In my previous post I was talking about the experience of distance, and how, when understood as an experience, distance is no longer a fixed entity.

That post was triggered by some lines from Proust in which the narrator is talking about how his perception of local distances alters when he switches from rail transport to motorcar. Some further thoughts on this topic.

I recall how the distances between various destinations, and therefore the shape of the city itself, appeared to change when the London Overground, an orbital railway in the inner suburbs, opened. All of a sudden areas of the city that seemed far away felt much closer: South-East London, previously impossibly far, was now a nearby neighbourhood to where I lived in the North-East.

Such a step-change in the experience of city living demonstrates the transformative power of civil engineering infrastructure. Linking, drawing together, connecting – this is what engineers have been doing for centuries.

What I’ve described here is a phenomenon that pulls people closer together, and the associated benefit from this greater proximity. But there is an alternative tensor that works on the perception of distance: that which happens when we make it harder to get between two places. Then the spaces in between open up, rise up in our perception, and take on new meaning. It’s a phenomenon I experience whenever I choose to cycle somewhere rather than go by some quicker means. I see it in action too when I travel long distances by train rather than by flying.

The go-faster, join-together narrative is consistent with a growth economics, but may not be consistent with a more urgent need to limit resource consumption and allow us to live within our limits. But the good news is that bounty can be found on our doorstep. The journey to further places just has to be difficult enough for us to notice.

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