Making distance

“Do I really want to get on that?” I was asking — myself, of all people — as one of our new, $2 million, state-of-the-art trolleys, pulled up to a transit stop in Parkdale. It was crowded, and the subway would be crowded, too, though not as much as before the pandemic began.

I love to discover that I am wrong about something, for it means I will have to rethink not only the issue in question, but all subsidiary questions, including several that may freshly occur. Lately, the question of urban density has provided me with just such an opportunity. (I’ve also been reconsidering single-use plastic bags.)

Until recently, I took the superiority of public mass transit to automobiles for granted, along with innumerable “urbanist” platitudes. But let us entertain the possibility that after Sars, Swine Fevers, the “Kung Flu,” &c (we must thank a leftwing journalist for circulating that last term), we are in a new era of public hygiene. From the wet markets of China to the cowboy West, we must now plan for pandemics as a routine feature of modern life, just as they were known to the low-tech ancients, but with this difference. A virus is now able to travel with the speed and efficiency that we are, intercontinentally.

By chance I was already reconsidering the oeconomics of public transport, these last few years. It costs much more than plausibility would pretend, requiring another vast package of those subsidies that bind The Peeple to The Taxcollectors in perpetuity, and thus the enforcement of various yuge diseconomies of scale.

Several years ago I wrote a meejah column that inspired the usual outrage and incomprehension. I proposed that we re-privatize all transit systems, but nationalize car manufacturing, as a solution to urban transit problems. This would have the effect of making mass transport relatively cheap and comfortable. But if you wanted a car, there would be a long waiting list for the standard rustbucket government jalopy, which when it eventually arrived would promptly fall apart. Unfortunately, as I now see, this would only alter the density problem by increasing it.

Whereas, “social distancing” would now be in vogue. Compressed thousands hanging like Wuhan bats from trolley straps must be among the most effective ways to transmit an infection, yet devised by man. We even have, or had until a few weeks ago, aeroplanes that transport the little people as if they were airborne sardines, with a covid chilli in every tin. And have you heard of “cruise ships” for recreation? I’d rather holiday on a cruise missile.

Now, I never was an enthusiast for modern life, more generally. My idea of a city was like any in the world, prior to what is called the Reformation, or still closer to the Aristotelian ideal for a city state — about five thousand souls or so (plus, of course, slaves). At ten or twenty millions, it becomes awkward to walk around them, or escape for a picnic in the surrounding hills.

Such “urban distancing” would actually be possible today, if we were differently organized. Technological advances might actually make small, self-supporting, city- or town-states quite practical, but getting from here to there might offer difficulties, and all those who dream of America-sized polities with themselves in charge (i.e. liberals), would tend to be opposed.

But crowded trolleys, maglev trains, and sexy vacuum tubes, were only an interim solution. Better, I think, to divide the conurban megalopolis into a thousand municipal pieces, and spread them around. That might allow us to take pandemics at our leisure.

And as for mechanical transport, we could phase it out entirely.