Monday, 27 July 2009

Tomorrow's World

I am a habitual cyclist. I tend to avoid the adjective 'keen' because, although I do enjoy the practice, my main reasons for cycling relate to convenience, economy and carbon emissions. Cars, which I also use, impact negatively on my enjoyment and it could be argued that any urban cyclist must be keen by definition. But recently, in Britain at least, the increased pedestrianisation of town and city centres has added new hazards.

Because we tend to rely heavily on our ears to warn us of danger when crossing roads we don't hear cyclists approaching and this leads to misunderstandings, especially in those streets closed to 'traffic' but open to bicycles. No one likes a pedestrian who just steps out in front of them. And of course no one likes being snuck up on regardless of whether the sneaker is on tiptoe or riding a bike. Introduce silent vehicles the size and weight of cars and these little altercations become far more serious.

I read recently (on the BBC) that the Japanese are considering the introduction of noise generators to hybrid cars to make them safer for visually impaired pedestrians. This seems like a very good idea. And not just for the visually impaired. For those of us with a penchant for science fiction films there is a frisson of excitement about this prospect. It's so futuristic. The city soundscape will be awash with tasteful sound effects straight from Blade Runner. No more adolescent joy-riders tearing my ear-drums to shreds. A calm, orderly and sonically restrained future is just around the corner. For where the Japanese are tomorrow, surely we will be the day after.

Oh, if only that were the case. Spend any amount of time in a public place and what do you hear? Amongst other things you will hear a succession of ringing telephones. Except that they don't ring, even the ones that pretend to. Instead they emit a variety of cheesy 'ring tones' ranging from Roquefort to Dairylea.

Now compare the amount of time phones spend ringing to the time cars spend driving. Traffic in a city is a virtual constant and the sounds of the engines are sufficiently similar, and of a range in pitch, that we can screen them out for much of the time. But imagine if all these sounds had been selected by their owners. The vehicular equivalent of the ringtone. Not everyone likes Star Trek. And not everyone wants to drive a black Model T Ford, devoid of furry dice or racing stripes. Standardised sounds? For how long, if at all? If you think you hate traffic noise now, you ain't heard nothing yet.

Now excuse me while I go and attach playing cards to the spokes of my front wheel.


  1. Playing cards on the wheel? I did that! Before I was old enough to be embarassed at trying to imitate a motor bike!

  2. Take a pack with you on your holiday. You'll turn heads and impress the ladies (although perhaps not your wife).