I haven’t yet really explained what my PhD project is on this blog. To describe it as briefly as possible, my research will look at how cultural and political conflict influenced the competition between road and rail transport in the United States and the United Kingdom during the twentieth century. This is an important because cultural factors in transition processes are not well understood, and more research on the role they play could prove important for efforts to transition to more sustainable technologies in transportation and in other areas. This explanation is a bit jargon-y, though; I like to think that I try to reach beyond the ivory tower, and so a simpler explanation, possibly involving a reference to a beloved American cartoon, is in order. Luckily, about a week ago I thought of the perfect way to relate my work to none other than The Simpsons.
The specific Simpsons reference I want to bring up is from a relatively famous episode entitled Marge vs. the Monorail, in which the town of Springfield, is convinced to build a monorail by a musically talented salesman named Lyle Lanly. The musical monorail mania Lyle inspires is opposed only by Marge, who suggests that the money should be used to fix the pot-holes on Main Street instead. The central tension of the episode is summed up in one of the Simpsons’ most memorable songs:
Marge’s view is eventually vindicated when it turns out that the monorail salesman was planning to abscond to Tahiti with the city’s money after installing a dangerous monorail system riddled with engineering flaws. Homer, who has become a monorail conductor, narrowly avoids a tragic accident on the opening day.
The connection between Marge and the Monorail and my research can be found in the implicit assumptions that come out in the musical scene. While neither the citizens of Springfield nor the episode’s audience knows at this point of Lanly’s true intentions, the tone of the scene suggests quite clearly that the monorail is a bad idea and that Lanly is not to be trusted. At the start of the scene, Mayor Quimby sets the tone by for a “gullible townsfolk suckered by salesman” narrative by declaring that they will vote for anything Lanly proposes. Marge, who is typically portrayed in the show as a voice of reason, complains that the town’s existing road transportation network is in a state of disrepair, but she is quickly shot down by Bart, who points out that “the mob has spoken”. The framing of the townspeople as a “mob” further underlies the assumptions that are built into this scene: The monorail scheme, while exciting and new, is dangerous and impractical, and the townspeople would be better off listening to Marge’s boring yet pragmatic plan to fix Main Street.
But why anybody unaware that the monorail is a scam accept that Marge’s idea is more pragmatic? By providing cheap and efficient mass transit in and out of downtown Springfield, an effective monorail system may indeed have made the condition of Main Street irrelevant. Had it performed as advertised, Lanly’s scheme would almost certainly have transported more people for less money in a more environmentally friendly and less spatially intensive way than the roads that Marge wanted to repair. Marge’s skepticim does not come from a suspicion that Lanly’s cannot be trusted, but from a belief that personal automobmile transport should be prioritized over flashy public transit schemes, and can be interpreted as a reflexive defense of private motorized transport over a new public transit scheme. The framing of the scene suggests that Marge’s view is the most reasonable.
At this point we need to step outside the narrative of the show and keep in mind that The Simpsons rarely courts controversy. It is likely that the writers of Marge vs. the Monorail expected the audience to sympathize with Marge’s perspective. The episode, in other words, reflects a view on the part of both the the production team and the majority of the audience that road construction and maintenance is a pragmatic necessity that is a basic responsibility of city governments, while public transit schemes are risky extravagances. In this sense, the episode reflects the attitudes towards transportation that were prevalent in the time it was written; an audience from the early twentieth century watching Marge vs. the Monorail would find the whole thing highly suspicious. To them, Marge’s skepticism would come off not as cautious pragmatism, but as an elitist civic bias in favour of the infrastructure used only by the wealthiest of Springfield’s citizens. While they would not necessarily sympathize with Lanly monorail salesmen (public transit companies were often understood to be profiteers), they would also wonder why nobody at the meeting challenged Marge on her obvious class bias.
What we can learn from a critical analysis of Marge and the Monorail, then, is that at the time it was made there was a powerful discursive bias against novel public transit schemes. It is easy to imagine how such a bias would be consequential; as long as voters and consumers share Marge’s attitudes then it will be very difficult to push forward any new, efficient public transit schemes that could hold the promise of making our transportation system more sustainable. Marge Simpson, to put it bluntly, is standing in the way of sustainability. But it’s equally clear given the history of transportation that Marge’s attitudes are not timeless, but became commonplace at some point in the twentieth century. At some point over the course of the twentieth century, a major change in the public understanding of transportation networks occurred. Understanding when, how, and why this change occurred has implications far beyond The Simpsons; it can inform how attitudes towards monorails and similar projects might change in the future, and is therefore very important for bringing about sustainable mobility.
My research focus is not perfectly illustrated by “Marge vs. the Monorail”. This episode focuses on an urban public transit scheme, while I focus on the ongoing competition between road and rail for intercity travel. My research also includes the United Kingdom in addition to the United States. But Marge’s criticism of the monorail is a good illustration of the attitudes I want to understand. I want to know how Marge and others like her came to reflexively prefer private cars over public transit; what impact that had on the development of transportation systems during the twentieth century; and, by extension, how such attitudes might change again in the future. If we always prioritize fixing Main Street over building the monorail, then we will have trouble making any serious dent in car use, and we will therefore be stuck with carbon emissions, congestion, traffic accidents, pollution, peak oil, and a whole host of other problems. Overcoming Marge’s skepticism about a fictional monorail is a crucial requirement for making our real-world transportation system more sustainable.