Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Tyranny of the Automobile, and the Vile Conservative Agenda on Transportation

I wanted to get this post out in time for Independence Day, as it concerns one of the most important yet, on this day, overlooked forms of independence---that is, transportation. Today people celebrate their "freedom," whatever that means. Ask a flag waver to describe his or her freedom to you, what makes it uniquely American and worth celebrating on this national holiday, and you will probably get some general 5th-grade social studies answer about how we're fortunate (already a confused attitude towards what is otherwise a god-given right) to live in a democracy with freedom of speech and religion and so forth, ignoring entirely that most Western countries, including Canada and France, have these freedoms in equal measure. 

You might hear, too, about how our forefathers threw off the yoke of British tyranny. In our ongoing effort to convince ourselves that our freedom only exists in these United States, we continue to locate "tyranny" in other countries that, conveniently, Tea-Partiers and other flag-waving rubes have never been to: whether it's the Soviet-style national healthcare of Canada, the Maoist and anti-American secularism of France, the (symbolic) monarchy of the UK, the Nazi-ist fever-dream of the Euro Zone. It's a madlibs that media personalities model for the viewers at home: select a social program,  select a tyrannical regime from the 20th century, then compare them in public.  

It's too bad that on this day we're not more preoccupied with throwing off the tyrannies that persist in our own country, the ones that emerge subtly and without fanfare in the midst of our very "freedom." "Free" markets have led to a publicly-subsidized corporate oligarchy that would terminate your job if it meant a slight increase in profits; "freedom" of religion has led to a "christian" state that is more hung up on decreeing who can love who than it is interested in the actual christian mission of helping the less fortunate.

But I want to focus here on a different tyranny, very much of a piece with the above tyrannies, insofar as it is a function of our perverted idea of freedom: that is, the tyranny of the automobile. (I also wish to make a correction to the previous post: by now, readers, I hope it is clear that this blog will feature polemics and puff on fiction and music and modern life).

Life would be so much easier if cars were just people, flawed like you or I.
The tyranny of the automobile affects the most basic of our freedoms, the freedom to move, to be in one place or another, as we see fit. You can come face to face with this tyranny very easily. Say you are walking down the sidewalk and see a friend across the street. If you were to change your course and simply walk over to greet that friend, you could be killed. You have to look both ways and make sure that modern metallic death isn't barreling down at you (and even then you could be ticketed for jaywalking); or you have to go to the nearest crosswalk, which in some suburban areas are few and far between and allow pedestrian crossings for only fifteen seconds out of every five minutes.

Or try biking around a city for a month without being harassed by an indignant motorist ignorant to the fact that, were there to be an accident, it is you who would likely die; or without experiencing the precariousness of riding down the aisle formed by a moving vehicle and a parked one.

Or simply be a motorist and go experience that most absurd of modern phenomena which claims entire days in the lives of millions of Americans: congestion on the expressway.

The Cars are not to blame.
Now some of you might say that cars accomplish a great many things and that the street is designed for transportation and hence for cars, and that the division between sidewalk and street exists to protect pedestrians and motorists alike. But my question is, why must the vast majority of streets belong to cars? With so many streets, why are there not more streets dedicated to just bikes, or just pedestrians, or just trolleys, or just strollers, or just wheelchairs? After all, we have parkways and freeways and highways and expressways and tunnels and bridges (where all traffic other than automobile traffic is prohibited, mind you) that bisect our cities and bring noise and car wrecks within feet of our homes and places of work. And yet where are the bikeways or the walkways or the tramways? How come none of these share the priority of the highway? How come none of these loom so large in our urban landscapes, or in our psyches?

In Philadelphia, where I live, I can think of only two streets that are closed to automobile traffic: Locust and Liacouras Walks, on the campuses of Penn and Temple Universities, respectively. Philly is truly a victim of the car culture, and as a result we cannot get our act together on the mass transit front, as this recent article in the Philadelphia Citypaper reminds us (for those of you who are not from the Delaware Valley, SEPTA is the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, and is always broke). That SEPTA is strapped for cash is not news. But this article points to a troubling trend: even though ridership is up, funding is down. Indeed, even as more people are moving back into the city and riding buses and trains, SEPTA cannot perform basic maintenance. So of course, expansion is out of the question. But it's expansion that would bring public transit to more people, reducing dependence on cars, thus reducing traffic and carbon emissions, and opening up streets for alternate uses, further reducing our dependence on cars, and so on. I would hope that the benefits of this are apparent to you, readers. But in case they are not, here goes: reducing dependence on automobiles gives you a place to ride your bike or stroll, lessens the chance that you or someone you love will die in a vehicular fatality (statistically, trains crash exponentially less than cars), and might help us as a species to avert apocalyptic climate change.

The article goes into the sordid history of SEPTA's funding, of its disproportionate commitment to the suburb-benefiting railroad division, of its inability to levy public money effectively. But what I am most concerned with is the conversation happening on the national scale (today is, after all, the national day), which is perhaps the greatest detriment to transit authorities across the country.  

The Tea Party is about as batshit as this one.
Proponents of the recent conservative backlash, the people who wave their flags most forcefully today and who offer only tautologies about their so-called "freedom," are attacking transit initiatives on the national scale because they see them as un-American, as ostensibly infringing on their right not to pay for things that don't directly benefit them, on their right to not give a shit about anyone but themselves, this wonderful thing they call "freedom." As Daniel Denvir notes in the Citypaper article: "Conservatives have long derided mass transit — like welfare, perceived to be the domain of poor urban black people — as a 'socialistic program' imported from Europe." But this xenophobia is not limited to highspeed rail or lightrail projects (which are indeed successful European initiatives of the last 30 years), but extends to basically any form of transportation that happens outside of an automobile. Tea Party bumpkins have gone so far as to protest bicycle lanes, which, in Philadelphia at least, is the most visible progress on the transportation front.

I wonder: how can one look at this and think it is anything other than politicians in the pockets of the automobile industry, and their gullible constituents imposing their received mode of "American" individualism on their countrymen? What does a bicycle lane do to offend a Tea Partier? Most of these people live in exurbia and the sticks anyway, and will probably never see a bicycle lane in their lives. A bicycle lane gets installed for a pittance compared to the obscene amount of money poured into the highway system each year. And it goes one step toward protecting me and all other cyclists. And all that it asks is that motorists proceed with a modicum of caution and humility.

Jane Jacobs sticking it to cars.
But that, of course, is too much to ask, and this, readers, is the tyranny of the automobile. The automobile is the greatest fiction of American individualism, fueling our erroneous beliefs that we have the freedom to go where we want, when we want, because we're not tied to a socialist, European, faggy, elitist train schedule. And as always, the cost of this "automobility" is  never brought up. Meaning, the billions of federal and state dollars spent maintaining public roadways (hmmm, sounds like a social program to me); as well as the human cost in the form of pedestrian and vehicular deaths; and the psychological-emotional cost of displacing people in the 60s and 70s so urban planners could drive interstates right through their neighborhoods (more info on that here). The latter has been a great wound in the American city, from which it has yet to heal. Jane Jacobs and others tried to tell us about it, but not enough people listened....

People hanging out in the middle of Market St, Philadelphia, a century ago.
All the rhetoric of freedom and liberty and American-ness that surrounds cars is the backbone of the ideology that allows them to retain their dominance in our culture. But that ideology is fabricated by people in the automotive industry who stand to make a buck, a lot of bucks, if the car is the only acceptable mode of transportation in this country (they've clearly already convinced the Tea Party).  The supremacy of the car has been attained with money and lawsuits from the get go, as this insightful piece from the brilliant Atlantic Cities shows.  There was a definitive moment when jaywalking was invented, Sarah Goodyear argues, also known as the moment when cars started to rule the streets, and the ideology machine began to turn, and the pedestrians who were slain by automobiles were no longer thought of as victims of an as-yet-to-be-regulated aspect of modernity, but as perpetrators of a crime against the glory of that very modernity. Get out of the way, or you might just get killed by a ton of American freedom, and it will be your own fault. It is this ideology, the fact that we take the automobile's supremacy for granted, that we ignore at what cost it comes, that makes this supremacy into a tyranny.

So this Independence Day, I want to celebrate the inroads that we've made into the overthrow of the tyranny of the automobile. I'm proud to live in a city that recognizes the need for bicycle lanes and that ensures my natural right to move about my space freely. And I remain hopeful that one day Philadelphia might look that way that Louis Kahn had envisioned it when he drew up his traffic flow plan for Center City, that there will be roads dedicated to all forms of transportation, and that even when we find ourselves barred from a certain roadway because our vehicle of choice is prohibited, we will see this not as an affront to our "freedom," not as an affront to the United States, but as a just and fair measure meant to ensure the well being of all.

Louis Kahn's gorgeous traffic flow plan for Center City Philadelphia.

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