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Friday, January 10, 2003

With an Eye to the Future

The areas where most Americans live have invested too heavily in the culture of the automobile to be freed from the shackles of cars and driving without a painful period of withdrawal. Most of the man-made landscape of this country has been built to suit the needs of the automobile and not those of its citizens. The automobile is an expensive habit in both monetary terms and in public safety as over 40,000 people are killed each and every year in accidents. I find it terribly odd how we seem to dismiss traffic fatalities as the simple price of doing business.

Imagine if instead of paying for your car you were subsidizing an efficient public transport system--the Washington D.C. and Paris metro come to mind. The city of Seattle recently passed a referendum that will begin the construction of a monorail train that will run from the Ballard neighborhood, through downtown, and on to West Seattle. The price tag is around $1.4 billion and will be paid mainly through a tax on automobile license tags.

The new monorail isn’t the solution to all of this city’s transportation problems, but it is the first forward-thinking transit idea that has come before the citizens of this area. The Paris Metro wasn’t built all at once nor was D.C.’s subway system. Things of this scale must be done in increments. The important thing is to begin building mass transportation as soon as possible instead of the alternative, dead-end solution of building more highways.

The monorail won in the referendum by a few measly votes. I really couldn’t see how anyone could have voted against it even though it will cost each Seattle car owner a couple hundred bucks and the new service won’t service much of the city. It is this sort of investment in the future that the right-wing, anti-government types refuse to support. Seattle was standing at a fork in the road. The city could take the example of Los Angeles and build an unlivable metropolis dominated by the automobile or it could lean more towards our more progressive neighbor to the south--Portland. I am happy to say that Seattle is fairly progressive and chose to side with Portland.

Most American cities won’t even get the chance to vote on whether or not they wish to continue with the insanity of the car culture or move on to more humane forms of transit. Most American cities aren’t really cities to begin with but simply an endless chain of strip malls. The great cities of the world are pedestrian centers, not places to drive cars. As far as I’m concerned, the only cars that belong in a city are taxis.

I realize that I must sound like a broken record (Now that’s an expression that is so old and outdated it has liver spots) on this subject of automobiles but I seem to be one of the few voices of criticism of the car culture. The whole “You are what you drive” mentality is, to me, about the saddest, most pathetic statement of our culture. Luckily, I happen to live in a place where that mentality doesn’t exist. Many of my friends don’t even own cars. Many others--like me--drive so infrequently that I couldn’t even tell you what kind of car they have. I am better known for the bikes I ride than for the car I keep parked for weeks on end somewhere on the street in front of my building. That's the way the world should be.

FROM THE COMMENTS: I must note that I have been working in DC for a month and have fallen in love with its Metro. Philly's smelly and inadequate SEPTA service, while, yes, delivering citizens from point A to B, looks shameful next to DC's solution to mass transit. Plus, SEPTA costs more to use than the DC Metro! I have ridden on nearly all of the world's major mass transit systems--Tokyo excepted--and I find the DC Metro to be a splendid example of what American cities could accomplish.

And yet, sadly, outer and inner DC is also crippled by its automobile traffic. How funny and yet so tragic that even our nation's capital can't get it right. Urban planning in major US cities must begin now to plan for mass transit systems that may not get fully in place until the 22nd Century.

--Mat homepage


The only thing about the DC Metro is that it's almost entirely useless for anyone other than tourists. Commuters want speed, convenience, and efficiency; they want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and cheaply as possible. The DC Metro -- pretty (not to mention squeaky-clean) as it is -- accomplishes none of this.

As far as I could tell when I lived there, very few DC-area workers even use the metro to get to and from work. Almost everyone I knew at the time drove their cars from place to place, as it was the quickest and easiest solution. Instead of being flat-rated, the DC metro charges different prices per ride-length, which is complete shite compared to places like NY, where you can take the subway from Yankee Stadium to Coney Island for $1.50.

Not to mention the fact that the DC Metro shuts down at midnight, so when you're in Georgetown (which, mind you, doesn't even HAVE its own metro-stop because the high-fallutin' ritzy snoot residents keep voting against one), and the clock strikes quarter-of, you have 15 minutes to get your Cinderella arse several long blocks East to the Foggy-Bottom stop before your coach turns back into a pumpkin. Unless you can afford the $30+ to cab it home. Which would defeat the purpose.

San Francisco's BART system is comparable. Only it's a hell of a lot more entertaining, since (at certain stops) ticketing is based loosely on the honor system -- such that you can board the train, under the assumption you've purchased a ticket outside. There are no turnstiles or card-readers. If you wing it, you risk getting fined by one of the transit cops who very infrequently patrol the cars. Otherwise, it's basically a free-for-all. But then again, this is San Francisco we're talking about, so we shouldn't be surprised.

Maybe I'm biased, but with all its quirks and minor tragic flaws, I still say the NYC Transit System is #1, hands-down. Just because the majority of commuters -- whether mailroom clerk or CEO -- actually MAKE USE of it.


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