Sunday, March 08, 2009

On dromocracy

(MacNamara Ave, Concord)
If you stand in a room with 10 bicycle advocates and ask them what are their three greatest demands, chances are: infrastructure, driver education, and lower speed limits will probably rate highly. The final demand for lower speed limits is often stated but also resisted as 'pie in the sky' thinking amongst policy makers. Culturally, we hold onto a belief in 'the inalienable right to speed’ not matter what the consequences may be in terms of deaths on the road, the environment, transport ineffectiveness, and the impoverishment of urban street space. There are resistances to speed in places such as ‘school zones’, but by and large these are exceptions to the rule that speed dominates. The French philosopher and urbanist, Paul Virilio, coined a term “dromocracy” which describes this relationship between power and speed. ‘Dromos’ come from the Greek word for race (hence we have velodromes). ‘Dromocracy’ therefore is the power to rule by speed. According to Virilio:
Every society is founded on a relation of speed. Every society is dromocratic. If you take Athenian society, you’ll notice that at the top there’s the hierarch, in other words the one who can charter a trireme. Then there’s the horseman—the one who can charter a horse, to use naval language. After that, there’s the hoplite, who can get ready for war, “arm himself”—in the odd sense that the word armament has both a naval and a martial connotation—with his spears and his shield as a vector of combat. And finally, there’s the free man and the slave who only have the possibilities of hiring themselves out or being enlisted as energy in the war-machine—the rowers. In this system (which also existed in Rome with the cavalry), he who has the speed has the power. (Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War. Translated by M. Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e). 1997, pp. 49-50) (qtd at Theosblog)
Jason Adams also writes in his MA thesis on Virilio:
Speed has never been distributed evenly, but has always functioned in the form of a hierarchy, such that the more powerful sectors of society are those that move at faster speeds, while the less powerful sectors are those that move at slower speeds, an observable phenomena from the Concorde Jet of the elite to the Greyhound Bus of the poor… Virilio contends that, as is also the case with wealth, the essence of speed is power; as he elaborates, "power and speed are inseparable ...”.
I think Virilio’s concept of ‘dromocracy’ is really helpful in thinking about the ways in which speed is directly related to social divisions and power relations, however this phenomena is rarely acknowledged in transport policy speak. It is a particular pressing issue for those advocating for more bicycle friendly cities in which cars slow down allowing for other forms of street life to take place. However, if ‘power and speed are inseparable’, there does seem to be a sort of fatalism in Virilio that no-one can put the brakes on. Then again, the relationship between speed and the bicycle is less than clear. The Slow Bicycle Movement celebrates a resistance against the desire to speed. In contrast, the concept of ‘effective speed’ indicates that bicycles are effectively much faster than most other modes of transport.

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