Media Mayhem: Driving around in circles
When all reason says we ought to be backing more transportation options, the media is still obsessed with automobiles.
Mon, Dec 14, 2009 at 05:20 AM
Smooth. Clean. Comfortable. Finally, a ride that says, “I am one with the planet.”
The Studebaker EcoSurfer. The green dream of automobiles. It’s got everything you asked for: power, size and a smooth ride.
Best of all, the EcoSurfer will stop global warming. By combining our advanced hydrogen-cell/lithium-battery/water-vapor fuel technology and an innovative carbon trading agreement with the Amazonia Timber Co., we’ve designed an automobile that plants three trees for every mile you travel.
You’ve worked hard to save the planet. Now you deserve to save it in style.
If only the EcoSurfer were coming off production lines today. My friend David Goldberg calls that “the silver bullet” approach to solving our transportation problems.
Well, not the EcoSurfer part. That’s my little embellishment. Goldberg, communications director for an advocacy group called Transportation for America, was talking about the American tendency to seek transportation solutions by modernizing two things we already have: Cars and the highways we drive them on.
The popular media refers to the phenomenon as “America’s love affair with the automobile.” But terming it romantic obscures the extent to which the affair is based on years of marketing, as well as a shotgun marriage arranged by government policies that force people to use cars to get anywhere.
It’s as if our lover wasn’t who we thought she was, but someone we’ve been manipulated to believe is real. And, now, when it’s obvious that we need to be dating the field — trains, trolleys, bikes and sidewalks — Big Daddy’s telling us we’re not allowed to go out with anyone else.
You can track the seduction at least back to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where none other than General Motors sponsored the insanely popular Futurama exhibit.
Futurama was about urban planning more than cars, but the plan was for a future hospitable to cars. Stripped of slums, the city in the futuristic year of 1960 would place homes far from jobs, and would connect skyscraper offices to pristine suburbs via an innovative type of road: the expressway.
Many credit Futurama with building political support for the Interstate Highway System, which was approved by Congress less than two decades later, and which may have done more to determine the physical layout of our cities, suburbs and countryside than anything else over the last half-century. What was good for interstates was good for General Motors.
As it turned out, however, what was good for General Motors wasn’t always good for our communities. Old neighborhoods that had grown organically were demolished to make room for highways. Others were surrounded by highways that throttled social and commercial patterns that had grown up over generations.
Built out to its logical conclusion, the new “city” stretched endlessly, gobbling up acreage previously unimaginable for a single metropolis. A real estate consultant for Charles Lesser & Co. brought that point home to me in the late 1990s when he declared that the sprawling Atlanta region, where I live, had consumed more land in one decade than had any other human settlement in history.
The Futurama fantasy was unsustainable. The further people lived from work, the more “vehicle miles traveled” they generated — in other words, the more space they took up on highways. So almost as soon as a new highway was built, it became congested. And all the special interests that grew up around the highways — road builders, developers, real estate speculators — used their muscle to push for even more highways, whether they were needed or not. Many people now spend more than an hour in their cars every morning and evening, something that was inconceivable a generation ago.
I haven’t even gotten into the environmental part of all this. For years, environmentalists complained about the impact of sprawl on land and water, and the impact of auto emissions on the air. Grand battles erupted over lead in gasoline, catalytic converters, stormwater runoff, fuel efficiency and a slew of other issues tied to cleaning up the effects of cars and highways. And each victory was considered an incremental victory for the environment.
Despite all those problems, however, driving is as popular as ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 88 percent of Americans got to work by automobile in 2005, all but 11 percent of them driving alone. That number may have dropped over the last couple of years as gas prices rose, but in the grand scheme of things only slightly.
Listen to the popular media and you’ll hear that the love affair continues. But there’s reason to believe that’s a myth now. Public opinion surveys are increasingly emphatic in finding that many Americans would like nothing better than to spend less time in their cars.
Case in point: The National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America found in a 2007 survey that, when asked “which of the following proposals is the best long-term solution to reducing traffic in your area,” 75 percent of Americans identified either more public transit or building “communities where people do not have to drive as much.” Only 21 percent said “build more roads.”
The truth is that many of us have wanted to date other modes of transportation for quite some time. But the shotgun wedding keeps us in bed with the same old lover.
Now, suddenly, we have a chance to make things different. A thinking president has placed an impressive gang in key environmental positions his administration, and the biggest of all environmental issues — climate change — is forcing us to wrestle with the ever-rising contribution of the transportation sector to greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Transportation sources accounted for approximately 29 percent of total U.S. [greenhouse gases] emissions in 2006. Transportation is the fastest-growing source of U.S. GHG, accounting for 47 percent of the net increase in total U.S. emissions since 1990.
So surely — surely — now, we’ll start making the transition from highways to trains ... from subsidizing sprawl to rebuilding cities ... from encouraging long commutes to supporting pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods ... from manufacturing cars to making trolleys. Surely, we’ll start our long trek back from Futurama.
Nahhhh. The bulk of transportation spending is going to — surprise, surprise — cars and highways. Take, for example, the president’s stimulus package — an ideal opportunity, it would seem, to begin to transform the American transportation system:
“Despite the golden opportunity of extra funding, most states did not use the opportunity to make as much progress as possible on long-term goals,” concludes a report from Smart Growth America. “Even though repair backlogs can stretch years or decades into the future, nearly one-third of the money, $6.6 billion, went towards roadway new capacity projects. At a time when public transportation ridership is hitting all-time highs and the budget crunch is causing transit agencies to cut routes, service and jobs, an abysmal 0.9% was spent on public transportation. Only 2.8% percent was spent on non-motorized projects (i.e., bike and pedestrian projects).”
A similar disparity is apparent on the vehicle side of the equation: Billions of dollars are now being spent on bailing out car manufacturers, subsidies for next-generation automobiles and research into “electrofuels” and long-lasting batteries. Much less money is being spent on research for more efficient rail projects.
Why is that? Why is it that when most Americans profess a desire to live in communities with transportation options at the very same time that such a switch might help us combat climate change, our public money keeps flowing to cars and highways?
Certainly, part of it is the inertia of interest-group politics in Washington. Lobbyists for cars and highways are a hell of a lot more powerful than are advocates for trains, bicycles, pedestrians and work-live-play “new urbanist” communities.
But Goldberg also points to a mindset that seems to sweep away the media and to force the public debate over transportation into the same old cycle of which politician got the most road money for his district and what new auto technology is the most exciting.
“We are still gaga for vehicles and vehicle technology,” he says. “It’s amazing how many stories are written about technologies that are, for the most part, fantasies.”
I noticed one example of that recently on, of all places, National Public Radio. Despite the fact that vehicle fatalities already are far lower than they were a decade ago, NPR joined in the gee-whiz-a-thon with a holiday season look at highway safety. Among other things, it focused on the need to spend money maintaining roads, as well as futuristic ideas like driverless pod cars.
Most ordinary people, Goldberg says, get it. They see how every year it becomes more and more difficult to justify those two cars in the garage; how walking, biking and relaxing with a book while riding transit can be a lot more pleasant than getting stuck daily in traffic jams; how rising fuel costs and environmental regulations will make it a very different world in the future.
It’s time for policy makers and the mainstream media to get it also.
Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at MyGreenATL.com.
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