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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.”

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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:

Well-weathered leather,
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.

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  • Alan Robinson

    There are conservatives in Canada too, of many different brands. Ford’s particular brand represents a significant segment of the population. Blame and despise him for completely failing at governing and his hatred towards others from a statesman position. Don’t blame him for having a disagreeable view.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks for the feedback Alan.

    • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

      Ford’s viewpoint is rather similar to that of many affluent Republican suburbanites here. I’ve talked to a number of locals in Toronto who were embarrassed to have him as mayor, similar to how many of us felt about having George W. Bush as president.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8432336@N08/ BlueFairlane

    I have to wonder about the usefulness and fairness of criticizing a 31-year-old song for not being progressive enough. The world was a very different place in 1981, and many of the things that led to the development of the philosophy of sustainability either hadn’t happened or were merely vague concepts barely realized. I suspect the band would write a very different song today.

    Also, I’ll second Alan’s view of Canadians. Collectively, they are able to be much more progressive than we are, but there is a huge population of extremely conservative Canadians in the middle of the nation. Settled Canada is mostly rural farmland, after all. And those who live in the far north are lot like the people of out own Idaho … they just want to be left alone.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Good point BlueFairlaine (not to be confused with RedBarchetta). Stay tuned for my next post, “A feminist critique of “Bicycle Built for Two.”

  • Jennifer

    I think there’s room in the future for recreational car driving, especially in the countryside. Extra-specially if you can keep it on your uncle’s farm and ride a turbo train out there on a weekend.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      That’s true. And I don’t particularly have a problem with classic car shows. They seem to promote the idea idea that cars belong in museums. And heck, I’ll admit I had a good time when my family rented a red convertible once and cruised California’s coastal highway.

      • http://twitter.com/softleaf m.

        As soon as VW makes an electric-only Karmann Ghia … to be driven on the cleaner, quieter, cooler lakeside half of Lake Shore Drive—the half to be given over entirely to BRT, bike highway, and solar-charged e-vehicles—there’ll be a massive shift to the left or right, depending on whether you are north or southbound!

  • mcass777

    Why do entertainers got so much credit for being social thought leaders? It’s a song. If you did not print the lyrics I would never have bothered to know what it was bout. I really don’t care what Brad Pitt or Rush think about anything. I don’t stay away from Brad Pitt movies, I enjoy them as entertainment.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      I take it you’re not a big U2 fan…

      • mcass777

        I think I have been to 7 shows – All killer! Unforgettable Fire is on my top 10 albums of all time. Red Rocks Live concert is one of the best concert films too – the fog, the rain, incredible. Entertainment and social policy is not connected. I don’t tell everyone I run into they need to ride a bike to work in December or in July. I don’t like to be preached to or preach to others.

  • http://www.commuterage.com/ Brian Morrissey

    The Onion
    Congress Debates Coolness Of Rush

    AUGUST 9, 2000 | ISSUE 36•27 |
    WASHINGTON, DC–Continuing its long-running debate on the subject Monday, members of Congress argued the merits of Canadian power trio Rush. “‘The philosopher and the plowman, each must play his part’?” asked House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX). “C’mon. Neil Peart must be the most pretentious lyricist in arena-rock history. Gentlemen, forget these bloated, overrated ’70s dinosaurs.” Countered longtime Rush loyalist Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR): “Keep talking, man, the tunes say it all: ‘Passage To Bangkok’? ‘By-Tor And The Snow Dog’? That part in ‘Red Barchetta’ where [Rush bassist/vocalist] Geddy [Lee] sings about the gleaming alloy aircar shooting toward him two lanes wide? Look me in the eye and tell me that doesn’t rock, motherfucker!” The deliberations are expected to continue throughout the week.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Reminds me of a one-line review of a band in the local music zine Roctober: “Worse than Yes. Not as good as Rush.”

      • http://www.commuterage.com/ Brian Morrissey

        That’s a good formula – all one-line reviews in binary (worse-than, better-than) format.

  • John

    “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.”

    What’s with this false generalization? It’s lazy cage rattling on par with Fox News. Come on man, John. I know you’re a much better writer than this.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Sorry John, maybe I should have been more specific. I’m not arguing that today’s SUV drivers purposely try to ram other drivers. But I’m certainly not the first person to argue that because SUVs are thought to hold up better in a crash than smaller vehicles, they tend to give their drivers a false sense of security and entitlement. Here’s a whole book on the subject, “The High and Mighty”: http://www.amazon.com/High-Mighty-The-Dangerous-Rise/dp/0756789699

  • Steve H in SLC

    If you want to change the meaning of the song, just get rid of the comma between better and vanished.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Nice! Are you actually located in SLC? If so, Steven is going there tonight and he might appreciate some tips on sustainable transportation stuff to check out. If so, email him at steven[at]gridchicago.com.

  • emperorcezar

    I think you maybe jumping the gun. Neil Peart is a avid cyclist.

    “Peart, 39, the group’s lyricist, is an avid cyclist who, whenever possible, travels between stops on bicycle.”[1]

    “Peart’s first book, titled The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa,[57] was written in 1996 about a month-long bicycling tour through Cameroon in November 1988.”[2]

    “…Peart (the group’s lyricist and best-selling travelogue author) reflects on the “Time Machine” project, memorable rides through Ohio via bicycle and motorcycle”[3]

    “That year I had started getting serious about bicycling, and carried a touring bike with me on the band’s bus. I was riding every day, in whatever city we were playing, or into the countryside on days off. An important milestone for a long-distance cyclist is a “century” — riding 100 miles in a day — and all that spring and summer I had been building up to that challenge. I did my first 50-mile ride in Kansas, then 75 miles in the St. Louis area.”[3]

    [1] http://www.nicholasjennings.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=739

    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Peart

    [3] http://www.cleveland.com/popmusic/index.ssf/2011/11/rushs_neil_peart_takes_a_ride.html

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Hmm… thanks for pointing this out. I had no idea Peart was an avid cyclist. In 1997 his only daughter was killed in a car crash, which Peart also blames for her mother’s death by cancer, so this must have influenced his perspective on unsafe driving as well.