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  • Writer's pictureShriya Malhotra

Roads are closed systems, too

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Transport networks like any other networks are contained systems with relevant ideas for posthuman studies-- and also for urban planning. (And, population health. Sorry I have to bring that in.) The hardware comprising these systems gets outdated overtime: bus stops become useless, routes change, infrastructure needs updating etc.

Mobility and transport are all functions of time, space and power. Perspectives about them come from examining and experiencing them from different vantage points: you won't understand why drivers worry until you drive; similarly pedestrian and cyclist concerns will make sense when you ride or walk. Different degrees of surveillance, risk and effect on health.

Networks - as described by Bruno Latour - encompass a not-so-static yet relational existence which cities appear to make visible through their urban design / planning form. The shape and form of cities doesn't and isn't supposed to accommodate homogeneity in any manner and it has to infact account for the random. A variable which VR and programming can't accommodate.

According to Latour, everything in our social and natural worlds exists in "constantly shifting networks" based on relationships that are ever-changing. Nothing exists outside these relationships. And yet the bird's eye view of these relationships is in itself an interesting area of inquiry: a perspective of the daily math and physics challenges that we contend with. Science applications and the ways in which we move through cities is socially and culturally constructed-- and cities and urban living are therefore artefacts of history.

Image 1: varied driving perspectives

Many of these ideas about constructing the city appear to manifest in to real cities such as in the case of Japanese transport planning: their high speed train network connecting urban and rural notably mimicked an interesting nature-based simulation.

"A team of Japanese and British researchers observed that the slime mold connected itself to scattered food sources in a design that was nearly identical to Tokyo's rail system... their model provides a starting point for improving efficiency and decreasing costs for self-organized networks without centralized control, like remote sensor arrays, mobile ad hoc networks, and wireless mesh networks...The slime mold just did what came naturally." From

The engineers of these train cars had noticed kingfisher birds movements -- that they were able to slice through the air and dive into the water to catch their prey while barely making a splash. They thus designed the front end of the train to mimic the shape of the kingfisher's beak. The network itself is even more fascinating as it seemingly reflects how urban planners use nature as a basis for inspiration and practical science.

Japanese cities and urban planning is greatly influenced by the metabolists. This was an architectural movement of the 1950s and 1960s saw the city as an organism and designed for it in accordance to the principles of biomimicry. Decisions tended to be organic, and simple.

Another interesting engineering form is the musical roads. Built in the 1980s, Melody Roads play music when you drive on them. These roads are an epic engineering feat requiring both silence and attention to hear -- and potentially, a manifestation of zen thought:

Melody roads are stretches of road that offer music from a system of grooves dug in the road and vibrations produced by vehicles driving over them. The vibrations in the passenger compartment transform vehicle into a veritable sounding board... the engineer Shizuo Shinoda accidentally damaged the asphalt of a highway with the bucket of his bulldozer, digging several furrows. As he drove over these furrows, he found that the sound produced by his vehicle depended on their depth and spacing. The National Institute of Industrial Research in Hokkaido then took advantage of this discovery to design the first melody roads in Japan

In cities like Delhi, subtle and understated sound would be impossible to value. We are perhaps subliminally honking based on the truck art we are surrounded with. The link between transport mode and health - individual and population level - is pretty interesting. Higher levels of aggression and hypertension correlate to driving, while cyclists are not just physically fit but calmer. The problem is when these modes all start to face off and compete.

This idea of musical roads reminded me of a wonderful public art piece in the MTA, where an art installation allows passengers waiting on opposite platforms to wave their arms in front of sensors and create music together. I love experiencing art in the city -- it encompasses many unexpected and sensual things as well as opportunities to engage with strangers and the environment in new ways. But more than the formal love, is people's everyday art. Traces we leave as we move through spaces. Marks we leave and imperfections as provenance.

In cities like Sao Paolo and New York, many stations and carriages now play music to subdue groups. Stations are transitory spaces and also increasingly being reclaimed as bars in London and in New York. One of the loveliest places I ever had the pleasure to enjoy a cider by myself was the train hall - now a bar - with smoked butter popcorn -- I felt a virtual imprint left behind by years of people passing through the narrow corridors. All of these old defunct infrastructure nodes become reappropriated. So it is with capitalism: industrial spaces now produce art and transport hubs sell us things.

Mobility and transport are one of my main interests because they embody the ultimate freedom: moving when where and how you want to. I like being on the move, it inspired me and accessibility is important for that. Once I am rolling around in my electric wheelchair it may dawn on me that cities feel monumental and exclusionary. Until then, I will continue to step over low fences and contort my body under barricades.

Against most odds, I recently tried to get a drivers license in the "smart" city of Gurgaon, Haryana - an experience where I had to spend many hours training on a glitchy simulation machine. Once in the middle of a power cut I was reset - and I can't fathom a more absurd analogy for life.

It emphasised to me - again - why VR is not at all like RL. But has much potential therapeutic benefit. It also demonstrated that different modes of transport -- walking, cycling, driving, taking public transit like rail buses, metro -- each offer different vantage points that shape our experience of the city. The experience of overnight sleeper trains and the synchronised breathing of strangers is forever an aspect of humanity repeatedly stuffing itself like sardines into strangely intimate public scenarios. Observing behaviours on subways and trains is also interesting. I have often dreamed about a traffic jam love story but that may just become a story about being stuck in a moment

The machine I sat on to learn driving highlighted so many reasons why virtual reality and it's designs do not quite compare to the randomness of reality. Nothing can prepare us for the ebb and flows of being on a real road. But being among others and using machines to communicate present and future scenarios is a form of dialogue. The controlled research environments as we are all aware differ so greatly from the real lives world. The present becomes the future we we accelerate towards it. Anyway, they are certainly useful for modelling.

Far more revealing has been this reinforcement of the theory and practice gap which people seem so consumed with -- rules written on paper and discussed in theory do not translate into reality and not just because people don't follow what they're told to. India is a case of a democracy that by and large refutes the rule of law. That the roads are similarly governed by a disregard for rules, although this is partially an education and communication lapse and a metaphor for governance.

Theory and practice do not align and I conclude that they will not align. They are not meant to align, they are more like equations to be balanced or maybe feedback loops. As a comic strip they would be a series of dialectical or back and forth speech balloons. True alignment seems to be an innately mechanical reality.

But as human beings while sometimes rational are mostly just irrational and random beings. It is also because of the very many variables that construct situations or create scenarios where we are the random unpredictable element that makes traffic fascinating. From everyday geometry to physics to networked communication systems and the colonial relics of our Indian roads: fractured, traumatised and largely ungovernable. Driving is like the dance of machines as they rise into the sky.

The speed and the types of these machines are already indicative of posthuman futures: driverless cars and other high tech gadget art aimed at human preservation. The ubiquitous tempo - a vehicle named after a term used for --

Transportation modes governing speed, sound and time in the city as they cross thresholds into becoming noise. This is interesting fodder to consider how academic papers can easily translate into driving simulations. 👾

Consider GTA Vice City -- a game unfolding in constructed virtual city whose limits are reached as flattened graphics and the ability to pursue goals, including the delivery of pizza. You drive and walk, stealing cars and fighting people, all to a wonderful soundtrack (there are multiple radio stations to choose from) and insights to experience the darker side of urban life and thresholds of constructed underworlds: crime, informal economy and so many other thresholds.

The important skill from video games is the many different perspective that it offers which increasingly refer back to Foucault and his notion of panopticons.

On another unrelated note, in Fiji there is a hotel located on the dateline; and I hope to find my way there someday.


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