As you gaze at the sea of brake lights ahead of you, I thought you might like to enjoy a different perspective on what started traffic problems, why they are what they are and why they will continue, (at least until we run out of energy!)
First, a little history is in order. Most folks know the private auto became attainable for the masses due to Henry Ford’s pioneering efforts one hundred years ago with the miracle of mass production. Innocently hailed as a breakthrough, we now see it was anything but. Until old Henry with his efficiency experts came along, motorcars were built by hand, almost per order and no two were identical. The price of a car reflected this, making them totally unaffordable except for people of great wealth, who regarded them as status symbols and playtoys.
Ford changed that and became the father of modern traffic nightmares and the cause of more death and injuries than all our wars combined. To at least a few of us, these drawbacks far outweigh whatever benefits might have been involved.
By motorizing the general public, we needed real roads. Then we needed more taxes to pay for those roads. Those roads allowed us to live further from employment. The more people that lived further from employment caused suburban sprawl and a demand for housing entirely assuming we had a way to get there and back from the workplace. Then came stores and malls, surrounded by vast macadam lagoons for all those cars, creating runoffs that polluted our waterways from oil and gas drippings from cars. Tailpipe emissions became so bad that Los Angeles disappeared behind a brownish curtain for years during the seventies. The list can go on and on, but you get the drift.
OK. So we messed up on that call, didn’t we? What else got messed up? The golden age of interurban rail occurred roughly 100 years ago. Remember old pictures of cities with little trolleys running down the middle of boulevards, or electrified trams that didn’t pollute? They made life in town very favorable and obviated the need for individual horseless carriages. The lines were efficient, low cost people movers that proved extremely reliable and relatively unaffected by adverse weather conditions.
Of course General Motors took a dim view of such proletarian devices when there was a profit to be made offering an alternative. During the late 1920s increasingly in the thirties, GM bought up many of the little city short lines, tore up the tracks and replaced them with noisy, smelly diesel busses. This was another symbol of corporate “progress.” Only now are some forward looking city leaders investigating the costs and benefits of returning to what was sensible a century ago, (and swooning at the astounding costs of light rail, overhead rail and subway)
It’s no accident that denizens of cities such as New York and San Francisco, (who refused to give up light rail or built efficient subway systems) have the least use for cars.
That’s all well and good, but you’ve only moved ten feet down the interstate since this narrative began. You’re truly a victim of corporate progress. We know full well and good that mistakes were made, even before you were born and that you are “privileged” to pay the price one hundred years later.
What are some of the things that could have been done to avoid the traffic snarls, the daily waste of hours of commuting time? It’s not as if we can go back and tell Henry Ford to not make Tin Lizzies by the millions. We can’t retroactively void the interstate highway system with its breath taking expense. And what about all these remote outposts, derisively referred to as “bedroom communities” that thrive because we can drive to them…eventually?
We’ll get to those questions shortly, but first a rethink of what should have been done to begin with. A lot of it is radical, but America underwent a radical change to get where we aren’t now, didn’t we?
Rudolf Benz’ first cars ran on peanut oil, a naturally replenishable source and virtually non polluting. Mr. Stanley’s Steamer ran on the obvious and Mr. Leyland’s silent electrics were a big hit with the moneyed crowd. In fact, at the dawning of the automotive era, gasoline wasn’t even in the running. But Mr. Rockefeller had a problem in his refineries, as in what to do with an unstable and volatile waste product from refinement called gasoline. As you can imagine, he had a little pull, and with the advent of motors designed for this “waste product,” his problems went on to being solved, (along with an entirely new profit center!) and those silent electric cars became anachronisms in their own time. Isn’t it ironic that we’re only now getting back to 1890s technology?
Had Rockefeller and his minions not had a problem disposing of gasoline, we wouldn’t be swooning every time some Saudi prince burps or a revolution occurs in some God forsaken sheikdom at the edge of the world. How much of our youth and natural treasure has lost to needless involvement in unfortunate foreign military adventure?
We’re finally building electric cars, but of course just as in the Gilded Age, not everyone can afford them. The difference is, we would have had a hundred year jump on electric vehicle technology.
Roads beget lanes. A common solution to overcrowded roads and interstates is to add more lanes. A less popular solution would have been not to have added any lanes at all. It would have forced county governments and developers to pay a lot more attention to those required, (and often doctored) impact statements. If, for instance you knew that the road to your town could handle only a traffic density peak of “X” and no more, then once reached, under the law, no more development would have been allowed. Granted, there were always those wanting to sell land to make a tidy profit for a subdivision or shopping mall and that’s exactly what happened. The estimates be damned! Just beseech the highway department to come out and lengthen, widen, build more off ramps and everything will be just fine. So horrific amounts of taxpayer money went to exacerbating a never ending problem of more houses in the middle of nowhere and more and wider roads to get to them. This is indeed the picture of a vicious cycle. It’s given that the more lanes you have the more cars will come and return you to your base problem. Luckily, (luckily?) with the advent of the housing crash, this problem is starting to solve itself. No one’s really building squat anymore.
What could have reduced commercial sprawl very effectively? The answer is simple. We should have said no to “merchant’s” stoplights. What do I mean by that? Well, a shopping mall thrives if you not only can get to it but also get into it. This means that general traffic must be stopped on a regular basis for ingress and egress into these useless bastions of big boxisms. This involves the placement of stoplights, tons and tons of them. Usually, these are emplaced on public roads to enable access to private land where the mall or strip is located, which right off the bat is wrong, wrong, wrong. When two public roads intersect and conditions warrant more regulation, I’m sure we can all understand the need for a device to equitably regulate traffic. However to arbitrarily interrupt moving traffic for the benefit of private enterprise at the sufferance of the traveling public is unnecessary and energy wasteful. Had laws prohibited such corporate coddling as stoplight placement on unnamed avenues not recognized by the Postal Service, shopping opportunities would mainly have remained within cities and urban areas , reducing traffic and sprawl while keeping towns of all sizes vital.
A nice byproduct to the above is the fact that “big box” stores would be rare indeed given the fact that large accessible tracts within the confines of most urban areas don’t exist. Wal Mart would still be little more than dry goods stores in the Ozarks!
The one car, one person culture as it is now has been made almost mandatory by the conditions listed above. We all don’t live in the same house, or same street or bedroom community. We all don’t work at the same place, in the same building or even on the same block. Because of very poor planning, or reactionary planning at best, we find ourselves every day moving 10 feet at a time, looking at all the other single drivers as we inch along.
By now you should have been home. But you’re not, are you?
OK, so what needs doing? Let’s start out by admitting that what needs doing versus what will actually be done falls victim to the usual questions of where the profit is and who gets them? This is America after all, where we go bankrupt routinely from nearly anything that would only be a speed bump in a developed country.
First, we need a redirection of vital resources. Let’s begin by stopping the avalanche of conventionally powered new cars being constructed each and every day. Let’s stop making them here and stop their importation from abroad. It is estimated we have at least a 10 to 15 year supply of these obsolete gasoline vehicles readily available for use while we ramp up building non polluting alternatives. Instead, our magnificent factories can be retooled to pump out electric and solar powered cars, light rail and modern trolleys along with the attendant equipment to once again connect near and distant municipalities. So thus, workmen need not be displaced and if done right we gain the added benefit of a resurgent boom in American manufacturing while beginning to heal our environment.
Instead of widening more roads, those same light rails can be run along or between the opposing lanes, with stops at park and rides equipped with recharging stations as needed for your shiny new, (and cheaper!) electric car. It would become obvious that more and wider roads would no longer be needed, freeing up more funds to repair existing roads, bridges and so on. Thus there would be a boom of construction that benefits all, instead of the few. With new trolleys in urban areas to connect worker to workplace, the strain of urban traffic would be measurably reduced, making urban living more attractive and affordable. This proposal has the double benefit of not consigning suburbia to slow death, while making urban areas far more accessible and livable.
Currently, energy taxes on the sale of gasoline and diesel pay the majority of funds for repairs and construction of our roadways. With those revenues facing decline in the envisioned electric age, governments will be forced to seek new sources to fund needed improvements. These can be found in tolls and fees levied on new public transportation to offset those losses along with federal revenue sharing for on time in budget construction.
It would certainly be nice to have an influx of visionary leaders. They appear from time to time, but get hastily bought out or drummed out of office as soon as they espouse a non mainstream view. For them to embrace and/or write effective legislation to mandate such a radical list of proposals would be political suicide. It is unfortunate that we have the best governance money can buy, even more to come as the tsunami known as Citizen’s United continues to gather force and trajectory.
Have you gotten home yet? Me either, but at least I’m crawling now. I hit 12 MPH a second ago. Only nine miles to go…
To encapsulate, the problems and stratagems listed above are recognizable symbols of much deeper erosions in our quality of life. I chose to write on traffic issues this time as just one of many disturbing issues of corporate preference over the rights of the many. It is obvious in so many ways as we go about our daily lives. Each day, what we do have, what we still hold sacred- is increasingly under attack from the corporate directed lapdogs that we routinely elect against our own self interests. Perhaps Democrats have slightly longer leashes than the Brownshirts, but with only a two party system, (both of which depend on corporate largesse) progress isn’t going to be obtained at the electronically compromised ballot box. There is a solution to any problem. Conviction and fortitude are the scarce commodities.
There’s my exit. I can see it…