disease,” but this should include much more than economic consequences.

Rocco Ronchi argues that the virus displays characteristics of an ‘event’ that has agency to produce transformations that prior to their taking place were impossible. I disagree. Not because transformations are not possible. They should be. We must learn to care more for the environment by moving around less; use online tools to meet when possible and appropriate. However, the virus is not an event; an event is only an event when named and narrativized (White, 1987). The ‘virus’ is not in our worldly, human narrative timespace. It’s realtime: entangled, like in quantum theory (Rovelli 2017), making humans mobile and immobile, dead and alive at the same time. Whether more immobility or more movement is now up to us; politics may be finally back to its ontological position (Agamben 1998).

We may hope that soon ‘it’s over’; it never will be, there is more impossible and unimaginable to come. Thinking of the virus in terms of an event with agency is missing the point, as is the assessment that these are temporary measures to save us from the virus that is the Nietzschean ‘human, all too human,’ as Jean-Luc Nancy in his second contribution argues. We are, from now on, entangled with the virus; not only, as the ‘Spanish flu,’ because it will come back and stay on in waves, but also as impacts of how we reacted to and created risks will linger. Agamben’s analysis is also a warning: politics in its ontological position is making decisions about how to live, not how to survive.

In the first ten years of my academic carrier I tried to understand how historical knowledge is constructed, by studying narratives of the Holocaust (Braun, 1994). When the exception became the norm, Jews of Europe in 1939 or 1941 also asked the question: ‘when will this be over?’ But what they experienced was not yet an event, nor could it have been ‘over’ – it became an ‘event’ only by its tragic ending. I am not suggesting that the same, in terms of devastation, is for us to come. What I argue for is that they, in 1941, could not imagine what was there to arise. It was not an event they experienced: just a moment in space and time. The ‘Holocaust’ did not happen, it only occurred when narrativized from the vantage point of afterwards. We do not yet have this hindsight – we live in and experience coronavirus timespace. The virus is not happening to us, it is happening with us. However it is by us that all humans become ‘homines sacri’ – living in a normalized state of exclusion (from qualified political life) to be seen as potentially killed by the virus.

There are alternatives to biopower. We may be reminded of Hannah Arendt’s suggestion of “doing nothing” (Arendt, 1963) which, she argued, the Jewish Councils should have followed when asked by the Nazis to comply with their requests in exchange for some, mostly the rich and the affluent members of the communities to be rescued. Her argument was that if one is given impossible choices or options leading to unpredictable consequences one may refrain from making ‘biopolitical’ (not her words) decisions. As the Jewish Councils helped organize Jews and selected some to be saved, they made moral decisions. Arendt argued that as there was no possibility of resistance, there still existed the possibility of non-participation. They could have done many things – organize food for the elderly, teach the young or pray; but not participate in the biopolitical horror of conflating make live with to make die. What Arendt then and Agamben now suggest is not to not do anything, but to not sacrifice politics (the pursuit of good, qualified life) in the wake of (biological) dangers. The risk is not the virus; it is the belief of the omnipotent sovereign that by giving up good life bare life can be saved. But bare life is life not worth living. It is, as we know from Primo Levi (1958), the life of the ‘muselmann’ in the Camp – not much alive, not much dead either.

Political decisions in viral times are agonistic (Mouffe, 1999). The pathogenicity and transmissibility of the virus are real, as are the many social consequences of the biopolitical decisions taken by upper-middle class men. Agonistic democracy realizes that no one has the ‘knowledge’ (neither natural scientists, nor virologists or those using ‘models’ based on past experience) to make right decisions; therefore conflicts need to be openly addressed by those who are impacted by the risks, both biological and social. Yuval Harari in his recent piece in the Financial Times[2] reminds us that one of the challenges we face is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. Biopower opts for the first, agonistic democracy would favor the second.

I don’t have the panacea to what needs to be done. And I should not have. I am just another stakeholder with challenges from home-office to homeschooling, from caring for elderly parents across closed borders to trying to reflect on my feelings and experiences when I pass someone on the street or enter a shop to buy food and thereafter washing my hands fervently. Governments and other decision-makers should be busy making (virtual) public spaces for deliberation about next steps, use the available knowledge, methods and tools to empower as many citizens as it is possible to join such discussions about our shared futures, and also open up social science research to study in real-time impacts of shut-downs, fears and other biopolitical policies applied.

This said, the virus may help us rethink our current politics. For the cure not to be worse than the disease it is also advised that we don’t return to our old ways of doing. Governments for instance were eager to order masks, oxygen equipment and other indispensable items from China. Irrespective of the human rights violations, extreme surveillance regulations or disease irresponsive work conditions that were put in place there, or the political consequences that an early economic recovery, even as the virus is still not contained but information about its local spread is suppressed, would mean for the Chinese hegemonic aspirations both regionally and globally. Also, ordering stuff from China is return to cargomobilities transporting negative externalities from the Global North to the Global South as it has been done for decades (Birtchnell et al, 2015).

One lesson from the current situation is how easy it is for governments to rearrange regimes of mobility. We should not forget this when automobility and the future of the car is discussed. Automobility, as we currently know it, is one of the most violent sociotechnical regimes within which we dwell. It is very much the normalized state of exception and extreme biopower shaping our cityscapes and socialities that Agamben fears. During our moments of meditation, which Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan in the debate invites us to do, we may also reflect on other biopolitical (mobility) regimes: automobiles that kill millions, for instance.

The only point on which I have quarrel with Agamben is that there is no ‘aftermath.’ There is no ‘after the virus.’ We will, from now on, live with the virus in unhappy entanglement. The after is now. The virus is no threat. Tests will render results faster, vaccines will be invented. ‘The enemy isn’t somewhere outside, it’s inside us’ Agamben writes in his Clarification in the philosophers’ debate. When our biological life is at threat, we give in to our innermost fear and regress to being modern: return to a nature/culture dualism for the natural sciences to save us (Latour, 1993). This is a mistake. Biopower is, actually, the enemy. The virus is not an event, it has no agency and is not transformational. It’s not even a living organism, just a bunch of lipids, proteins and nucleocapsid with a single stranded RNA genome. We, zoon politikon with our political DNA, are. We have agency. And foresight.

We can use this moment in time to focus on our core political values – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness instead of giving in to biopower. Biopower is banal: thoughtless, fearful and coglike. What I suggest here is that instead of containing the virus by control, we may fight it by our collective intelligence and imagination. Some hope to use our connected lives in the future to stay more sedentary; we may as well use our networks to engage, opt-in and decide together. Instead of more surveillance, more big data and more arithmetic decision-making for more control, instead of closing down and giving in, we may try to open up. When our physical mobilities are threatened we should be socially and virtually more mobile than ever. We can share, discuss and debate; make decisions collectively; bring and discuss new knowledge, create new forms of engagement, public deliberation and democratic practice.

Our governments are trained biopolitical machines. It is up to us to not revert, exercise and accede, to biopower. Not by not complying with the curfews, that would be stupid at this point. But it would be equally stupid not to request to be part of the decision making – that government of the people, by the people and for the people, not the one only controlling the people, decide on how we live our lives from now on with the virus in and around all of us.


Agamben, G. (2017). The Omnibus Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jeruslem: A Report ont he Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.

Birtchnell, T, Savitzky, S & Urry, J (eds) 2015, Cargomobilities: moving materials in a global age. Taylor & Francis, Hoboken.

Braun, R.  (1994) The Holocaust and Problems of Historical Representation, History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 172-197.

Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Levi, P (1958) If This is Man. London: Orion Press.

Mouffe, Ch. (1999). Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? Social Research Vol. 66, No. 3, PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRACY, pp. 745-758

Rovell, C. (2017). The Order of Time. London: Penguin Books.

White, H. (1987). The Content of the Form. Washington: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[1] http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75

Re: A return of the car? Or: #staythefuckathome

-by Silke Zimmer-Merkle, Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT), Germany

“Every crisis is an opportunity”, says the heading entry to this blog. Well, at least crises seem to be a trigger for change: societal, technological and general. This crisis may particularly be cut out for reflecting our daily habits and routines as on the one hand side we have to rearrange them and on the other the lockdown gives us (beside home-office and home-schooling challenges, at least little) moments to pause and think. Some post in this blog have already done so and I can’t resist to reply to Gert Schmidt’s entry (https://cas.ihs.ac.at/a-return-of-the-car/).

Only a couple of days ago (currently events come thick and fast…) I had similar thoughts: although having car sharing available on my doorstep, I would – in this situation – have been glad to have a car for my own. Soon though I realized these to be quite short-lived thoughts. There are not many everyday things left to do. Or, as Johannes Starkbaum formulates it: “#staythefuckathome”. If my medical treatment is not urgent, I do best not to visit my dentist’s practice and keep distance to as many people as possible. The same holds for friends and family. Only work (if home-office is not possible) and grocery shopping have remained good reasons to leave the house. (At least if we look at the majority of people; the exception proves the rule.) And very often, these – particularly visiting the next supermarket – can be done by bicycle or on foot. As this mainly holds for cities, once again the problem is in the periphery – as ever. I would guess: corona will only lead to a return of the car, if we want it. It could – social media says first cities already planned emergency bike networks to promote social distancing in transportation – also lead to other ends. It’s all in our hands.

Seeing absence

-by Julie Cidell, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

One of the ways that newspapers have been demonstrating the abrupt change in daily life in the time of coronavirus is by publishing above-the-fold photos of empty or near-empty transportation infrastructure. First were images from China showing wide boulevards and highways with a single pedestrian or cyclist (e.g., Ettinger 2020). This same article from mid-March showed airports, train stations, streets, and even the canals of Venice almost entirely devoid of people. Subsequent photos from New York, London, and Kiev showed nearly-empty subway stations and trains. Our absent presence as commuters and travelers becomes very visible through these media accounts.

In the U.S., the Seattle Times led the trend with an “eerie” image of Interstate 90 with a handful of cars at rush hour (Gutman 2020). The Los Angeles Times on the same day also used the word “eerie” to describe the free-flowing traffic on the freeways through downtown (Nelson 2020), as have many other news outlets. Later, drone images in the Boston Globe, like those from Milan and Wuhan, showed empty highways from a greater distance, with the multi-minute video emphasizing this was not a lucky shot by the photographer, but an ongoing absence.

In many of these photos, the captions emphasize “nearly-empty” or “almost-deserted” transportation infrastructure. Often, there is a single person on foot or on a bicycle traversing a street that is usually full of cars, or a lone person on a subway platform that is usually jam-packed. Presumably, the photographer would only have had to wait a few minutes for that person to pass in order to have a shot with no people at all. But the visual impact of that lone figure is striking. On the one hand, it calls to mind post-apocalyptic films and TV shows, where one of the first visual indicators we usually have of how bad things have gotten is our hero(es) walking along a highway littered with abandoned cars. The news photos draw on our familiarity with that unsettling image to quickly get the message across of how dramatically life has changed.

At the same time, the lone figure on the multi-lane highway or in the metro station emphasizes that life is going on. It might be a worker who has no choice but to physically go to work; it might be someone defying authority; it might be someone going out for groceries. At any rate, it is a small reminder that we are not actually in a post-apocalyptic world: cars are still functioning, people are still going about some of their daily business, and the world will (presumably) resume its normal functioning in time.

Beyond infrastructure photos, there are other visual indicators of what’s missing from the streets: Twitter is full of screenshots of major metro areas in Google Maps with the traffic layer on, showing green roads in all directions during rush hour instead of the usual angry red segments. After about a week, images started to be shared of air quality monitors in L.A., showing the same bright green as on the traffic maps. Anonymized mobile phone data from those vehicles still on the road showed that traffic speeds were 27% faster that normal in LA, 31% faster in Washington, DC, and 25% faster in Chicago in the first week after March 11 (Nelson 2020). CalTrans data on traffic speeds showed a gain of 100,000 hours that greater Los Angeles was not stuck in traffic on March 12 and 13 alone (ibid.).

Unlike most articles on the “eerie” highways, the L.A. Times piece noted the implications of this rare free flow: people aren’t going to work (Nelson 2020). In other words, what Anthony Downs said almost thirty years ago is still true: congestion is a good thing (Downs 1992). Downs was writing about the phenomenon of induced traffic, whereby building more roads and more lanes only produces more congestion in the long run. The only ways to really reduce congestion are to shift commuting patterns in space, in time, or by mode. Part of Downs’ argument, though, was that congestion is a positive indicator. It demonstrates that a metro area is lively and productive, that people are going to work, to recreation, and to shopping. If millions of people need to be in the same place at the same time, there’s going to be delay. Cities with perfectly free-flowing traffic all day long are unhealthy cities (Downs 1992).

So there’s a paradox here: we see our currently-empty roads and transit stations as “eerie,” maybe even threatening, but we also don’t like it when they’re full. How many reports are written, how much public money is spent, to reduce congestion in metro areas across the world? Now that we don’t have that congestion, its very absence serves as a stark reminder of how abnormal the world is at this moment. And since those of us working from home or otherwise self-isolating are not on the empty infrastructure ourselves, we are reliant on the images from news media and social media to show us that eeriness.

Most of us want to go back to normal—although the stress of commuting suggests that we don’t, not really (Bissell 2018). Is this a utopian moment for considering other ways of doing things? Perhaps—but that’s a subject for someone else to take up. In the meantime, many of us working from home look at the pictures of nearly-empty roads and metro stations and look forward to the day when we’ll be stuck in traffic once again.


Bissell, D. 2018. Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Downs, A. 1992. Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Ettinger, Z. 2020. Eerie photos show empty airports, trains, and roads across the world as people stay home amid coronavirus. Business Insider, March 13, https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-empty-airports-trains-roads-during-coronavirus

Gutman, D. 2020. Seattle in the age of coronavirus: Not quite empty, but eerie. Seattle Times, March 15,


Nelson, L. 2020. Eerily empty freeways: a symbol of how the coronavirus has hurt Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times, March 15,


Other mobilities are (im)possible

-By Monika Buscher, Lancaster University, UK

Other mobilities are possible. But will a systemic shock engender systemic change? Coronavirus has shut down air travel and the global economy, and incited a mass-move online to work, meet, and socialise. When the catastrophe is over, will some of the lessons, values, and new practices stick? Early signs are not promising. As the news is dominated by Covid-19, climate, pollution, and environmental crises seem forgotten. Indeed, mobility systems ‘naturally’ seem deserving of billion dollar rescue packages, even though they are causally implicated in the death of 7 million people from air pollution per year worldwide (WHO), 40,000 a year in the UK, and climate change that will impoverish, displace, and kill more than 240 million people by 2050, whilst incurring $520 billion losses (Worldbank). Might the viral mobilities of Covid-19 eclipse these crises? In our current media discourse they already do. The invisible, hypermobile virus is feared in ways that mobilises instant, worldwide societal and economic transformation where looming systemic collapse of vital planetary systems paralyses. The mobilities paradigm shows that it is the complex, multi-causal system-ness of the climate, pollution, and environmental crises that has stopped a mobilities transformation so far. That hasn’t changed. To change mobilities systems, more than disruption is needed. Learning new ways of living, working, and socialising locally and online is possible, but not enough. We also need more (mobilities research on) understanding system-ness and precarity, causality and responsibility, courage and creativity mobile publics, collective and individual capacities for translating understanding to transformation.

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.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial
Follow by Email