This Washington

It's the Driving (Not the Texting), Stupid. Pt. 2

By Josh Feit August 29, 2010

Earlier this year,  when state Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Ballard) was pushing his no-texting-while-driving bill, I linked to a Wired magazine editorial. The short piece argued that policy makers nationwide (there were bills like Carlyle's in play all over the country) were concerned with the wrong issue and, so,  were missing an opportunity to consider more sweeping reforms. Wired columnist Clive Thompson argued that the problem with texting-while-driving wasn't the texting. It was the driving.

Texting, he said, was a good thing, and should be embraced as a sign that society needed to invest in more public transit. (You can text on the bus.)

Mostly, though, the editorial seemed more like a cutesy provocation than a fully-formed policy piece.

But last week, The Atlantic picked up on Thompson's canny observation and published an editorial that elaborated on his whole no-driving-while-texting rejoinder.

Atlantic senior editor and technology writer Alexis Madrigal argues that just as 20th Century networks—roads, electrical transmission grids, sewer, water—worked hand-in-hand to promote suburban culture (you could move into the suburbs, but still, thanks to TV and radio, "go" to the game and the show), the 21st Century's wireless network (which Madrigal sees as a metaphor for density) should be used to draw us back together.

Here's an excerpt:
But I'd question the whole car commute + mobile device paradigm. As you sit on the subway or on the bus or walk, you can tweet, read your RSS feeds, catch up on email, knock out a few pages of a book, or whatever else you might like to do. You can't do that in a car, and I agree with Johnson that there isn't going to be an easy technological fix.

This might seem like a trite bonus of city life. But I think it's more than that. Car time is wasted time, but commuting time doesn't have to be. Look at well-heeled Silicon Valley companies. They offer their employees cushy, WiFi-enabled buses for commuting. That first hour of the day, Apple and Google employees are banging out emails and getting ready for the day, not sitting in traffic carrying out a set of repetitive, low-level, and occasionally dangerous tasks to maneuver their exoskeletons southward.


But the latest network to overspread our country -- the wireless electromagnetic one -- is just not fully compatible with driving, at least for human brains. In more economic terms, the opportunity cost of car commuting is going up. You can listen to Howard Stern in a car; you can run your business from a train or bus.

Infrastructure is a viscous social structure, so I have no illusions that a century-old transportation system and its attendant urban forms are suddenly going to disappear. But it's all the networks we layer on top of one another -- information, power, transportation, water -- that help determine the social desirability of a place.

And mobile devices tapping on wireless networks can exert a powerful social influence, as we've all noticed. They could help tip the scales towards denser city living, or at least shorter commutes, for the wired workforce.
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