What is the most overlooked key issue of our time? A nuclear Iran, America's failing education system, the need for better dental hygiene? The answer is no, no and no. Now I am not saying that these aren't important issues facing us, but there is one massive, destructive issue plaguing this country like no other, an issue that just doesn't seem to get the proper level of attention, and that is America's tired addiction to driving and foreign oil.
I have been watching Mad Men lately, and it got me thinking - boy did those hard drinking advertising types of the mid-century do a good job of convincing the US that a car was essential for freedom, happiness and status and conversely trains, dense cities, and walking represented second class transport, confinement, and lack of status (LA was a gleaming, hope-filled city; while New York was dark and sorry). It's something that, despite years of evidence to the contrary, most people in the US still believe and it's holding this country back. The whole auto-uber alles mentality that's been the norm in this country is a racket. The oil, car and advertising industries put a bow on a pig and convinced us it was a super model and it has made them billions.
I want to make it clear I am not anti-car, just in favor of a rational and balanced multi-model transit and planning policy that does not favor the car over all other methods of transportation. We need to put true convenience and quality of life above the manufactured idea of auto-tranquility that has been forced on us so convincingly for the last 60 years. You might say, hey that's some hippy green dream, but I would say that it's the only patriotic way forward if we want to keep America strong, healthy, and competitive. Here are the very real consequences and worsening threats to our country that continued auto-dominance poses:
1. Dependence on foreign oil - Our addiction to oil funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to the worst authoritarian regimes who spread anti-US radicalism around the globe- Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela- we are literally funding terrorists and enemies of our country by driving all the time.
2. A sick and unhealthy country - We are polluting the hell of our country-with asthma rates through the roof and the lack of any mobility by foot contributing to making the US the most overweight and obese country in the world. Not to mention the endless miles of pavement expanding daily devouring our majestic landscape or the epidemic of death and dismemberment caused daily by automobile accidents.
3. Killing the American Spirit - Traffic sucks. Nothing clouds the imagination and crushes the soul like road rage-inducing stop and go traffic (this is not just during rush hour anymore; I was on the 101 in LA at 9:30 pm on a Monday night and traffic was completely stopped). These stressful hours are frittered away trapped in a metal box, often alone, scarfing down fast food from the drive through or chatting or texting idly to kill time and occasionally kill others from the accidents this causes while driving. It undermines our cohesiveness as a country and separates society.
The inspiration for this post came from the fact that I have been in LA for the last few weeks and there isn't any better microcosm of the trouble that America's car-only blinders have wrought than this city. LA came of age over the last 60 years during the golden age of the mass-produced automobiles, but the sexy and sleek visions of superhighways, gleaming fast food restaurants, and perfect suburbs have given way to half full strip malls, traffic, smog, asthma, and obesity.
For the record I am driving in LA just like everyone else - the lack of good public transit and the sprawling nature of the city leaves little choice (except in a few areas where the new Subway goes). When I am home in Boston and traveling around that city I walk, cab, bus or take the train (unfortunately, unlike in LA I am often walking in the cold). Still, Boston has no reason to hold its head up high with pride. Despite its pre-auto dominance development, Boston's current policies regarding transit, while better than LA's, mostly consist of resting on its laurels, but I will get to that in Part 2 of this post.
LA didn't use to be this way. Before the 1950's, when it was a much smaller city, though still a major one, LA had the largest streetcar system in the world. The popular movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit's whole back story follows the true tale of the auto industry's move to buy up the LA street car companies, shut them down, and rip up the tracks so people would be forced to buy cars. Ironically, as I write this, Christopher Lloyd, who played the evil Judge Doom the executor of this plan, is having breakfast a few tables away. In LA you never know who you're going to bump into. If I get the chance, I will ask him his thoughts on this issue and try to get that into another post.
Please know, I am not bashing LA - it's a great city with magnificent weather - and these problems affect the entire country. But in order to stay competitive and be the best, most productive, and modern we can be, LA and America must evolve with the times and move beyond the outdated and old way of auto-only thinking. It's a new millennium and the old ideas are not relevant anymore. This doesn't mean cars are going away and it doesn't mean abandoning the vibrant hot rod or after market car culture that LA spawned; it just means changing how we grow and how we get from one place to another. LA, once a model of public transit, trans-continental train connectivity and a dense urban core, can and must be those things again. It's time for America, Obama, and Madison Avenue to get behind and push a new patriotic vision of transportation that will create jobs, provide more security, and improve our health and quality life. If we continue to cling to the disproven policies of the past, there is no doubt the auto-only mentality will steal our future. Part 2 coming soon......