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Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Over-Consumption and Society



Planes land carrying tourists to Amsterdam at the Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport which is integrated into the European train network. Inside the airport/train station a machine dispenses a ticket for the ten minute train ride into Amsterdam. The trains depart every few minutes and are often crowded. Most passengers carrying airline-amounts of luggage just stand by the doors and don’t bother finding seats. The commuters keep to themselves, reading or simply gazing out the windows. The tourists talk to one another in the relaxed atmosphere of this fast and efficient public transport. I am reminded of B.Wilkinson’s remark that the greatest theme of history is men’s efforts to reconcile order and liberty.

The train arrives in Amsterdam and a few steps outside of the Central Station I board one of the trams that service most of the city. Rembrandt Plaza is a couple of stops from the station and from here I can walk the two blocks to my hotel. I am traveling light and since it was a long flight I relax in one of the plaza’s cafes. I find myself sitting here admiring an unfamiliar city only 45 minutes after getting off the plane..

Rembrandt Plaza, although rather small, is a highly commercial area with the statue of the artist in the center dwarfed by the neon signs that rise to the top of the five story buildings which surround it. As I look around the square I can’t help notice the heavy pedestrian and bicycle traffic and, by contrast, the scarcity of automobiles. This is the result of an almost decade-long program to reduce cars in the older Canal Zone, an area of about three square miles representing the heart of Amsterdam and home to about 80,000 of the city’s 500,000 residents. The program has reduced parking drastically while narrowing streets and widening bike paths and sidewalks. Eventually all non-vital traffic will be banned.

In fact, the car reduction plan came into effect almost by accident. After a dismally low voter turn out and a defeat of the ruling parties in the 1990 elections politicians in Amsterdam began looking for a way to stimulate public involvement in politics. The city council asked the electorate for suggestions for a topic to put up for a public referendum, Amsterdam’s first. The voters chose “the automobile” as the subject for the referendum and more specifically the automobile as a nuisance and how far the city should go in reducing traffic. When the referendum was drafted and a plebiscite taken a plan to drastically reduce cars in the city center narrowly defeated a more modest proposal of traffic control.

From the beginning the proposal met with fierce opposition from local merchants who believed that reducing cars would reduce business. Many feared that Amsterdam would become a relic, a place for tourists but no longer a working city. The reduction plan still has a long way to go but it is evident that most of the original objections were unfounded when the people of Amsterdam decided they preferred the city planning of their 17th century ancestors over the 20th century’s dependence on the automobile. Amsterdam is not alone among European cities trying to lessen their reliance on automobiles. Even Paris is taking strong measures to give the streets back to pedestrians.

On another trip I look out of the window as the plane descends into Los Angeles International Airport. Los Angeles and Orange counties may not have invented urban sprawl but it is here that it has reached its disastrous zenith. I leave the terminal and wait for the shuttle bus which will take me to my rental car. About 25 minutes later I am driving south on the San Diego Freeway. It takes a while in this intense driving environment before I am able to count the lanes: eighteen--nine in each direction. This is the ultimate liberty, every citizen free to sit in traffic alone in his vehicle. Is this what people would choose? If transportation options were put to a plebiscite here in Southern California would people choose to travel on eighteen lane freeways and spend hours each day stuck inside of an automobile? They probably can’t imagine another option.

Even with this vast expanse of the earth’s crust flattened and paved traffic is still ground almost to a halt at various times throughout the day. At other times the average speed is well over the legal limit. For the uninitiated it is a frightening, apocalyptical experience. Although California leads the nation in traffic fatalities, its mileage death rate—a grisly formula of deaths to miles driven—is below that of many other states.

National statistics notwithstanding it would be impossible to view this particular stretch of freeway as safe. I speed past city after city looking for my exit to Mission Viejo. It is impossible to discern where one city begins and the other ends as the landscape is a seamless tapestry of strip malls, track housing, industrial parks, and parking lots. Lots and lots of parking lots. Even the apartment complexes in suburbia, the only sensible way to house people in an urban setting, are laid out in ugly sprawls to give priority to the tenants’ dormant automobiles.

Missing an exit on this freeway is comparable in seriousness to the space shuttle being a few degrees off when it enters earth’s atmosphere--God only knows where you may end up. I find my exit and follow the precise directions I have downloaded from a mapping website. A sign tells me I have entered Mission Viejo. I’m sure that somewhere, at some point in time, there actually was a mission viejo here but like everything else I have seen since landing at LAX this place is made up mostly of cars. Like Amsterdam’s center Mission Viejo has a population of around 80,000 but spread over six times the area. There is virtually no pedestrian traffic here, the distances are simply too great to walk.

Every single bit of urban design is adapted to fit the needs of the automobile. Every single thoroughfare in this bedroom community is as wide as the Champs Elysees: at least two lanes in each direction with a median strip. At 29.1 minutes each way Mission Viejo residents have one of the longest average commuting times in the nation. Public transportation is almost nonexistent. Most suburbanites perceive public transportation as being for poor people. With the median family income at about $64,690 Mission Viejo residents don’t consider taking the bus.

I pull into a strip mall—the preferred facility of commerce in Southern California and the rest of suburban America. They stand like lonely fortresses in a hostile territory ruled by motor vehicles. Even after parking my car I find that strip malls prove to be not much of a sanctuary for the pedestrian. Parking begins practically at the door to every establishment and it seems more practical to drive from one store to another within the mall. Statewide California spends $40 dollars per person annually on highway projects and only four cents per person on pedestrian projects. From what I see even this pittance for bicyclists and people on foot seems to have been ill-spent.
There are twenty or so shops in this mall along with the ubiquitous MacDonalds, and two slightly more formal restaurants. I walk into a not-very-inviting looking Mexican restaurant to use the phone. It has a small outdoor patio that looks on to (what else?) the parking lot. Not much of a place to relax and enjoy the company of friends. It seems more like a gas station—simply a place to exchange money for something you need and then get back into your car.

I pull up in front of the home of my friend. It’s a couple of miles from the nearest commercial building so walking anywhere is completely out of the question. His suburban house is many things my urban apartment isn’t: spacious to the point of agoraphobia-inducing, quiet, and private. Even walking around in the nearly one quarter acre back yard you won’t see another person. For the first time since arriving at LAX nearly two hours ago I feel like I can relax. I won’t have to drive again today. The nightmare of traffic and sprawl is the price people here are willing to pay for the private home. This is their pot of gold at the end of the asphalt rainbow.

...to be continued

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