robertisenberg

BP Disaster = Car Culture: 2

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Photograph of Highway 376, taken from a bicycle.

Virtually no one second-guesses car culture. In American life, nearly every adult citizen drives. A driver’s license equals legal identification, which equals identity. Alternatives exist, but they’re very rare and almost uniquely urban. While New Yorkers and Washingtonians may ride the subway downtown, few middle-class residents of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Kansas City or Houston would seriously consider a public bus. I mention these cities because they are economic hubs, flush with tax money and packed with civil engineers. Their city councils are in a position to decide on, and design, efficient new transportation. Kansas City’s center was completely redeveloped in the past decade, but its mass transit is still draconian. Los Angeles already has a magnificent train and bus system – but nobody knows it exists. Nobody, that is, but voiceless poor people.

The question isn’t whether we should have cars – the question is why cars are our only dependable commute. We have paved millions upon millions of square miles of land, burned billions of barrels of oil, and still the average American spends over an hour on the road every day. We claim that cars mean freedom, but freedom from what? In an era of road-rage, outdated bridges, eternal roadwork, axle-shattering potholes, drive-by shootings and hit-and-run accidents, what exactly is so freeing about a daily drive?

Meanwhile, a driver’s life is in perpetual danger. About 40,000 people die every year in car accidents. By some estimates, your lifetime odds of dying in a car accident are 1 in 100 (which, to this author, is a discomfiting ratio). That’s just dying. Never mind disfiguration, trauma, paralysis or loss of limbs. Never mind killing somebody else.

Then there’s the silent class-war – between the people who can afford cars (if just barely), and the people who can’t and must struggle to move around in an automotive society that shuns them. People who take the bus are “ghetto.” People who bike to work are “tree-huggers.” Even in New York and Washington, many commuters take the train only because parking is logistically impossible.

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