America's Auto Asphyxiation: We Put the Loco in Locomotion

Detroit, like so many other American cities, had an excellent public transit system before the car became king and our railways plunged into a steep decline that continues to this day.
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Our demented devotion to the car and disdain for trains drives me nuts, so I thought it was awfully fitting that National Transportation Week happened to coincide with National Mental Health Month. This ironic bit of synergy was brought to my attention by Aaron Woolf, the acutely observant producer/director of King Corn whose latest documentary,Beyond The Motor City, boldly repurposes Detroit, home of the auto industry and spawner of sprawl, as the potential birthplace for a mass transit revival.

Sounds incongruous? Improbable? In fact, as Beyond The Motor City reveals, Detroit, like so many other American cities, had an excellent public transit system before the car became king and our railways plunged into a steep decline that continues to this day.

The eternally underfunded Amtrak limps along on life support despite six straight years of record ridership. Some stimulus money has been allocated for what passes for high speed transit in this country, but too many folks who live in rural regions where there are no trains at all begrudge the very notion that their tax dollars ought to help fund mass transit in more densely populated states.

So, while China's poured $350 billion dollars over the past decade into a high-speed rail system that can go up to 220 mph, the nation that gave the world Back To The Future lurches Forward Into The Past (apologies to The Firesign Theater).

It's shocking to see the once-glorious Michigan Central Station looking like some kind of Roman ruin, decayed and abandoned. But it's equally eerie to see large swaths of open land in the middle of downtown Detroit where houses once stood. Wide boulevards evoke phantom drivers who abandoned Detroit as its fossil fueled fortunes declined.

But where some see only decay, Woolf envisages renewal. Like his fellow filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenkso, whose documentary Grown In Detroit focuses on a high school program that teaches pregnant teens how to farm on a former playground, Woolf has faith in Detroit's ability to rise from the ashes of the auto industry's flame-out and reinvent itself.

Is that really so crazy? I'd argue that it's even crazier to insist that we can go on worshipping at the altar of the auto.

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels and apparent allergy to alternative transportation are a slight variation; we do nothing, over and over again. Coal mines blow up, oil rigs explode, we just keep truckin', uh-huh.

I bet you didn't evenknow this was National Transportation Week. Maybe you missed the stirring proclamation that President Obama phoned in from some socialist parallel universe where American tax payers are willing to pony up for progress:

Today, smart, sustainable development, coupled with quality public transportation, has created more livable and environmentally sustainable communities for all to enjoy. By reducing isolation and bringing neighborhoods together, we can continue to increase access to good jobs, affordable housing, safe streets and parks, and a healthy food supply.

Working together to upgrade our Nation's transportation infrastructure, we will lay a new foundation for long-term growth, security, and prosperity in America and give future generations a transportation system that is second to none.

Well, sure, because who would want to leave our kids the crappy, bottom-of-the-barrel system we have now? Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), studied pre-war train schedules and found that there are trains in this country that actually take several hours longer to reach their destination now than they did seventy or so years ago.

So, while Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and most of Europe all have high speed rail systems or are in the process of building them, we remain as mired in oil as the fossils stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits.

Rachel Maddow ran a devastating segment on her show recently entitled "Doomed To Repeat It" documenting decades of oil-fueled disasters. Watch it and weep as presidents from Nixon to Bush make phony pledges to wean us off fossil fuels, and current politicians still chant "Drill, Baby, Drill."

As Maddow noted, the 1969 Union Oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara helped launch the birth of Earth Day the following year. Maddow wasn't even born yet, but I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, so I remember the 1973 "oil shock," the gas rationing, the smog alerts--just a regular part of the weather forecast--telling us not to play outside.

Most of all, though, I remember the feeling of being trapped, stranded in the suburbs; it drove me crazy that my mom had to drive me pretty much everywhere. You've heard of early adopters? I was an early rejecter; a kinder Kunstler, deeply alienated by our car-centric culture.

We equate cars with freedom, but how liberating is it, really, to be saddled with a long commute, or stuck circling around the block hunting for a parking spot?

Woolf gave a terrific interview to the St Lou Jew recently (gotta love their motto--"young. yid. younited") to whom he expressed a similar sentiment:

I think we have improperly come to conflate the car with the idea of freedom in this country. It was easier to say that cars and freedom were connected when oil was $11 a barrel and before we began to feel so un-free on our myriad clogged highways. For far too long, public transit has come to be thought of as the transit of last resort. But what form will a 21st century transportation landscape take?...

...In my parents' generation, everyone wanted to move to the suburbs, in your generation we are seeing a yearning to be part of a dense urban community. Maybe there's another kind of freedom in NOT having a car. We once imagined infrastructure in a way that would make us free, but that so-called freedom is totally unsustainable.

National Transportation Week may be over, but we still have another whole week to celebrate National Mental Health month. So if you're feeling depressed about our ongoing failure to address our energy needs in a rational way, allow me to prescribe a viewing of Beyond The Motor City--you can watch it in its entirety on PBS's Blueprint America website, or better yet, see if it's coming to a big screen near you.

As Woolf told stloujew: terms of a national vision for transportation, America has radically transformed itself before...but really only once in a generation. I think we are at that point in our generation where we can once again transform.

When it comes to meeting our energy needs, take it from one of the filmmakers who brought you King Corn: ethanol ain't gonna cut it. Can we train the masses to embrace mass transit? Aaron Woolf thinks so, and I hope he's right.

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