The City Canon: Car Crashes, Car Parts, and Car People

Finding pro-city politics in awesome movies, music, and books.

By Tom Fucoloro January 22, 2016

Just like there are #Black Lives Matter albums (To Pimp a Butterfly), feminist novels (The Valley of the Dolls), and Marxist hip hop (Ana Tijoux), there’s urbanist art too.

Forget those boring planning treatises by Jane Jacobs or those CityLab essays (and graphs) by Richard Florida; I’ve asked local policy makers, activists, writers, intellectuals (!), urbanists, and friends to help come up with a list of essential pro-city manifestos from fiction, film, music, TV, poetry (Frank O’Hara is my recent find), and basically just from the whole world of creative arts.

(In, last week’s series debut we heard from online Bitch magazine editor, and former PubliCola writer Sarah Mirk, and from local ACLU board member and attorney Jamila Johnson. They were partial to indie comics and TV for spelling out the city agenda.)

Today, here’s a trio of urbanist favorites from Seattle Bike Blog founder, editor, and writer Tom Fucoloro. —Josh Feit

1. Pino Pascali’s Machine Gun

Screen shot 2016 01 22 at 2.05.52 pm kcquxd

1966 sculpture in MoMA collection

This 1966 sculpture by Pino Pascali is a machine gun made from car parts.

Unlike some other pieces in this series, this one doesn’t need much explanation. 

Pino Pascali was a child during World War II, a global military conflict that killed an estimated 60 million people. Some estimates of global road traffic deaths in the 20th Century come to the same number: 60 million people killed.

Cities are places where people try out big ideas. The personal car (and carcentric streets and development) has turned out to be one of the most deadly urban engineering choices humans have made in the modern era. That 60 million figure does not even include deaths from health issues caused by air pollution.

War, industry, and cars are intertwined in the story of the 20th Century (many auto manufacturers also made war machines). The global urban challenge of the 21st Century is to make drastic leaps in a very different direction. The number of people moving to cities is ballooning worldwide. It’s been called the largest migration in the history of our species. So our cities must become walkable and bikeable places with strong transit connections where anyone can afford to live, work and enjoy life. 

We don’t have a choice. Not only will more cars simply not fit in our cities, but this century we will start adding deaths to another global public health category: Climate Change.

2. What on Earth!

A 1966 Oscar-nominated animated short  by Les Drew and Kaj Pindal. [Editor's note: Oh, my God. Watch it.]

“Is there intelligent life in space?” asks our narrator. "Last week, we discovered we are not alone.” 

In order to better understand their closest neighbors in the solar system, the Martian space program goes on a mission to observe Earth from afar. They don’t make contact with the Earthlings, but their observations are compiled into this short informational newsreel for distribution back home on Mars.

The dominant species on the blue planet is obviously the Earthling, an odd species that spends much of its day in the social company of other Earthlings, all lined up in a “stately procession" on special paved pathways in cities.

“Anything in the way of the smooth, fast life is not tolerated for long. Loud honking and squawking brings a worker on the double,” says the narrator as road-building machines topple hills and build bridges. The Earthlings seem pleased and go back to their play. 

Perhaps most perplexing is why these Earthlings put up with a clearly lesser species that's always getting in the way.

“It seems odd that such a highly developed civilization has not yet found a way to combat parasites,” which build huge nests that block "orderly progress of the Earthling.” But don’t worry, the Earthlings are working on it. “The eradication of theses pests is obviously a top priority job..."

Cut to a shot of bulldozers knocking down the houses where these "parasites live."

3. OK Computer

Ok computer qnszub


1997 album by Radiohead

"A patient better driver/a safer car (baby smiling in back seat)/sleeping well (no bad dreams)/no paranoia"

OK Computer ends with an “idiot" driving too fast (“hey man slowdown”) and begins with a car crash. Throughout the entire album, we struggle with technology and whether we control it or it controls us. 

The name for the opening track “Airbag" was originally titled—and includes the line—“an airbag saved my life.” That was a headline Thom Yorke read in an Automobile Association magazine back in the '90s when many people were still skeptical of airbags and car companies had started making them standard features.

Very soon, we may see the headline “A Self-Driving Car Saved My Life.” Two decades after its release, OK Computer is more relevant than ever as major tech companies, the auto industry and the government collaborate to begin integrating self-driving cars into our cities and our lives.

And in case the depressed tone of the album didn’t tip you off, Radiohead does not actually believe airbags are the solution to the problem. And I’ll extrapolate from the themes of the album that self-driving cars fit right in there, too. The idea that our social responsibility is met when we get a safer car (with airbags or, perhaps, a computer that drives for us) is an illusion of humanity. 

The image on the cover of OK Computer is a faded and scratched blue-tinted highway interchange. It also includes an airplane evacuation diagram—"pull me out of the aircrash/pull me out of the lake/im your superhero/we are standing on the edge." Because yeah right.

The album is full of complicated imagery and background noise, but then there are the magnificent moments of clarity. He doesn’t die in the “Airbag" car crash. “I am born again/..!!in an interstellar burst i am back to save the universe!!”

It’s the feeling you get when you were just in a near-death collision, but you’re still here. You’re still alive. And you can’t see things the same way again.

In 1987, Thom Yorke really was in a car crash. His girlfriend got whiplash, but he was OK. But cars being dangerous would become a recurring theme in his work (See also: "Killer Cars" and "Stupid Car").

When I was in high school in St. Louis, I worked an after school job to buy a car and keep it running. My friend Mike lived exactly one OK Computer from my house. Highway-driven suburban sprawl.

A car spun-out in front of me one wet day on the freeway, so I swerved into the lane next to mine and a tractor trailer struck me from behind. Incredibly, I was OK, and so was my friend in the passenger seat. Somehow my car still worked, though the trunk was smashed and unusable. After dealing calmly with the police, I dropped my friend off and drove home. I laid down in bed and shivered for a few minutes. When I looked at the clock, it had been hours.

I was never the same. There’s no doubt that experience is a big reason I now live car-free in Seattle, writing about bicycling, safe streets and compact cities. I’m not a technophobe. I’m a blogger, after all. I live an enormous amount of my life in social media. I am very skeptical that human-driven cars will ever be safe—“tyres that grip in the wet/shot of baby strapped in back seat”—but I also don’t believe self-driving cars will solve the many cascading problems of autocentric urban places.

The biggest and most dramatic moment of clarity in the whole Radiohead album comes from a fantasy that a mentally-ill android has (or person who thinks he or she is an android) when thinking about how disgusting humans are. It’s a fantasy of human destruction—“the crackle of pig skin/the dust & the screaming/the yuppies networking/the panic/the vomit/the panic/the vomit/god loves his children/god loves his children yeah."

OK, that got pretty dark. I don’t think self-driving cars will be quite THAT bad. But damn that’s a good song. Has it really been 19 years since I first heard it? Time goes fast.

 "They ask/where the hell I’m going?? at 1000 feet per second/hey man slowdown/idiot slow down."

 Tom Fucoloro is an independent journalist and Founder of SeattleBikeBlog.com. You can give him a shout at [email protected] or @SeaBikeBlog on Twitter.

Filed under
Show Comments