Stop the violence
Free associating here. Also grammar rules may be broken and spelling errors found aplenty. You have been warned.
Image above taken in west Denver.
I just got back from Denver, CO. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from the Local Government Commission to attend the New Partners for Smart Growth. This was my third consecutive year attending the conference.
As always, attending a conference in a new city gives me an opportunity to explore the city and I always feel extra excited if I can get around by bicycle. Last year’s NPSG was in Kansas City, MO and getting around on foot was a pain (I only brought one pair of shoes with me) and the transit was not too extensive. By bicycle, I can explore the entire city without fear since getting away from dangerous areas or situations is faster when I can pedal away.
I’d never been to Denver before, and I knew next to nothing about the city except that’s it a mile high above sea level and that a handful of friends have moved to Denver or its surrounding suburbs.
As we were flying in, from the air, I noticed that the entire city was laid out in a nice grid format, and it looked really flat from a terrain perspective. Once on the ground and on a bike, the flatness of the city was confirmed.
In New York City, a few of my fellow colleagues in advocacy have begun using the phrase “stop the traffic violence” to draw attention to the inherent danger that the automobile is creating by its presence in the city. These colleagues have been encouraging me and others to use the term but I’ve held back.
Something about referring to the 35,000 people who are killed annually as a result motor vehicle crashes or the 293,000 people who suffer from traumatic brain injuries as a result of said vehicle crashes - as “traffic violence” gives me a lot of pause. Is it violence? Violence, to me, connotates a very deliberate act. It’s something that is abhorrent and to be avoided and prevented. Are all the people who are direct and indirect victims of these motor vehicle crashes, victims of “traffic violence”?
Over the last few months I have been educating myself about specific language that is employed to draw attention to causes. So I’ve learned some (previously unknown) words: environmental racism, environmental justice are the two that immediately come to mind as it relates to this idea of “traffic violence”.
I’ve been trying to relate these new terms to my existing knowledge of how land has been systematically and repeatedly stolen. To paraphrase and summarize Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, “land is everything”. And trying to wrap my head around the issues of land and land value extraction will probably be a lifetime endeavor.
While the narrative to land extraction now is different, the process looks the same. It seems to me that both colonialism and the fears surrounding the notion of gentrification are very related. Anyone that is not white is systematically and brutally robbed. This is most clearly seen with the placement of the interstate highway networks that systematically destroyed neighborhoods that were home to people who were either poor and/or victims of past colonial cruelty.
In San Diego 40th Street was replaced with the I-15. In Denver, 46th Avenue was replaced with I-70. As I rode underneath I-70, I couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of wasted space underneath the highway and around the ramps. I thought about what used to be there before the I-70. How many people lived here? Were they moved by force? How were they compensated? How many tears were shed? How many families have their memories embedded here?
I actually don’t know anything about I-70 or 46th Avenue. I was just surprised to see this image when I was looking at the map to see where I was in relation to the rest of the city.
As I was checking out the ramps, and listening to the roar of vehicles rushing along I-70 above my head - I wondered about how many people had died since the I-70 was built through this neighborhood I was in, in Denver. I could almost hear the wailing of family members mourning the loss of the husbands, mothers, sons and daughters.
Did the building of the I-70 contribute to “traffic violence”. How many people were killed on the surface streets I was in because the roads are so wide that they invite drivers to speed through. I barely saw a single person walking or biking when I was sitting under I-70 thinking.
Later on, after I returned my bike to the bike share kiosk, I joined two planners for cocktails. One of the two called himself a “radical planner” who worked on issues of “economic justice”. Those were terms that I also spent some time mulling over. I was honestly surprised to hear them talk about wealth re-distribution and identification with Marxist thought.
Land has been systematically and repeatedly stolen and its value has been extracted and never replenished. People throughout centuries have died as a result of this extraction. The violence from our colonial past certainly sounds horrific to simply read about - it sickens me to think about the multitudes who experienced the forms of colonialism and resource extraction that is usually written about in books. Nowadays in our collective attempt to start the narrative of history from a rosey past, attempts to have honest discussions of race are systematically and deliberately silenced. In an attempt to talk about “smart growth” we talk only in vague generalities about how our cities have been destroyed. Land has been stolen and its resources forcibly extracted from its caretakers for as long as violence has been tolerated for the benefit of a few who get to ride the process of extraction in a bubble defined as “efficiency and comfort” or “the economy”. Fuzzy nonsense and logic surrounding topics of land and its use are tolerated and accepted because as a society we simply do not give a shit about anyone who simply has the misfortune to be born into a societal structure that is unbelievably cruel and unfair to them.
The work I have adopted to be my own has its place in land and transportation and our basic need to have access to resources. If access to resources is repeatedly being inhibited by a societal structure that has the power to kill and severely maim us at any time no matter where we are….is it fair to call this violence?
After all these words, I will say that yes, we are experiencing traffic violence. It is simply another episode in a long epic where we continue to replace one form of violence with another and then tolerate it. And it is all so we can continue to exploit that finite resource that exists for our own survival, except we have decided and we accept with little question that some people’s need to survive is more important than others. And we ensure this survival by deliberately inflicting violence. This time, this episode of resource theft is called traffic violence.