French film-maker Jacques Tati was known for his unique portrayal of the humor and folly of modern technology. His most well known films feature the misadventures of Hulot, a character that is part Mr. Bean and part Inspector Clouseau. One target of Tati’s critical humor was the automobile.
Here is a priceless clip from his 1971 film Trafic in which Hulot (played by Tati) is an automobile inventor on his way to a car show.
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The scene is amusing and cartoonish but huge and deadly pile ups on our roads and freeways happen often, with devastating results. In 2008, 37,261 people were killed in the United States in traffic accidents. Speed is often the factor in these pile ups. Highway construction and cars are designed to get us places as fast as possible. Think of the word “freeway.” Our thinking and spending on transportation often revolves around moving cars and trucks rapidly from place to place on lots of smooth asphalt. The urge to speed cars and trucks to their destinations fuels projects like the proposed tunnel in Seattle or the Columbia River Crossing in Portland.
A project sponsored by Seattle’s Great City organization called aLIVe: a Low Impact Vehicle exploration is bringing together local artists, engineers and transportation advocates to challenge these assumptions and priorities that, often, lead policy makers to favor highway construction as the first solution for transportation challenges. The aLIVe project has already had its own “car show” to start testing ideas. Here is a video of last year’s aLIVe exhibition in Seattle’s Seward Park.
Tati would be pleased. These contraptions might seem impractical and slow, but that’s the point. The intent of aLIVe is to find new, creative and unorthodox ways to reduce the impact of transportation in terms of vehicular emissions, water quality, air quality, and land use. Auto manufacturers have car shows all the time featuring concept cars. Why not do the same thing with LIV’s?
Cheryl dos Remedios, the artist who conceived the idea for last year’s exhibition describes an LIV as having the following attributes. A Low Impact Vehicle
- is designed around the human body.
- has minimal impact in case of collision.
- has a standard operating speed of 20 mph or less.
- has a small carbon footprint to manufacture and operate.
- has a small land-use footprint—it does not take up much space to drive or store.
- promotes the use of mass transit by providing an effective way to complete trips (In Seattle, for example, Sound Transit light rail stations are being placed 2 ½ miles apart on a north/south grid—the perfect setup for a commuter solution that involves LIVs.)
The thing that makes aLIVe a worthwhile project is that it acknowledges the need and importance of getting around. People need to get from point a to point b. The question that aLIVe asks is how can those modes conform to the human scale rather than forcing people to conform themselves to cars.
Some might dismiss the exhibition as merely fanciful. However, aLIVe makes an interesting point. Our region can’t get off the fossil fuel roller coaster unless we start to re-prioritize transportation around moving people not cars. Recent VMT numbers, declining car ownership and increased transit ridership are indicators that people could be starting to think (and act) differently about the role of the automobile. In compact communities LIVs might be just the thing to make travel to the local transit station easier without all the parking hassles of driving a car.
The aLIVe project is now looking for ideas from professional artists and artist teams, architects, landscape architects, designers of all types, engineers, tinkerers and community members from Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia for new, low impact vehicles. The call for proposals points out that “our transportation system is designed around 40 ton trucks, but what if we were to design around the human body instead? A bicycle is a low-impact vehicle. What else can be imagined?”