Free Air

‘Free air’. It’s an advertising joke that has now become a standard feature on new cars. The ‘air’ in this offer refers to ‘air-conditioning’. As though there could be no other kind of air.

Victorian commuters have discovered this summer that air is anything but free. The hottest February on record, combined with aging rolling stock, has meant that we have often found ourselves trapped inside windowless carriages.

It’s a particularly distressing experience. The air-conditioner breaks down and the tram stands motionless in the backing sun. The heat escalates. Beads of sweat trickle down your forehead. You stare longingly outside—air, air, everywhere, but not a breath to take.

It’s at moments like these that you realise how subterranean our lives have become. The world of raw elements rarely filters into to our technological caves, filled with packaged air, bottled water, fluorescent light and FM music.

Air-conditioning used to extend only to private spaces, such as cars, homes and offices. Then it became mandatory in public transport, sealing up the windows. This year enclosure will extend to the football (Docklands) and even the rainforest (Melbourne Museum’s Gallery of Life). The cave gets bigger every day.

Sweating passengers make sympathetic eye contact. In the past, a conductor might have been able to do something. Some enterprising connies would even keep an Allan key in their back pocket to open up the windows of Class B trams for expiring passengers.

Waiting for cancelled trainsOn a recent asphyxiating trip back from the Ballarat, I was in a delegation of passengers that asked the driver what had gone wrong with the train. He just laughed, ‘The system’s going to pieces.’

Air-conditioning turns out to be a trap. We’ve been lured into these cool bright places only to find there is no escape when the system goes down.

If public transport is going to acquire third-world standards, in a leaner and meaner privatised market, then we may as well embrace old-world pleasures. Bring back the ‘red rattlers’ and Class W trams.

Let’s breathe the open air—curse at the belching exhaust, delight in smell of fresh rain. Real air is better than no air at all. The temperate nature of Melbourne’s climate is nothing to be afraid of. We need an Open Air Movement to defenestrate our cities and let outside mingle with inside.

Finally, you reach your destination and emerge gulping for air. Suffocation has become the nightmare of contemporary urban life. Every trip is a gamble. But if it’s no longer fun, can we just walk away?

This article by Kevin Murray was originally published in The Age (5/3/00)

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