The Automobile: Take Me for a Ride, Part 2

Getting from Here to There

The point of any mode of movement is to get from Here to There. It’s really that simple. So there must be much more to this worship of the Car God. I’m pretty sure the pre-automobile modes of transportation were really just about getting somewhere faster than the slower alternatives like, say, walking. Speed had practical applications; getting messages or packages to their destination; getting food from the source to the grocer; getting medical attention; general commerce; and, of course, sport, which often means getting from Here to Here on a closed loop.

I had the good fortune (using the logic of a teenager) of growing up in the fifties and sixties, when the automobile had its heyday. This was a time when one could easily identify the make of a car by its appearance. It was also a time when the sport of speed was a part of growing up, like cruising on Saturday night and mooning the Hi-D-Ho. It was Lubbock, after all,  which had all of the scenes from the classic movie American Graffiti without the mountains in the background. Come to think of it, you can get a pretty clear picture of the car culture in the sixties – along with a gratuitous dose of high school angst – by watching American Graffiti again. These days the relationship with cars seems more like obsession than romance, but that’s seeing the past through the filter of nostalgia. Speeding on streets and roads still happens, and with the same dire and tragic consequences, but now drag racing down the interstate has added a new and frightening dimension to what used to be just racing on back country roads.

The days of muscle cars, dual quads, glass-packs and cheap gasoline are, for the most part, gone (cue angry response from classic car club members). When your vehicle only got between seven and ten miles to the gallon because, you know, lead feet and dual quads, it was good that gas was only 20-cents a gallon. The least I ever paid was 16-cents, but that was also when the local gas merchants engaged in “gas wars,” beating each other’s prices. Today, “gas war” takes on an entirely different, and sinister, meaning. Conflicts based in control of oil – and cloaked in anything but the mention of oil – rage on.

Meanwhile, valiant attempts at public transportation continue. Large cities have the best shot, and the greatest need, for a viable mass transit system. Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York City are places where mass transit not only works, but working there requires such a system. Unfortunately, like much of the neglected and increasingly crumbling infrastructure in the Lower Forty, budget “priorities” have funneled money away from these city arteries, in many cases to their peril; flooding in the subway in New York presents a bit of a challenge. Add to this the “natural” disasters that are taking their toll on budgets. According to NOAA, $16 billion was the tab for the Greatest Hits List in 2017. The consequences of climate change are already taking their toll with quite literally no end in sight.

Figure 1   2017 in Climate Change terms – graphic credit NOAA

Climate change, by the way, is causing forward-thinking planners to re-consider infrastructure to account for things like rising sea levels. The streets of Miami offer some insight into things to come. According to a compelling article by the BBC, there are areas in Miami that will not be “viable places to live” in the future. The question is, of course, when? Long before that happens – like, now – the financial consequences will hit the beach, and inland. People are already raising driveways to account for regular flooding, but that’s minor compared to the area-wide infrastructure challenges, like roadways, waste-water treatment plants, septic systems and flooding basements. Getting from here to there may start looking a bit more like Venice in the coastal areas, which actually highlights the fact that, regardless of the conditions – and assuming we can still breathe the air – we’re going to continue to find innovative ways to get “there,” and most likely in a controlled environment that has awesome audio and doesn’t require an actual driver, which comes in handy when you’re yelling at talk radio.

Figure 2 The streets of Miami — photo credit NPR

Setting aside the immediate budget woes – and counting on the money to come from somewhere –  billions are now envisioned for “futuristic” projects like the “pod-and-tube” high-speed Hyperloop One system – introduced in 2013 by Elan Musk, the guy who sent a roadster into space, and joined by Richard Branson’s Virgin in 2014 – that is proposed to link major cities in either Texas, Colorado/Wyoming (yes, there are cities in Wyoming), Chicago-to-Pittsburg or Florida. Getting from here to there via this mode will be plenty speedy. As scary as it may seem to some, careening through a tube at around 700 miles per hour is probably safer than an adolescent speed obsession in my 1958 Chevy – OK, a lot safer; exponentially safer.

One way to reduce the need, if not the desire, for personal horseless carriages, is to build communities that encourage walking to get basic services. Suburbia in its current iteration really doesn’t seem to qualify, although I have to admit I’m within a 15-minute walk of the essentials in my suburban neighborhood. Coffee, for starters; three options there. But there’s also a variety of restaurants, a major grocery, shoe repair, drug store, UPS and a bunch of establishments for which I have no current need. So, I guess it really is more a matter of having/taking the time to walk, which I do. I seldom run into neighbors making the same trek, so I apparently have more time to spare. Or is it just a matter of training one’s mind to walk as a default? It’s probably the time thing, given the pace of life these days, but car habits are hard to break, like so many things in our technology-rich world, and it takes a conscious effort to consider an alternative.


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