Research Spotlight: Zombie Automobility: Considering Road Infrastructure Development in Florida

The premier episode of the hit television series The Walking Dead opens with former Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes at an abandoned convenience store on a deserted highway, scavenging for gas and supplies. Later in the episode, in an iconic scene he rides a horse into Atlanta alongside a freeway clogged with abandoned cars. It appears easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of freeways. These days it feels too easy imagine the end of the world, as we seek to survive with an enduring pandemic, as well as intensifying storms associated with climate change. Yet, when we think of a world overridden by crises, roads and cars remain ever present.

The ubiquity of freeways is perhaps nowhere more event than Florida. To witness a road clogged with traffic in the state, one does not have to imagine the zombie apocalypse. Congestion is an everyday experience for commuters to Florida suburbs. Miami, Tampa, Fort Myers, and Orlando all rank among the twenty-five most congested cities in the US. Despite of multitude of environmental crises associated with the expansion of road infrastructure and subsequent incentivizing of car usage, Florida authorities continue to push new freeway projects in the name of alleviating congestion. This is particularly true in the Orlando metropolitan area—the third largest metropolitan area in Florida—where the near constant development of new expressway projects is entwined accelerating suburbanization in the region.

Our recently published paper, “Zombie Automobility” deploys the zombie metaphor as a useful vehicle to understand the current state of policy surrounding road infrastructure development in Florida. Specifically using the case of the Osceola Parkway Expansion in the greater Orlando area, we unpack how Florida policy makers rationalize expanding large road projects as necessary, in spite of the crises associated with the car. We argue that the logic behind raising more expressways represents an undead form of road governance. While scholars have declared that recognition of climate change means the car is dead, it continues forward in Florida. In the state, travelling by car along freeways remains the norm—a transportation regime that scholars refer to as automobility. For us, the zombie is a useful device to think through how automobility continues forward while scholars assert that it is already dead due to the environmental crises associated with it.

Indeed, we argue that the zombie form governing automobility recirculates ‘dead’ rationales to further raise freeways. Rather than recognizing that expanding car-centered suburban development is causing further congestion, as well as more intense hurricanes that are threatening Florida cities, state authorities are forwarding additional freeways as the solution to very crises that they engender. Like the original zombie, a condition that occurred where humans were denied control of their own bodies after death, people have lost control over the crises that automobility perpetuates. Trapped in a circular logic, zombie automobility continues forward intensifying the current crisis associated with care-centered development.

This is evident in how Orlando area policy makers and developers rationalized the necessity for the Osceola Parkway extension. Ultimately, they said more road infrastructure was needed to secure efficient flows of circulation. Anyone who has driven through or around the Orlando area knows how bad the traffic is. Decision-makers suggest that traffic congestion will be reduced by building more roads. However, as more road projects are constructed, developers are able to build more suburbs, expanding the metropolitan area, reinforcing dependence on the car, and further exacerbating the crisis of congestion. As new road infrastructure projects help expand suburban development, more cars end up on the road and more congestion is created.

There are also obviously worsening environmental crises tied to the expansion of roads and the use of cars. Just last week, a leaked early draft a forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that there would be catastrophic and irreversible changes to the climate unless emissions are controlled in the next decade. They were unequivocal that the human activities, particularly excessive use of automobiles by residents of affluent countries, were driving the climate crisis. The expanding crisis of climate change will disproportionately impact Florida, which is vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise and increased hurricane intensity. Moreover, expanding Florida roads also contributes to local environmental concerns related to habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss (which will make it even harder for endangered species to adapt to climate change).

Remarkably, Florida policy makers see the road as a solution to combat the effects of environmental crises. They particularly propose that expressway projects are needed as new evacuation routes for expanding suburban populations to escape extreme weather events like hurricanes. However, this rhetoric hides the fact that building more roads will lead to more car usage and inevitably more environmental crises, which further add to concerns of climate change. Considering the ways that expanding road infrastructure and subsequent car usage amplify crises, we should move away from the construction of new road projects. We must recognize they are not the solution to the very crises they perpetuate. By all accounts, the policy making logic behind expanding more expressways should be dead, not disguised as a solution.

In popular American culture, the zombie is often used to symbolize a dystopian future, highlighting the disturbing elements already existing in present society and allowing us to think through contemporary fears. Therefore, thinking about the zombie in road planning policy can help us examine deeper concerns about the crises associated with expanding road infrastructure. We need to think carefully about our fears of climate chaos and honest ways in which we can mitigate the most extreme and dangerous futures. Reading the IPCC report is harrowing, but it is also hopeful. If the freeways continue to be built, zombie automobility’s existence will be further cemented, driving us to the most frightening of futures, tragically perpetuated in the name of addressing a crisis that we refuse to recognize. However, we can face the fact the car is dead. The IPCC indicates there is still time to avoid the worst climate catastrophe. We need to give the double-tap to zombie automobility so we can finally look towards building an alternative future.

Caitlin Jones is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at Florida State University. Her research interests include political ecology, mobilities, legal geographies, animal geographies, conservation policy, and human-environment interactions. You can learn more about Caitlin here.

Dr. Tyler McCreary is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography. He is a political and legal geographer, whose research examines environmental, labor, and community governance processes, particularly in relationship to Black and Indigenous concerns. Dr. McCreary is Caitlin’s coauthor and research supervisor.

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