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The Brute Power of the Car

10:20 AM EDT on September 3, 2009

For the last couple of days, there's been a lot of talk around the Streetsblog Network about a particularly horrific incident on Monday in which a cyclist, Darcy Allan Sheppard, was fatally injured on Toronto's Bloor Street in an encounter with a car allegedly driven by the former attorney general of Ontario, Michael Bryant.

Montréal's On Two Wheels blog has a take that is unabashedly from a cyclist's perspective, but as Treehugger said in their headline about the story yesterday, "It Gets Complicated" -- Sheppard may have been drinking, he may have grabbed Bryant's car and held onto it. We're not privy to all the evidence in the case, and we're not going to pretend we know exactly what happened. But the episode is a frightening reminder of the imbalance of power between cars and cyclists.

2421981407_da864c41ee.jpgTraffic in Delhi. Photo by peeyush via Flickr.

By sheer coincidence, the same night that Sheppard was killed, I was reading an article in the latest issue of the literary magazine Granta about the brutally consumerist and often violent automobile culture of India's business elite.

The piece, by the Indian writer Rana Dasgupta, begins by describing the ever-more-chaotic roads of Delhi, where status -- as denoted by car brand and price, with Western makes ruling the asphalt -- plays out with cruel abandon:

The stricken carriageways are never adequate for the car mania, nomatter how many new lanes and flyovers are built -- and in Delhi, mostcars are stationary much of the time. …

With so many cars jammed up against each other, each as hobbled asthe next, road travel could threaten to undermine the steep gradientsof Delhi’s social hierarchies. But here the recent car profusion stepsin to solve the very problem it creates. The contemporary array ofbrands and models supplies a useful code of social status to offset theanonymity of driving, and the vertiginous altitude of Delhi’s classsystem comes through admirably, even on the horizontal roads.

Carbrands regulate the relationships between drivers: impatient Mercedesflash Marutis to let them through the throng, and Marutis move aside.BMW limousines are so well insulated that passengers don’t even hearthe incessant horn with which chauffeurs disperse everything in theirpath. Canary-yellow Hummers lumber over the concrete barriers from theheaving jam into the empty bus lanes and accelerate illegally past themasses -- and traffic police look away, for what cop is going to riskhis life to challenge the entitlement of rich kids? Yes, the privilegesof brand rank are enforced by violence if need be: a Hyundai drivergets out of his car to kick in the doors of a Maruti that kept himdawdling behind, while young men in a Mercedes chase after a Tatadriver who dared abuse them out of the window, running him down andslapping him as if he were an insubordinate kid.

The article goes on to tell the story of Sanjeev Nanda, a scion of one of India's wealthiest and most powerful families, who in 1999 killed several people by plowing into a police checkpoint with his $160,000 BMW when he was drunk. Thanks to the corruption of the law enforcement and judicial systems, he very nearly got away with it.

Dasgupta's piece is riveting and deeply disturbing. It provides a rich and nuanced view of the way the stark power of automobiles can both express the inherent class divisions in a society and at the same time exacerbate them. Anyone who is concerned about the influence of the motor vehicle on human behavior should read it.

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