Monday, June 08, 2009

You Can't Win, You Can't Break Even, and You Can't Even Leave

I was just reading a very frustrating article at Clusterfuck Nation. (With my friend Rustin, I'd be more inclined to classify the culture as the product of a Hundred-Year Fever Dream rather than a prosaic old Clusterfuck, but chacun a son gout, non?)

In his essay "Lagging Recognition," he makes the very important case that one of the major consequenses of the economic downturn (following hard on the heels of 30 years of Reaganite anti-statism) is infrastructure decay and collapse. One of the major componenents of the infrastructure decay and collapse is, therefore, a decline in road quality, which, if left unchecked (and it is currently unsustainable, most likely) will result in the eventual decline of car culture.

This is not without sociopolitical consequenses. As Kunstler writes,
The political dimension of the collapse of motoring is the least discussed part of problem: as fewer and fewer citizens find themselves able to buy and run cars, they will feel increasingly aggrieved at the system set up to make motoring virtually mandatory for all the chores of everyday life, and their resentments will rise against the elite that can still manage to enjoy it. Because our car-dependency is so extreme, the reaction of the dis-entitled classes is liable to be extreme and probably delusional to an extreme, too.
One can already observe the reaction of the car-owning majority to the carless classes (a prime example would be the "Why didn't they just leave?" types whining about Katrina victims who were left without transportation out, as options for those without either car access or money were severely limited); a look at the suburban landscape as it has existed from the late 1940s onward should be an indicator, as should any number of extremely car-centric developments, such as strip malls, shopping malls, and big box complexes. It's woven into the culture in ways that most people don't even see. (How many "boy meets car" songs do you know?) As Kunstler says, "Happy Motoring is so entangled in our national identity that the loss of it is bound to cause a national identity crisis."

The decline, probably inevitable, of car culture is going to change all that. Kunstler writes, "It will be very painful for us to walk away from the car-centered life. Half the population faces the ugly obstacle of being hopelessly over-invested in a suburban house and all the life-ways associated with it."

Now for the frustrating part.

As you know if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, the most viable alternative to a car-centred lifestyle is one that revolves heavily around the use of rail-based transit. As I've documented at length, the original "suburban" development was the streetcar suburb, which permitted a car-free or low-car-usage lifestyle while maintaining many of the benefits of modern suburban life (detached houses, residential streets, relative quiet), plus some other benefits that modern suburbs don't often have (a sense of community, outward-looking houses that encourage street-level interactions, a diminished lack of attachment to the community at the family level). These communities were planned from the outset to be built on a human (not car) scale, so they're walkable (even in bad weather) and at one time provided access to rail-based public transit seamlessly as a part of the design of the neighbourhood. Modern suburbs will need to be retrofitted to include rail-based transit (and most of them are not even designed to be bus-friendly).

Likewise, most modern urban areas will need to undergo the same retrofitting, and absent a complete demolition and rebuilding (probably not politically feasible) will not function as well as communities designed with integral rail transit in mind.

The frustrating part of this is that we had all of this at one time; the time to have (as they're now saying again) "electrified the railroads" was before they ever converted the existing electric railroad network to diesel. The time to start building streetcar suburbs was in the late 1800s, and streetcar suburbs (and the streetcar lines that serviced them) should never have been taken out of operation in the period between 1920 and 1960. The time to stop getting swindled was while the swindle was going on, not 60 years after the fact.

Let me reiterate: We once had what we now need.

Further, I really do think (having looked at it for strictly unhealthy amounts of time) that all this was preventable, if there'd been the political and social will to do so. But our parents and grandparents got sold a bill of goods by a bunch of long-dead conmen and their heirs, and we and our children will have to take the brunt of it.

Good luck!