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fumes.jpgI was intrigued by a recent article on yet another new community-galvanising social awareness campaign to take hold in North America and, apparently in some parts of Europe (Idle Hands, New Yorker, October 15, 2007, p. 36). As the New Yorker correspondent put it, this new movement involves the mobilisation of ‘academic-looking women’ wielding clip pads and pens outside schools and related places where car congestion and exhaust fumes are at their worst. The are, apparently, taking notes on motorists who persist with idling their cars when stopped. Those exhaust fumes, and the ignorance of those who produce them, are the new ‘toxin of concern’ to infuriate those campaigners fresh from victory in the anti smoking wars, or so it would seem.

As a cyclist having to breathe in the toxins from motorists unconcernedly idling at traffic lights and powering up steep hills in vehicles sadly lacking timely maintenance, I had just figured that this fallout from uninformed and uncaring transportation choices was another blight to bear. I was, thus, excited to learn that in some places like Switzerland, it is now against the law to keep one’s engine going when more than four cars behind a stoplight. This news was revelatory! At last, evidence of a long overdue social reaction against the environmental-community assaults of motoring is starting. The other great news to really make my end of year transition joyous was the news that oil prices are now at international record highs. The future of cycling and clean air looks brighter as the oil besotted set are due, at last, to start paying something even vaguely approaching the true costs of their extraordinarily bad habits.

As it happens, campaigns against car fuming are taking hold in many paces, sometimes with legislative endorsement (as in Switzerland, and, interestingly, in New York City where idling for spurts longer than three minutes is illegal, with fines ranging from US$350 to US$2000). The catch cry is that ‘Idling gets you nowhere’. The Canadians are very serious about this with active government endorsed campaigns in place. Advocacy web sites are encouraging direct community action and ownership of the problem. One site allows the user to send an ‘Idling Gets You Nowhere’ sign-posted ecard to friends, and presumably, to those the sender thinks are in need of a reminder.

The tide seems to be shifting; just as it did so successfully in the anti smoking campaigns of recent years (I may now consider returning to France where smoking in restaurants is now banned – at last!. What, after all, was the point of all that delicate French cuisine when we had to gasp in the noxious fumes of fag smoking patrons). Community sentiment is swelling into what I hope is yet another unstoppable flood. Is this a sign of the inevitable anti-car cultural shift that the world so desperately needs? It is certainly a step in the direction towards community-level intolerance of health and environment-destroying oil fuelled transportation choices.

It is the subtle things like this that catalyse a shift from one paradigm to the next. As we start to embed disquiet and assertive reactions against prevailing cultural and technology choices, the pathway towards a reconfiguration of the social fabric is prepared. That certain manifestations of environmental harm-making (like the overuse of motor vehicles for commuting) become embedded at the socio-cultural level, our paradigm shift is on the way; it is launched and probably unstoppable.

The implications of swelling intolerance towards the oil fumigation of our world are worthy of animated exploration. Will this lead to a more general level of social intolerance towards the use of motor vehicles; perhaps exacerbated by spiralling fuel prices? Will commuting by car become the new ‘smoking in public’ blight to focus our collective outrage? What will the car addicted do to regain social acceptability? Shifting to train, bus (perhaps) and cycling (best of all) are the obvious alternatives. Of course, I am personally waiting with glee until that time when we cyclists ascend to the heights of social acceptability. Perhaps there will be a day when the lycra clad anomalies of contemporary society become the new heroes of the modern age. Then we will have turned a rather interesting 360 degrees. Especially if that shift takes hold in China; a place where once village life was defined by the bicycle, and where it could, via the force of wholesale social endorsement, ascend back to that enlightened status once more. The blueprints are already in place. Amsterdam has long shown one vision of that future.

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