As a progressive person in the United States, I look to our neighbor to the north as a model for what the U.S. might be like with more sensible laws, including transportation policy. So it’s always disappointing and/or reassuring when I read about backwards-thinking Canadian conservatives.
The most colorful recent example is Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who has consistently put himself on the wrong side of history when it comes to transportation issues. Soon after taking office in December 2010 Ford declared Toronto’s Transit City transit plan “dead” and immediately began fighting the construction of the Crosstown LRT light rail line. Fortunately the project is moving forward now and is slated for completion by 2020.
Ford also established himself as an outspoken opponent of urban cycling. “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks,” he said as a councilor in 2010. “Sooner or later you’re going to get bitten… Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.” A few months earlier he had said, “It’s no secret, okay. The cyclists are a pain in the a– to the motorists.”
Rahm Emanuel and Ford during the official signing of Chicago and Toronto’s Sister Cities agreement last September.
As mayor Ford declared an end to what he perceived as the “war on cars” and began removing bike lanes to make room for travel lanes and parking, which met with sit-in protests from bike advocates. Last month Ford charged with breaking Ontario’s conflict of interest rules after soliciting donations for his football charity on city letterhead and was ordered to step down as mayor; he’s appealing the decision.
I’m a big fan of the legendary Toronto rock trio Rush, but some of their lyrics reflect a conservative perspective as well. In the liner notes for their 1976 album “2112,” drummer and lyricist Neal Peart gives credit “to the Genius of Ayn Rand,” the Objectivist philosopher who was also a muse to vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Like Rob Ford, the narrator of the song “Red Barchetta” (pronounced “barketta”) from Rush’s 1981 album “Moving Pictures” also has a reactionary view of transportation issues. The lyrics, available here, were partly inspired by the sci-fi story “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard Foster, published in Road and Track magazine in 1973.
The Foster piece takes place in a future where strict safety laws have led to the creation of Modern Safety Vehicles (MSVs), heavy-duty cars that can safely withstand 50 MPH impacts. As a result, MSV drivers become oblivious to safety issues, and they enjoy “bouncing” (ramming) old-fashioned, less armored cars for fun. Sounds like Foster presaged today’s SUV drivers.
Rush performs “Red Barchetta” live in 1981. Listen for the commentary at the beginning describing the car as “a metaphor for sexuality and freedom.”
“Red Barchetta,” however, has a decidedly pro-car message. I’m personally looking forward to the day when privately owned cars are largely replaced by excellent public transit, pedestrian and bike facilities. But Peart views this future as a dystopia. His song’s narrator hops a “turbine freight” to the countryside, where his elderly uncle lives on land that used to be a farm before the “Motor Law” was passed, banning private autos.
The uncle has kept the titular sports car hidden and pristine for some fifty year, “a brilliant red Barchetta from a better, vanished time.” The nephew is in the habit of taking the car for a spin every Sunday, explaining “I commit my weekly crime.” He gets a transcendent thrill from piloting the vehicle at unsafe speeds on the country roads:
Hot metal and oil,
The scented country air.
Sunlight on chrome,
The blur of the landscape,
Every nerve aware.
Finally the nephew is pursued by a pair of “gleaming alloy aircar[s],” presumably the police. It’s about time the authorities showed up to bust this young scofflaw. However, just as the cops are about to apprehend him, he outwits them by driving through a single-lane covered bridge. These two-lane-wide “giants” are too large to make it through the bridge, and apparently they need roads to hover over, so they can’t cross the river. The narrator makes it back safely to the home of his kindly uncle.
It’s too bad that Peart chose to use the Barchetta as a symbol of freedom and individualism in a future society that is at best a nanny state and at worst a totalitarian regime. Perhaps these three Canucks should stop Rush-ing towards a future where cars are still glorified, and instead embrace the vision of a society where sustainable transportation options are plentiful and the Motor Law keeps us safe from the tyranny of the auto-cracy.