The Brute Power of the Car

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, no
matter how many new lanes and flyovers are built — and in Delhi, most
cars are stationary much of the time. …

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

brands regulate the relationships between drivers: impatient Mercedes
flash Marutis to let them through the throng, and Marutis move aside.
BMW limousines are so well insulated that passengers don’t even hear
the incessant horn with which chauffeurs disperse everything in their
path. Canary-yellow Hummers lumber over the concrete barriers from the
heaving jam into the empty bus lanes and accelerate illegally past the
masses — and traffic police look away, for what cop is going to risk
his life to challenge the entitlement of rich kids? Yes, the privileges
of brand rank are enforced by violence if need be: a Hyundai driver
gets out of his car to kick in the doors of a Maruti that kept him
dawdling behind, while young men in a Mercedes chase after a Tata
driver who dared abuse them out of the window, running him down and
slapping 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.

  • Ditto the cyclists on expensive road bikes riding aggressively along the West Side Greenway en route to the George Washington Bridge.

  • Larry Littlefield

    From a global perspective, the fact that China and India are repeating our mistakes is a big, big deal.

  • Ken

    The former AG has been charged with criminal negligence and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle in connection with the cyclist’s death. See

  • gecko

    ” . . . power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate, Economics

  • gecko

    limiting transportation power to human scale is an extremely important design advantage.

  • gecko

    where higher speeds and ranges require increasing levels of control.

    80 mph requires guideways (Shweeb does 56 mph on human power alone.)

    Greater than 300 mph requires traveling in evacuated tubes.

  • lee.watkins

    I visited New Delhi in 2001, and there were very few cars and very few paved roads. Most of the cars were HM Ambasadors operated by goverment employees (or their drivers). otherwise it was a few asian subcompacts, everyone else was either riding a low-power motorcycle or scooter, or a bicycle. Our tour group was using a smaller TATA SUMO SUV to transport maybe 8-9 people, and it was one of the very few SUVs I saw in all of New Delih at the time, all the other TATA trucks were being used for construction/hauling etc. For taxis, which were common, it was almost entirely the 3-wheeler baja scooters with a roof on them (what are they called?). In some many places, the majority of the traffic was those 3-wheeler taxis, and lots of bicycles. The bicycles were almost exclusively the old-fasioned heavy-duty british looking style. Despite the chaos, it actually felt quite safe riding a bicycle around the city at the time. there were also lots of animals on the street – I saw hundreds of cows on the street, just wandering… I saw elephants piloted by small children, camels pulling large carts, donkeys, all sorts of things.

    Amazing how quickly things have changed over there.

  • David Holzman

    I think to some extent Sarah Goodyear is conflating a symbol (the automobile) with the behavior of H. sapiens based on money and status in a society where no-one even pays lip service to equality. This sort of behavior plays out in many spheres in India, and is absolutely not unique to people in cars on the roadways. It is a horrible life to be a member of the Indian underclasses, and has been since long before cars began to proliferate there like cancer.

    I’m not sure why cyclists would want to identify with a guy like Sheppard — 56 outstanding warrants, at 33 the father of four by several different women. He is not an upstanding member of the community, and neither is his brother, who is in jail.

    I can’t help suspecting that neither the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, to which I belonged for more than 20 years, nor the Massachusetts Bicyclists Association, to which I have belonged for nearly 10 years, would jump to this guy’s defense, although I am sure both would deplore this incident and the man’s death, and really, I think the fact that Sheppard was on a bicycle is incidental to what happened. Yes, there are drivers who treat cyclists deplorably, and I have encountered a few in my 60,000-70,000 bicycle miles, but it is counterproductive to view this incident as part of some war between cars and bicycles. Road users should do their best to respect other road users, no matter what conveyance they are piloting, and we will all be better off.

  • gecko

    The high levels of speed and power given to automobile drivers are probably similar to those states of mind of individuals acting under elevated levels of adrenaline and even testosterone and may be considered extremely dangerous machine-induced mental states that have caused devastation many times more extensive than alcohol and other stimulants.

    This speaks to the limits of control and freedom people should have normally using freewheeling high-speed powerful transportation methods much better regulated by specially designed infrastructures greatly minimizing the likelihood of accidents, abuse, and danger.

    Currently, transportation systems based on cars are essentially structurally violent systems that do not address the extreme dangers of high-speed powerful vehicles sufficiently to provide for safe transportation.

    Transportation is not an extreme sport. It is just going from one place to another. People might wish to go to a bar or have a couple of drinks to feel good but, feel-good transportation that is extremely destructive, sufficiently dangerous to require high levels of expensive insurance to pay for the costs of this devastation, does not make a lot of sense.

    The normal action of going from one place to another does not have to be dangerous to be fun and does not require overweight, oversized, and overpowered vehicles.


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