Aramis, or the Love of Pedalling

Interesting North presentations by James Boardwell and Toby Barnes plus an all-too-short chat with Tom Armitage in the pub after the event prompted me to rescue this post from my blog’s permanently-in-draft folder. I’m not sure it’s finished yet, but make of it what you will.

Originally it was going to be a sober and constructive service design account of my experiences on London’s cycle hire scheme: a tale of how my most regular London trip takes precisely 30 minutes and 19 seconds thus costing me an extra pound; of how the supply of bikes to major train stations at rush hour could make or break the scheme; and of how the chosen shade of blue now evokes a Pavlovian pedalling response.

But then I fell into reading the story of a different mode of urban transport, every paleo-futurist’s dream machine, the Personal Rapid Transit system. Specifically, on the recommendation of a colleague (thanks to that person, you know which Matt you are :) I got a copy of Bruno Latour’s 1993 work, ‘Aramis, or the Love of Technology,’ which traces the ill-fated 18-year journey of a guided transport project.

It’s a gem of a book, part documentary, part ethnographic meditation, part fictionalised romance of technology, a post-modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where we cannot tell if the monster is the creation or its creator.

“It’s typically French. You have a system that’s supposedly brilliant, but nobody wants it. It’s a white elephant. You go on and on indefinitely. The scientists have a high old time…”

Aramis was a prototype at Orly Airport in the early 1970s and a network planned for southern Paris in the 1980s. It was made up of moving pods, each carrying a few passengers, which could link up electronically to form ad hoc trains along busy routes then disband as they headed for their various destinations. The idea was that you’d hop on, take a seat, select your destination, and be whisked straight from A to B without having to change at C, or even wait a few minutes at D, E and F while other passengers boarded or disembarked.

In addition to the application of a revolutionary new motor, Aramis relied on “non-material coupling” by which its cars would travel packed together as if in a train, yet contactless…

“Aramis, the heart of Aramis, is nonmaterial coupling. That’s the whole key. The cars don’t touch each other physically. Their connection is simply calculated.”

I half-remember seeing Aramis on Tomorrow’s World. It was definitely the transport of the future, or at least of a future, the one depicted in books with titles like ‘The City of the Future’.

Ultimately the technology proved too complex and the political will too weak: the project was canned in 1987, having swallowed up half a billion francs of research and development costs and half the careers of some fine engineers along the way. All that we’re left with is an object-lesson in institutional inertia, a warning of how big businesses and governments can waste a fortune when they become too fixated on the technlogical solution at the expense of the user need.

But it struck me that in a funny way the French did get their Aramis. Because before London got its blue bikes Paris deployed Vélib’, a network of cycles for hire from docking stations dotted around the city.

And looking at the requirements (not the solution) that Latour discerned for Aramis, Vélib’ matches pretty well:

Requirement Aramis Vélib’
no transfers On board software determines the most efficient direct route Rider gets on bike at start of journey and gets off when they get where they’re going
no intermediate stops Cars peel off from train to drop passengers at station, so other pods can continue uninterrupted Rider stops only to buy a litre of milk or something. Other riders are not affected
passengers control the destination By pressing a button at the stop or in the car By steering with the handlebars
passengers don’t have to think They trust the car’s navigation computer to take them where they’re going They achieve a dream-like state of flow while following a well-marked cycle route

Watch the bike lanes of Paris or London in the rush hour, especially on a strike day. Cyclists link up subconsciously to form ad hoc trains along busy routes then disband as they head for their various destinations. The bikes don’t touch each other physically. Their connection is simply calculated. Yes, I have seen the future, and what it lacks in non-material couplings and variable-reluctance motors, it makes up for with a basket and a bell.

We don’t notice these things though. As James Boardwell so smartly put it in his Interesting North talk, we’re unable to picture something as simple as a bike playing a role in a radical vision of the future.

In this respect the pushbike is like Frank Chimero’s tiny horse in the Apple Store (as referenced by Toby): we’re too busy looking at the new shiny to even register the glaringly wonderful.

What really fascinates me about the cycle hire schemes, however, is the way they turn the bike into just a small part of a bigger system. To the hardware of gears and chains and brakes are added official and unnofficial services that multiply the bikes’ utility.

  • The access control systems and kiosks at each docking point…

  • The mobile apps that help users find a bike to use and a place to leave it…

  • The route planners that tell them the best way from A to B (without a care for C, D, E or F)
  • The GPS apps that records data trails for future reference.

These things may not be as obvious as Trondheim’s spectacular escalator (and I’d vote for one of these up Chapeltown Road) but they are real nonetheless.

Aramis’ body may have long since been scrapped, but its spirit lives on in the emerging software of the city.

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Reflections on Reading of Mr Joseph Priestley and M Antoine Lavoisier While Travelling by Air Plane Between Leeds and Paris

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air sparks a delightful reverie on the pivotal role of 18th Century scientist, non-conformist minister and poltical thinker Joseph Priestley.

Living in Leeds, I was vaguely aware of Priestley from local museums and the blue plaque at Mill Hill Unitarian Church on City Square. What schoolchild could fail to be impressed by the tale of Priestley inventing fizzy pop after studying the bubbles in a brewers’ vat on Meadow Lane? He open-sourced the method, leaving one Johann Schweppe to make a fortune.

But until I picked up Johnson’s book I hadn’t grasped that Priestley’s years in our Northern English city included experiments that shaped scientists’ understanding of gases, plant and animal life, and ultimately our planetary ecosystem.

Johnson tells how, after various gruesome experiments resulting in the suffocation of spiders and mice by placing them in sealed containers, Priestley wondered how long it would take a sprig of mint to succumb to the same fate. (Mint grows like a weed in gardens round us!) To his surprise, the mint lived, thrived even. What’s more, a flame could be lit in the sealed container, something that had not been possible in the containers where animals had expired.

Priestley wrote of his discovery to his friend Benjamin Franklin who almost at once made the further leap that, “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees…”

Serendipitously, I read this section of the Invention of Air on one of my increasingly regular flights from Leeds to Paris. Across southern England and the Channel, I was engrossed in Steven Johnson’s account of how Priestley made his experimental breakthrough, yet got the explanation wrong. He believed that the animals and flames emitted a noxious substance known as “phlogiston” and identified the gas “mended” by the plants as “dephlogisticated air”.

Then, literally as my plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Charles de Gaulle Airport, the action switched to Paris where the English hacker Joseph Priestley shared his discoveries with French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier. It was Lavoisier who, after absorbing the implications of Priestley’s discovery, proposed a theoretical framework, correctly identified that a gas was used up in burning and respiration, and named that gas oxygen.

The English hacker, the French theorist, the combination of the two in innovation. The thought made my day, so apologies to the various colleagues upon whom I inflicted this convoluted story.

Sadly neither country was eternally grateful: years later Priestley was forced to flee to the United States after a Church and King mob burned down his Birmingham home and laboratory, while Lavoisier was beheaded in the French Revolution.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If there’s one criticism it’s that Johnson sometimes seems a little too pleased with himself to have hit upon a “long view” narrative linking Priestley with Northern England’s Industrial Revolution preeminance and atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous Era. But I guess I would be too, if I’d thought of that. It’s engaging, readable, and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

A final thought provoked: many people read while travelling, yet “airport” has become a perjorative term in relation to books. Can someone create a service that helps match reading to travel and create more srendipitous moments like mine? I’m looking at you, Dopplr bookcampers.