Petrolheads and anoraks – the mentality of transport

A few weeks ago now I was in a conversation about how cars are bad, lad, and we should have sent them all to the scrapyard a hundred and one years ago (however, see n.b.s below). As with all conversations that I tend to have, it went into very different places very quickly, and the result was something that confused everyone and so it ultimately went back to some other topic at some time. However, along the way I noticed that there was an interesting point that I made independent on anything else and I want to write a bit about it.

Before that, I should probably address that n.b. above.

  • It's from that subreddit with an incendiary name. So I've been led to believe the content of this subreddit is actually not that hard-line, and allegedly it's more about "transport reform" and "stuff". Actually, "subreddit with an incendiary name and title, walked back in its content and behaviour" is
  • "A hundred and one" is not a literal figure, although it is an honest attempt by me to stop overusing very large numbers as exaggeration and start using smaller numbers instead.
  • It's all in good faith, and we know each other a lot from other conversations so we basically know roughly where are basis are.
  • Yes, we all know about climate change, environment, the deleterious effect of being stuck somewhere bored out of your skull and not being able to do anything about it &c.. The effects I'm going to talk about this are going to be small relative to the more direct effects but I want to talk about this anyway, because it has some rather neat higher-order effects. I'll talk about this more later.
  • This is a very long article that starts becoming very opinionated and bloated near the end. If that's too much, then I've included a summary section right at the end titled "Summing up".
  • Now with that out of the way, let's make some claims.

    I like roads and stuff that go on them.

    That hasn't been much of a secret.

    I always think that it would be nice if I can find people who can share an equal love to all things that move people from place to place. Roads, the things that go on them, rails, the things that go on /them/, &c..

    Me, April this year

    Also me, in this capsule, probably a few weeks later

    But the important thing is that I like roads, and I like the things that go on them, and I also like the act of moving things on top of roads. That is, roads, transportation, logistics /and/ simply going from place to place. Many people like some of those things, but very few people have the dedication to love all of those things and also maintain the depth of love to be "an enthusiast".

    Those that like one of those things I mentioned above also tend to have their own nicknames:

  • If you like roads a lot, then you're a "roads buff" or sometimes an "odologist".
  • "Car guy" and "petrolhead" are common enough terms for people who like cars.
  • "Anorak" originated from being a train enthusiast but the term has otherwise been generalised to mean any sort of enthusiast that requires you to hole up and spot inanimate objects. Still, the general population understands it to be "those guys who love trains very, very much".
  • There's no fancy term for being a bus fan. Sorry, you're all just bus fans.
  • If you like logistics, you're probably not just "a fan" but actively earning money from it. It's a pathological example here so it kind of throws a wobbly in the argument I'm about to make, but I can excuse it as not being a fan of "things", but rather a fan of "actions", which is only nominalised because we as a society basically always think of actions as being objects in order to be able to be reasoned about.
  • In my life, they come in different sources too. Let's examine them a little bit in detail and not a plain list.

    The hobbies, in detail

    Roads buff

    My primary contact with people being roads buffs are in a British roads forum called the Society of All British and Irish Roads Enthusiasts (SABRE). As its acronym suggests, the inclusion of the Republic of Ireland was only added in after the fact, but at least now the road network under study is mostly self-contained and not without large gaping holes.

    The SABRE forums

    The SABRE Wiki

    SABRE has a large number of resources dedicated to documenting British roads. It's got one of those disturbingly comprehensive wikis (as linked), and they also maintain some level of Twitter presence.

    There's nothing particularly interesting about this group other than they like roads, though there are a few nice discussions in there that involve things like "what is the longest lane?" and other fun facts that make your life just a little less dull. Being very far away from them I don't have much direct contact with them directly, but being able to read the wiki the primary value that I enjoy from these people are pictures of road signs, descriptions of what the roads pass through and of course how roads are numbered and named. Certainly, being anchored to base reality in such a way makes it so that there is somewhat less of a mess than in other communities of a comparable size.

    Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, where most niche online societies tend to congregate on Facebook, there is the Road Research Society. I think it's not too hard to look for it on Facebook if you really want to so I'll spare you the link.


    Liking cars is kind of a commonly-accepted cultural thing so I have no particular links to show you, and I am also a bit of an outsider to this kind of thing as well so I'm basically confessing that I don't know much about this space well either.

    Nevertheless, there are some car-related content I have seen on YouTube that I think is fun enough to mention specifically. The one that I tend to gravitate to is called Donut Media and it's basically as mainstream as you can get. The media space for "car enthusiasts" in general is fairly anodyne and mainstream so there's not much I can tell you that a brief look around the space does.


    This is also a pretty mainstream hobby, but it's much less commonly accepted than being a car guy. Their status as far as I can tell is approximately equal to that of being a fan of microcomputers (that is to say, computers in the '80s and '90s, back then and now): people tend to not care about these people, but they also don't have active animosity against them either. They might take the time to have a laugh at their expense sometimes.

    In contrast, the enthusiast community in Japan is much more well-known and normalised; even though they are still not "a hobby" in the way that photography or sports is, plenty of people in ordinary society would expect them, it's a common sight to see stories specifically call someone out as one of them, and of course there's a term for them: "tetsuota" 鉄オタ. On occasion, there might even be a things that accommodate them by the train companies, such as train parties.

    As for specific examples, again, the primary source of enthusiasm is on YouTube, and I particularly like Geoff Marshall's videos (yes, also British; I guess I'm just more partial to British things!) On the Japanese side there's a whole bunch of other things that tend to get interest, and there is like 30 different types of train fans in Japan, ranging from your "I like to take pictures of trains" guy to the "I will ride on every train" kind of guy to even "I collect the meals that they sell in train stations" type of guy. In particular, there's a bunch of people who like to collect the sounds of stations, and make new music based on them.

    I even wrote a bit about the musical side here.

    It's a wild world out there with train fans, but there's plenty of resources about them so I think this is a good enough stopping point.

    Bus fans

    Perhaps the least well-known of the four, being a bus fan is yet somehow the one I see outside most often.

    The origin of this hobby is not that hard to understand. People here know a lot about buses, because they are in contact with them often. There are a lot of buses and bus routes, and they all have numbers on them and they go places that people want to go to – the immortal phrase "I go to school by bus" being most emblematic of that – so naturally people love them a lot. And these people grow up and they become the bus fans we know today.

    As with the roads people the bus people also have their own disturbingly comprehensive wiki, although it is hosted on Wikia because the concept of using open and less ad-infested places is something that doesn't transfer as well to the HK audience I guess. Also it's in Chinese only, which I think you can understand.

    HKBUS wiki

    But if you can walk past that, it's actually very comprehensive, and to this day I know of no better resource to any resource about buses than this wiki. In fact, they had trouble with the Chinese Wikipedia copying text off of them without respecting the Creative Commons License.

    Otherwise, there is a contingent of (surprisingly young) boys that spend most of their free time recording videos of bus trips. Usually they have overlays too which give you information about which stop is next, what road the bus is on and how much it costs to get on at this point.

    If that wasn't enough, there's also a nice forum that discusses bus routes and "engages in urban fantasy" – that is, make up new bus routes and thinking how nice that would be – again, mostly in Chinese. It's a nice place but I don't go there so I don't really know too much about what's going on there.

    Okay, so what's the big deal here?

    The big deal, and the thing I want to talk about most when discussing those four, is how one of them treats their subject matter a little differently from another.

    Curator and Creator

    In fandom, there is a sliding scale or a bimodal distribution of what people like to do with the things that they like. You might have heard of it: it's the curators–creators dichotomy.

  • Curators are the type that like to maintain a large database of facts about the thing that they like, and are generally about static truth, or recording the topic as it stands. There's a clear distinction between the producers, typically of a story, and the consumers.
  • Creators are the opposite; this is the type that prefers to take the material that comes out of the things they like and make new things with their own creativity. There is no difference between who is adding to the world, whether it's the "official types" or just random people who have heard of the thing once.
  • Another way to think about it is that curators are likened to nouns, preferring static things and structure, whereas creators are verb-like, preferring to do and make and keeping things fluid and interesting.

    I am now making the following claim: of these four, only a "car guy" is a creator-friendly field. Everyone else is curator-friendly, or more accurately, creator-hostile. That is to say, there is little room for creativity in the public transport space, as compared to the significantly more open room for cars.

    As an aside, I would like to note the general stereotype of creators being more womanly, and the curators being the men. Granted, all four of these hobbies are about twelve parts male to one part literally anyone else, but there's just something funny for me about this kind particular distinction.

    Everyone is ultimately dependent on some higher power to create in these spaces, but much less so for cars

    If you're a car enthusiast, chances are you would have spent some time thinking about what you want to do with your car. It could be as anodyne as deciding where to go for your next exploration trip, or it could be something more like going to a track day or a PA meeting, or it could in fact be something like modifying your car. It's not excessively difficult; perhaps not as simple as it is for upgrading a computer, but some changes are doable with minimal fuss and cost.

    It is this particular aspect that I would like to emphasise as being a qualitative and more importantly categorical difference that a car enthusiast is different from being a transport enthusiast or a roads engineer. There is a lot of participation needed when it comes to the upkeep of a car, whether it is to actually use one, or to tinker with one. It's a lot like a computer, in that sense, and I know some people who might wince at that thought.

    In contrast, if you are a bus, train or roads fan, a similar thing cannot be done. You can't grab your shovel and start pouring concrete. Good luck trying to mod your home station so that it has a cool arcade or three. And the precious few individuals that have managed to secure a bus for themselves generally do so in the hopes of preservation rather than individual expression.

    In fact the best you can do with creating in this space is the aforementioned engagement in "urban fantasy". And a lot of the time, that's exactly the correct label. It's unreasonable to expect anyone to make a society-wide network of anything, and most of the time people fail to do so. The scale is just too large compared to just a single car. Going with the computer analogy above, it's like being a fan of "the Internet". Not things on the internet, but the Internet in general. So far as I can tell, there are no such people, and being an Internet engineer is typically a paid position held only by very few people who aren't so much "fans" of it as "well everyone's on it now so we will have to maintain those rules".

    The key here is that in the case of being a car guy, you have to go through much fewer hoops to do things to your car. There are limits, both imposed physically and by legal requirements, but there is by and large no need to seek approval by some overbearing authority to even have your plan exist in action. You don't have to petition anyone to add something to your car, and in some places you can't even "petition" for a new bus route. And getting a new rail alignment is absolutely not something you can do much more than merely wishing about.

    Merely existing in motion is qualitatively different from actively participating in it

    The common adage, "you are not in traffic, you are traffic" is usually used to chide drivers by noticing that they're contributing to the very same traffic jams that they complain about. This is true enough, yet it also shows something more deliberate: if you are /not/ driving, you are essentially not participating in moving from one place to another. You're just passively sitting in it.

    For some, that's the ideal situation. I have been assured that there exist people who actually want to /do/ things at the end of a journey, and do not just go outside to see things and tick boxes – that is, outside of work or school. Which is fair enough, and there is some level of necessity in not participating. There are two things that I take away from this however:

    First, there is the point where awareness always gives a different, and usually superior, perspective of how things are. If someone does the moving for you, you start to not care about it, and that leads to some negative effects. The idea is that your (in this case literal) mental map of the world becomes limited to only the places that the train or the bus can get you. This is particularly clear if you're a roads enthusiast, because there are some roads that you must drive to if you wish to access it for any reason.

    By actively participating in your travel, there is a greater awareness of where you are and where you're going. While this is not a strong effect – goodness knows that few drivers actually have such an awareness that it is needed – it's also non-zero and I believe it has some value in establishing geographical awareness.

    It's also qualitatively different if you get paid for it

    Earlier on I mentioned paid positions in logistics and similar occupations, so I should address it.

    If you are paid to worry about things like this, that will clearly affect how you think about the thing. For starters, if you never thought too much about it, a little money would motivate you into doing so. Otherwise, you will start thinking in a way that the guy who gives you money wants to think about it. That's about right.

    But wait, what about bicycles?

    One thing that I have been conspicuously omitting from the above arguments is bicycles, which deal with multiple of these problems:

  • You can ride one to go anywhere
  • They're pretty manoeuvrable and flexible
  • Modding them is also fairly easy
  • Requires constant dedication to the road
  • They also have the added bonus of not needing to obey speed limits and a relative lack of electronics, for additional ease of repair and modification. So why have I not mentioned them?

    The main reason is that they are non-viable products where I live, and this is broadly true in extremely dense urban environments. The main issue with them is that with a lack of air conditioning, I consider it a non-starter for any serious amount of travel (and by which I mean anything over 2 km, which roughly is unfortunately just out of reach of the central business district – and I usually go there by tram, as it's fairly cheap) in at least half the year:

  • >28°C, >70%
  • >3 mm/h
  • Coupled with the fact that there is no dedicated infrastructure and also barely anywhere that sells bikes, plus the somewhat annoying middle ground they occupy where they're too hard to lug up 40 storeys without inconveniencing all the lift users but also too small to occupy an entire car park space (which are nightmarish-levels expensive, mind!) it's not really worth it.

    Finally, the terrain is some of the worst case scenarios that you can find for bicycles. There's mountains everywhere and it's hard to go anywhere without pedalling really hard (and in some cases getting out and walking, though in most cases you can take a car route and spare yourself that at the expense of taking a route five times longer). You're limited to two flat strips of land for exploration if you are not also planning to sweat a ton. In a sense, then, there's a little bit too /much/ effort put into a bicycle – you end up getting tired and then you don't get to enjoy going places as often.

    (As an aside, the tramway ends up being the primary bike path because they move at roughly the same speed. It's officially discouraged but who cares.)

    The only other thing that bikes can't do that cars can is to move very fast. You can go as far as you like, of course, but for long-distance travel it's not really a good choice. That's less of the trouble here as you can't move very far without hitting a border crossing anyway, but for America-sized countries you can't realistically make a week-long trip with a car.

    Of course, that's only the reason why I didn't consider it viable. Surely, in other climates and in other situations, it's so much easier, and of course a lot of these points I made is extremely tuned to my own experiences and it won't work on people who Really, Really love their bicycles.

    Similar arguments also apply to horses and other animal-based transport, which I have neglected like basically everyone else in the developed world.

    So what's your point? What are you going to do about it?

    It's not one or the other, and none is less than any other

    None of those are necessarily negative aspects of being a fan of roads and transit. As I mentioned, I think myself as being kind of semi-into all of these at or around the same time, and arguing otherwise would go against my self-interest.

    It's like this: as previously mentioned, sometimes it's great to turn off your brain and not have to figure out where to go and how to get there on a moment to moment basis. There's value in this kind of thinking and it would be incorrect to state that it's an inherently inferior way to live life.

    It's also wrong to say that it's the positive way to live life either. That has been some opinions that I have heard of before, how there is literally no reason why you should care about how you get to a place as long as you get to it. Very few people care about it, and while no one is obligated to care – and from what I can tell about how incredibly de-facto compulsory a car is in every single square centimetre of the United States (minus the water and the mountains and the cliffs and all the fiddly bits that won't fit) there should also be no obligation not to care – there is a line that I would like to draw where I believe there has to be room for both. Not "can", "have to".

    And finally, I would like to add that this applies to the curator and creator sliding scale that I mentioned as an analogy to this set too. Every time this distinction is brought up it's usually to play one off against the other, or to make some anodyne statement about "you need both to get the full experience out of it", but I would like to use this point to say that the only thing that "needs both" is the whole world, when taken as a whole, or perhaps the full experience of a single individual, integrated with respect to the time and space in which he exists in; each individual hobby can go full bore one way or the other and it should probably still be fine.

    Enthusiasts are just ordinary humans, with their salient qualities accentuated

    Perhaps you might be thinking that because you're not a roads guy, or a car nut, or a bus fan, or a train enthusiast, you are excluded from this discussion and they have nothing to do with you. It's just getting from one place to another, and these are all just hobbies that don't matter to you. Maybe you may even be antipathetic about any or all of these people – they worship objects, they care about things they don't control, or whatever other objection you might have. I think otherwise, for reasons that the section title outlines.

    While an ordinary individual (typically styled "normie") might not care so much about these things, I think that the enthusiasts makes explicit what the ordinary man on the street thinks implicitly. After all, what are enthusiasts but actual humans with an additional interest in the thing that they are interested in? (What a tautology, but you get the idea!)

    The thing is, I think that there's a relatively good chance that the things that someone who's really into a topic is interested in eventually manifests in what the ordinary individual wants, even if that individual cannot express why he wants it. This is primarily expressed in terms of numbers and names that are associated with the things in questions: the ordinary person wants a wider road, where the enthusiast would catalogue a road's width and what it was called over the years; and of course the link between wanting a more powerful car and the car guy asking /how/ powerful is easy enough to explain.

    The point that I want to make with this statement is that I think the mentalities that I have outlined that is unique to the people who like cars are reflective of the universe of discourse that the general public resides in. It's simple: if everyone around you knows that you have the potential to do something interesting and useful to you with your car, then there is the very real potential that you will change your decisions to align yourself to that, or take advantage of someone who does do that, even if you don't do it yourself, just as making it easy to program scripts to automate your computer tasks make you more likely to try and take on larger challenges, or profit off of someone who does even if you never will.

    Maybe you think this doesn't matter insofar as there's more global and directly meaningful concerns to worry about, but I think otherwise

    I think a common objection to this kind of thinking is that that's far too many epicycles compared to the far more direct threat of climate change or deaths by car or how cars look mean and angry now and we should not be encouraging that in a modern, gentler society (okay, maybe not that last one). Which, I should add, is a pretty defensible position to make. As the title of this header states, however, I think otherwise. The main reason why I say this is several fold.

    The first is that just like literal epicycles, sometimes tiny problems add up together just right to overwhelm the initial term and create the proverbial flip in difference between the prime-counting function and the logarithmic integral function, as it were. I don't think it actually does in this instance, but I think it does come very close to doing so, much more so than "mere epicycles" usually implies.

    What on Earth is that metaphor?

    For when the Wikipedia mirror dies, as it has done already

    Second, on a more object level, I think there is too much reactionary sentiment to the idea. The constant idea that "human society" needs to scale back its consumption – which, specifically, means me – to fulfil some kind of mission to "save" the environment is an expression of conservatism, although in this case it is typically called conservationism, and it is one instance where I do not agree in principle. It is my belief that, for the most part, the modern human experience currently enjoyed by the typical "Western" "middle class" (or some approximation of these two phrases) can be extended to every human currently living on the planet and then some, and that certain movements that require this scaling back is replaces possible death tomorrow to certain life for one hundred years and certain death immediately after.

    And now, I'm going to say the loud part out loud:

    Most clearly: merely banning cars, as professed by many, is wrong

    Even if it's just for urban areas.

    Even if it's just for "random drivers that don't need a car anyway".

    Perhaps even if all you want is to make driving as exclusive as piloting.

    There's a lot I can say about this that won't really fit the rest of this article, but in this article I have outlined one reason why "merely" banning cars is something I cannot support. This is even independent of me thinking whether or not any scale of these measures taken are a good idea. (Parenthetically, I think these are about neutral in terms of effect. More specifically, the amount of good that this produces is about equal to the amount of effort that is needed to enforce these bans plus just about enough to make it about as attractive as just doing nothing. I am not going to prove this because this is my private evaluation of the situation.)

    Basically, I think that being able to love and enjoy cars the way we do today constitute a positive and significant part of the contemporary way of life that is worth keeping around, and one of those factors is the its personal nature – rather than a routing imposed from an authority, using materials one cannot change, in a manner that cannot be personalised, one can to a surprising and very large extent get to a large number of locations. Some of these cars are objects that is optimised precisely for this particular manoeuvre, and that is something that I think is greatly worth keeping around almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

    An individual is not owed any of these things. There is, strictly speaking, no "right" for one to be able to move from one end of a country to another in less than a week, or even ever. Nevertheless, three things are clear: we do have it now, it is ultimately irrevocable, and the costs for providing this freedom has already been paid. Even if there are ongoing costs in terms of maintenance and even deaths, the greatest cost here is to somehow restructure the modern experience into one where you are never to leave the 50 km surrounding where you are born without outside help.

    And finally, a small confession

    While spending too much time writing the latter half of this article I have a thing that I think should be added to provide context.

    I have said previously that I like roads, cars, buses and trains in roughly moderate to high levels, and that obviously colours my perception. Of course, I do like cars for the reasons I've outlined earlier:

    …a car is a funny-shaped horse that come in many colours and has a face in front that, again, is basically pre-programmed to appeal to humans. Also you can collect them and I have, in spades.

    Me, earlier

    You can therefore make the idea that I'm much too attached to these funny-looking horses and therefore shouldn't have too much of a say about this kind of thing. Of course, I would claim otherwise, because being engaged in this kind of thing is the whole point – I would not have made an impassioned argument to keep the car just because of its ability to change minds without having it already changed my mind to begin with. And that same article had a similar thought about buses and roads too, so that's a pretty fair comparison.

    The point is that the three just hit me in the same manner, and I find this effect so compelling that it seems to me that it overrides most other concerns which are comparatively much further, and less irrelevant. Consequently, this writing is more to express this dissonance rather than specify policy.

    And I'm also pretty sure I have these calibrated correctly, so it would take a whole lot more convincing than I got to have me change my mind.

    Summing up

    Holy crap this thing has blasted past 5,000 words and I have taken well over thirteen hours to write this so I think it's time to wrap up.

    Notwithstanding the difficulties in accommodating the motor car in the current gestalt, I believe that they provide a significant value-add proposition that cannot be provided by public transport or even bicycles. Specifically, they are the correct combination of complexity, individuality and cultural status that they have the ability to propel one's mind to think more actively about travel. Even if they don't physically act more actively, or even take advantage of this, the creative potential that the car has that more dependent modes of travel (which generally only fosters a curative mode of thinking) along with how society has already structured itself gives the world a base level of creativity beyond which anyone can aspire to, and this along with its unique service frequency provides the primary added value that I have discussed in this article.

    Furthermore, this value-add is significant enough that I believe it to be untenable for me to support a naïve "mere ban" of cars, regardless of its ultimate utility in "saving the world". In fact, it is such that I believe the majority of the costs of The Motor Car (as a singular entity) has already been paid, even if we extend the practise indefinitely. It /should/ be extended to every human currently living on Earth and then some to some extent.

    I express this by considering how enthusiasts of the various transport disciplines have slightly different goals to how they approach their desires, and also claiming that although they are by definition more into their topics than the average man on the street, the average man on the street /has/ these thoughts, just not expressed as clearly. All while remaining cognisant that these are all entirely valid ways to enjoy life and that none are inferior to any other.

    Finally, I admit that this is informed primarily from a more self-contained experience, and that there will probably be some concern about excessive epicycles and how these should not be a concern at all. I don't agree because I think that the way people think about life /is/ important, and also that I think that certain people don't have it right when thinking about a thriving civilisation versus a long-lived one.


    The Fandom Turing Test

    While writing this script I am reminded of a "fandom Turing test" that I have thought about a few months prior, which was one of the starting points of this article. It goes like this.

    Take the four enthusiast groups I have mentioned in this article: bus, car, road and train. Now select two of them, and in 50 words or so each, summarise what one group thinks the other does, and how one thinks of the other. Do this for all twelve combinations, and see if they check out.

    I haven't actually seen these types interacting like this, so I'm curious to how they see each other also.

    Further concepts to write about

    Later on, I'll bring in the concept of "legibility" to this, and other related concepts.

    Additionally, I have another article that also touches on this topic, this time about the ability for names to occupy head space and how this affects someone's thinking. I have hinted on this topic already in this article.

    I don't expect either of these to be very long.