seeing like a biker

“All these cities were connected with each other, and with the capital, by the public highways, which issuing from the Forum of Rome, traversed Italy, pervaded the provinces, and were terminated only by the frontiers of the empire. If we carefully trace the distance from the wall of Antoninus to Rome, and from thence to Jerusalem, it will be found that the great chain of communication, from the north-west to the south-east point of the empire, was drawn out to the length of four thousand and eighty Roman miles. (85) The public roads were accurately divided by mile-stones, and ran in a direct line from one city to another, with very little respect for the obstacles either of nature or private property. Mountains were perforated, and bold arches thrown over the broadest and most rapid streams. (86) The middle part of the road was raised into a terrace which commanded the adjacent country, consisted of several strata of sand, gravel, and cement, and was paved with large stones, or in some places, near the capital, with granite. (87) Such was the solid construction of the Roman highways, whose firmness has not entirely yielded to the effort of fifteen centuries. – Edward Gibbon, Book One, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Last month, on Christmas in fact, I penned a negative review of Rodney Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason for the Austin Statesman. Stark has long been arguing that religion is a neglected factor in sorting out the rise of the West and its triumph, and in this book he distilled his argument in more popular terms. I thought his treatment of the mix of factors that gave rise to liberty, progress and capitalism distorted the place of the Church by treating it, so to speak, undialectically – that is, as a unilateral and autonomous force -- and I thought his method of “proving” that the Church was responsible, for instance, for the notion of “progress’ was surprisingly unscientific – cherrypicking quotes from the church fathers is not a method, and it certainly isn’t intellectual history, either.

One of Stark’s hobbyhorses was the respect we accord the damn Romans and Greeks, so he spent some time attacking the ancients. To attack the Romans, he dissed their roads. Oh sure, the Romans had these great roads, but – Stark insisted – the roads were pisspoor for transport because they were too narrow, as opposed to good, Christian early medieval roads. It was pretty obvious on the road issue that Stark was unacquainted with Raymond Chevallier, the greatest scholar on the subject, and that he was confounding all roads with “viae militares.” However, the symbolic equation between road and civilization is powerful, and Stark chose his target for its maximum symbolic value. My quote from Gibbon, with that endnote like the flourish of trumpets (“Such was the solid construction of the Roman highways, whose firmness has not entirely yielded to the effort of fifteen centuries”) is typical of the admiration roads draw out in us.

All of which brings me to Fiona Wilson’s article in Autumn, 2004’s Development and Change, “Towards a Political Economy of Roads: Experiences from Peru.” Wilson proposes in this article to ask a simple question; who benefits from roads?

Wilson takes James Scott’s position, in Seeing Like a State, that roads make territories “legible” to state power. She notes that road building seems to be the one non-controversial infrastructural project that has remained constant in the development paradigm from the sixties, where development was all about building up import substituting industry, to the Washington Consensus, where development was all about privatization and export.

And she notes the human scale of the road, from the point of view of development geography:

“it would be presumptuous, not to say patronizing, to suggest that village people are misguided in their desire for greater accessibility. Most understandably, they wish to be relieved of the drudgery and isolation of living in a walking world (Porter, 2002), to stand a better chance of gaining and interweaving livelihoods
(Bebbington, 1999), to qualify for a higher level of service provision, especially in education and health, and to feel themselves incorporated as citizens in national life.

My concern in this article is not to question the legitimacy of this demand but to discuss the considerations that lie behind it and ask whether greater accessibility can always be assumed to bring lower transaction costs, greater prosperity and an easier, more secure, way of life for rural people. The current privileging of
accessibility partly reflects the unproblematic way that infrastructure is addressed in development planning literature where rural or feeder roads tend to be considered as socially and politically neutral, or as a technological fix. But as Samoff (1996) argues, there is a wide gulf between the literature that simplifies
and adopts a facade of precision in order to draw policy recommendations and the literature that remains wedded to the importance of understanding messy reality, power relations and the uncertainty and unpredictability of outcomes in everyday life.”

This grabbed me. I live, if not in the walking world, at least in the bicycling world. That world is sometimes difficult to embed in the world of cars. It is a fact unnoticed, in fact, by your average car driver that a road can make access more difficult, rather than less, depending on your vehicle. A biker has to get around the highway system, and the variations in traffic flow to which certain main roads are subject. In a place like Austin, where there is a heavy sport biking population but no consideration, otherwise, of biking as a real form of traffic, this leads to innumerable itinerary compromises. For instance: I once had a job as a phonemarketer with a EMR software company that was located on Capital of Texas Highway. To get there on my bike took twenty minutes, not bad really – it was about seven miles from where I live. I actually liked the scenery I took in biking there, since I had to back route myself by way of Mount Bonnel on roads that have the steepest grade, I believe, in the city. The last fifth of my journey, however, required a dog leg up Capital of Texas Highway, and that was always a little hairy. Yet the “world” that I had to navigate had been created to accelerate transportation, and I do not think it occurred to any of the engineers planning the roads to question, even once, their P.O.V. – this, even though there is a whole world of children and teenage transport that comes out of the very houses that the roads are integrated with. In my (off the cuff and screwball) opinion, surely one of the great factors in the rise of children’s obesity is not the food we eat, which is probably much healthier than the prepackaged foods of the sixties, but the blind shutting out of children’s transportaition – i.e. bike world – that has occurred since the sixties.

But to get back to Wilson’s essay. Wilson poses a simple question:

“From the perspective of rural populations, road building may lead not to benefits but to an undermining
of fragile livelihoods and dispossession of resources. There may be considerable advantages to be gained from holding on to spatial ‘autonomy’ notwithstanding the costs — a concept having a far more positive ring than ‘inaccessibility’ or ‘isolation’. For the sake of ‘autonomy’, can a case be made for making do with tracks and trails instead of building roads?”

I’ll take up Wilson’s responses to this question tomorrow.


Patrick J. Mullins said…
Roger--I don't think it's possible that today's processed food is much better than that of the 60's, and anyway, it barely matters, because much more junk food is being consumed. The recent NYTimes series on our horrifying diabetes epidemic (the worst in the country) has details like Asians' huge number of cases and why, due to social and cultural (ads, TV), they've abandoned in one generation the healthful foods of their immigrant parents. The sugar industry is protected so that enormous numbers of diabetics, not to mention everyone else, know nothing of Stevia, which is 50 times sweeter than white sugar and has no calories. Also, much use of corn oil in products is causing obesity, and that wasn't being used back then. I think in the earlier decades we mixed occasional junk food with real food, so the results weren't so disastrous. There's no getting around how atrociously horrible for health are the Big Value Meals offered by McDonald's, Burger King, etc. and they even make you feel like shit immediately afterward even if they are pleasant in a low way. Minor palliatives are occurring as they become fashionable, like today there was something about getting the trans-fat out of Oreos, but none of the Fritos, potato chips, and other snack foods have been made to do anything other than sell--and vast fat is produced. One of the problems with healthy diets is that they are associated with religions, especially godawful New Age vegetarian bores of the 70's. No need to become a vegetarian, but there really is no way to avoid getting sick without a health regimen that includes fewer of the so-called 'fun things' and does include aggressive supplementation. The trick is to intersperse the basic health diet with occasional food that's just for being purely delicious (for me, rich butter and cream sauces), and then get some rich dish, and even some gorgeous dessert, which makes people not want 3 Musketeers and Milky Ways anyway.

The other factor is the one you describe. Most people do not walk or bike. In the NYTimes articles, descriptions of gym classes in NYC schools startled me--they barely exist! only a couple of hours a week if at all. Growing up in Alabama, hick as it was, I had an hour a day of it even if I hated it. Americans in particular seem to want to become more and more sedentary at any cost. They have stopped walking and started waddling.

I walk and you bike--good for us.
roger said…
Patrick, This is the handicap of living within a mile of a Whole Foods. The junk foods seem healthier to me, but maybe my sample is a tad toooo small.

Still, didn't they used to use Crisco and use all kinds of gross colorings, etc., back in the Betty Crocker era? I thought that at least the hippies brought us better food. Damn, another illusion shot to hell.
Patrick J. Mullins said…
'Crisco, of all things, traditionally made of vegetable shortening and the ultimate trans-fat offering, can now be bought in a trans-free formulation. ("Traditional" Crisco will remain available for all those who prefer it for their baking needs, says J.M. Smucker Co. spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher.)'

This was in same article about transfat in LATimes today. I actually still believe in things like traditional Crisco in pie crust, just less often eaten. And I'm with Julia Child about butter, so no pretending I could live without it. I agree--the health food store people are unbearable. I slip in and out quietly, but they see you once too often, they try to get you to come do Hindu chant groups.
Brian Miller said…
Is part of the problem that industrialized agriculture and distribution makes the "luxury foods" and "junk foods" just so (relatively) cheap? Beef should be a once a month luxury, not a three-times-a-day offering from Burger King. Sweets should be a special occasion thing, not available in every office vending machine. In addition to destroying our health, this system has severe economic, ecologocial, and social repercussions.

We could also discuss the role of advertising in creating low-level depression or "needs." Maybe hyper-anonmic modern America means an isolated existence wherein junk food is more important? As a very solitary, antisocial geek, I'm speaking from personal experience here :) And, I'm packing on the extra pounds (and diabetes risk) because of it. :(