The Coronavirus Pandemic, Science Fiction, and the Contingent Nature of Roads

In this blog post Jeremy Withers, author of Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles, considers the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our urban environments, in relation to science fiction’s frequent focus on futuristic and post-apocalyptic settings

The coronavirus pandemic shattered our world.  This first wave of this crisis led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, staggering unemployment numbers, widespread economic devastation, and the seemingly interminable disruption of everyone’s daily life.  But along with the death, suffering, and stress caused by this pandemic, some benefits occurred. For example, many cities experienced a drop in major crimes. Many families enjoyed the break from their frantic lives and their additional time together. A decline in water pollution allowed places like Venice’s famous canals to run clear for the first time in years. And many urban environments were purged of the cars and trucks that for decades have made living in cities seem intolerable by causing choking traffic, dirty air and honking horns. From Oakland to Seattle to New York City, and from London to Bogotá to Auckland and beyond, highways became deserted due to stay-at-home orders and more remote working. Additionally, some streets were closed to motorised vehicles to facilitate social distancing among pedestrians and to create additional cycling paths (known as “corona cycleways”) for commuters anxious to avoid public transportation. As some transportation activists and urban planners would say, these cities finally had more liveable space, more space allotted for people and less for automobiles and their rapacious infrastructural needs.  The pandemic, then, has given us a glimpse into how to improve the places where we live, work, and socialise.

As the title of a couple of news articles – ‘Why Driving in New York City Now Feels “Post-Apocalyptic”’ (The New York Times, 17 May, 2020) and ‘I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing’ (The New York Times, 9 July, 2020) – about this surreal erasure of automobiles from streets normally teeming with them indicates, a science fictional feeling imbues cities during this pandemic. The association between what the pandemic has done to cities in terms of traffic and science fiction’s frequent focus on futuristic and post-apocalyptic settings is appropriate. As my book Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles: Contesting the Road in American Science Fiction demonstrates, science fiction can boast of a long history of imagining alternative realities for what roads might look like and how various kinds of vehicles might (or might not) share those spaces. For example, the influential editor and author Hugo Gernsback – one of the most important architects of modern science fiction – published a piece of futurological speculation in the November 1921 issue of Practical Electrics titled ‘Fifty Years Hence.’ In this essay, Gernsback alludes to the steadily growing traffic congestion and automobile-related deaths of the early-twentieth century when he writes: ‘[i]n all our large cities transportation has become well nigh intolerable.’ Therefore, he continues, ‘it will be necessary to have streets arranged in such a way that the various traffics can be taken care of in a more adequate manner.’ He then describes a vision of a tiered street with four stacked levels: a top level for pedestrians (rolling on electric skates, Gernsback imagines); below that a level for an elevated railway; next a ‘continuous moving platform’ (i.e. a system of moving sidewalks) for pedestrians; lastly, on the ground level, a space for motorised vehicles like trucks to travel.  It is a bold conception of a new kind of segregated road, one in which there is little threat of various road users coming into potentially deadly contact with one another.

After Gernsback, more well-known science fiction writers also focus on the contingent nature of roads and other transport infrastructure as we currently know them. William Gibson’s Virtual Light (1993) – the first novel is his celebrated ‘Bridge trilogy’ – has as one of its primary settings the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Before the novel opens, an earthquake has structurally damaged the bridge beyond repair and so it is abandoned and closed off to cars by the authorities. However, the lower classes spontaneously take the bridge over one night and subsequently turn it into a large shantytown where they live. Gibson writes of Chevette, the novel’s main character and one of the bridge’s inhabitants, that she had ‘seen pictures of what [the bridge] had looked like, before, when they drove cars back and forth on it all day, but she’d never quite believed them. The bridge was what it was, and somehow always had been.’ In this image of a now-carless bridge, Virtual Light assails automobility and its apparent inevitability and invincibility. Even multi-deck suspension bridges designed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of vehicles a day, the novel suggests, might one day not contain a single car on them.

Similarly, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) provides an opportunity to envision what it might look like when the dominance of the automobile has passed away.  As the main character Lauren and her small group of fellow travellers walk the highways of a dystopian and post-apocalyptic California looking for a safe place to find work and settle, motorised vehicles rarely come into view.  For example, when describing her walk upon California State Route 118, Lauren remarks: ‘We saw a few trucks – most of them run at night – swarms of bikes or electric cycles, and two cars….It’s against the law in California to walk on the freeways, but the law is archaic. Everyone who walks walks on the freeways sooner or later.’ Relatedly, when the group moves a little further north and changes over to the U.S. 101 highway, Lauren immediately notices that ‘there were even more walkers.’ Like what the coronavirus pandemic has done to urban streets around the world and like Gibson does with a suspension bridge, Butler does with highways: they all alter a piece of automobile infrastructure that seems like it will forever and always be associated with cars by disrupting and denaturalising that association. Gibson turns a bridge into a place where society’s marginalised people sleep, eat, buy, sell, and play; the pandemic turns city streets and Butler turns highways into places where bicycles and pedestrians outnumber cars and trucks.

It remains to be seen what, if any, lasting change will come to our roads (or to our society in general) from the coronavirus pandemic. When the virus abates, people might drive again as much as or more than they ever did, and all of the streets that were reconfigured by politicians for pedestrians and cyclists might revert back to domains ruled by the car. Even if that were the case, we will still have science fiction as a lively and inspiring archive of visions for how our roads might be different – less dangerous and deadly, more diverse and equitable – if we truly wanted them to be. Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles discusses and analyzes many of these visions, and asserts that the genre of science fiction serves as a vital repository of how people have felt about streets and the various mobility machines that spin down them.

For more information on Futuristic Cars and Space Bicycles visit our website.

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