Gridlock and Gas Wars:
Reality sets in on the auto's centennial


The 100th birthday bash for the automobile had its moments. Some were myopic, some simply surreal. Motown celebrated the centennial last year with a gala in Detroit, and Michigan raised its speed limit in honor of the event. Atlanta offered a car parade, as if to herald the traffic jams of its Olympics. And the chrome on the trim flashed at auto shows on the eve of an oil war in the Middle East.

A year later and it is clear: the centennial fever was something less than contagious. At no time in the century since the Duryea Brothers rolled thirteen "motor wagons" onto the streets of Springfield, Mass., could a fete have fallen flatter. Across the American motorscape, the spark plugs are dirty, the tires are flat and the "mechanical pet," as Life put it in its special anniversary promotion, has enslaved its master.

"We sure don't make 'em like we used to," a Plymouth advertisement boasts. How right they are. And we know it. Today, our world revolves around the $20,000 car. We are in servitude to the almost 15 million motor vehicles a month we buy, and the almost 200 million we own. Doubling the miles we travel in the last quarter century and driving 10,000 to 12,000 miles apiece a year, we have congested our lives and landscape. From the jammed tunnel under the Continental Divide to the Cross Bronx Expressway, movement is stymied on the nation's corridors. We spend eight billion hours a year stuck in traffic.

A generation or so ago, in the complacent '50s, the American Graffiti powerhouses rested between the hours of the commute. At midday, roads emptied out. After darkness, too, there was respite as the steel chargers of the post-war boom, all those fin-tailed Buicks, those fang-grilled Chevies and Fords, corralled for the night in the nation's ranch houses.

In 1997, though, motorists drive four times the 50 million vehicles of that era and make far more dispersed trips. From dawn to dusk to dawn, highway congestion holds us in sealed chambers of isolation as commuters put in an average of ten forty-hour weeks each year. We have traded time behind the wheel for space in the exurbs. And so workbound Americans travel to ever-more sprawling homes.

The impact of congestion may be the least of it, however. Ask a driver why he or she buys a car and commuting to work or traveling to vacation spots is the response. Yet, the statistics tell another story. In fact, the numbers show that we travel a scant 22 percent of our vehicle miles heading to work. Vacation travel, the other rationale, accounts for merely 8 percent of the journeys recorded on the odometer.

For the most part, our restless chariots are performing more mundane chores. The road to an asphalt nation is paved in innumerable mini-trips impossible without 2000-plus pounds of steel. Chauffeuring and consuming -- driving junior to sports or buying a half gallon of milk -- comprise almost two-thirds of our vehicle miles, and hence our lives and days.

We do so not from choice nor from that vaunted freedom of the road. We do so because we have subsidized the car and highway, drained every other way of movement, and altered settlement patterns and land use in obeisance to the automobile.

No wonder half the nation's households own two or three cars. They have to. We are compelled to drive and hence pollute our environment, aid global warming, siphon oil into our waters (and spend 100 billion dollars, almost half our military budget, defending the Middle East) because we have -- or think we have -- no alternative.

Car-bonding? Hardly. We are car-bound by auto-dependency. "Love affair?" With shop and drop? Unlikely. Auto-dependence arises because subsidies to the automobile, to the highway, and to the single-family home and infrastructure at the end of the road deny us other options: "freedom of the road" has become a fantasy.

The car culture has changed the way we live as well as travel. It has eradicated walkable sidewalks and undermined bicyclable streets. It has eroded viable mass transit. The government pays seven times as much to private as to public transportation. And thus the architecture of the exit ramp decimates our surroundings, paving cities for parking lots, infiltrating suburbs with concrete-wrapped malls and sprawl-marts, and despoiling two million acres of arable farm land a year.

The well-known poisonous potpourri discharged in the air from the tailpipe and into our waterways from the gas tank are only a small part of the damage. "Road kill" occurs on many levels. Every day 120 lives are wasted by car fatalities while chronic assaults on health and habitat accelerate as car-fed global warming heats up the planet.

Instead of lighting candles, anti-auto crusaders spent last year calculating the true costs of these policies and practices. This year they are fighting to re-authorize the federal transportation legislation (ISTEA -- Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) that allows us to transfer half our road-based funds to more balanced means of mobility and economy.

More and more Americans are making a new calculation. Many begin to consider the $6,000 a year in personal costs, out of pocket, to buy, maintain, insure and regulate the car. Then they add the indirect or external sum of $3,000 to $5000 or more (twice as much more, say some environmentalists) to pay for less visible social and economic exactions ranging from parking facilities, to planetary damage, to uncompensated accidents. Add the land opportunities lost by hardtopping 30 or 40 percent of our cities and providing new infrastructure moneys to developers of car-driven sprawl.

If the sticker shock of the car and ongoing costs are high, the $93 billion dollars in federal, state and local funds for highways each year is equally so. The nation's road infrastructure is frayed and faltering. Tinkering with the existing systems, widening and extending roads, carries a price tag of $6.6 billion. Meanwhile, new roads grow ever pricier. Los Angeles' Century Freeway came in at $2.2 billion mid-90s. Boston's $10 billion Central Artery, supposedly the last lap of the 42,500-mile interstate system, will reach who knows what figure? And the hits just keep on coming.

From South Pasadena's infamous 710 freeway to mid-America's quintessential road through nowhere, highways for every hill and hamlet, suburb and city, come off the drawing boards. Since the Lincoln Highway stretched across the nation in the 1930s, the fact that "if you build it they will come" -- that more traffic follows more highways -- has become a cliché. Notwithstanding, new ruses subvert our awareness. Such palliatives as the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane used as a bait-and-switch tactic for highway widening, or the so-called Intelligent Transportation Systems, win dollars and delay real thought or alternatives.

Meanwhile, public transportation takes its knocks. Shockingly, Amtrak's federal budget was halved from $400 million to $200 million last year and train service cut shamefully when it should expand. Even now, auto lobbies are agitating to roll back the highway legislation (ISTEA) that has given states permission to use half of their federal transportation dollars in a non-motorized manner and insisted on community planning.

And, yet, for all the old freespending habits, physically, emotionally and geographically, the free ride's cost is becoming clear. Even Life magazine's booster issue charted the clamors of the anti-car crusaders. The grassroots constituency grows as environmentalists, land use planners, pedestrian groups, bicycle activists, city-lovers and public transportation advocates make a legion of road warriors.

Trains, revived from their nadir in the 1970s, survive and some have spruced-up their stations. Rail ridership in the Pacific Northwest has taken off; Florida has plans for the first intercity passenger rail in a century to connect Miami and Orlando. New Denver and Dallas streetcars run along the streets. Construction on the Northwest corridor between Seattle and Portland, Ore., moves along. Advocates struggle to provide money in the federal transportation bill for intercity rail, from, say, Dallas to Austin to Houston.

It's thin porridge compared to times past, but consider the overlooked potential: One third of the passenger flights in the nation, some 113 million people, according to the Department of Transportation, travel less than 500 miles to their destination Passenger rail could easily cover those miles, not only benefiting from the former flyers but replacing drivers and freight trucks and adding commuter rail stations along the way. With subsidized airlines struggling to open new airports and congest the sky, this rail could improve the quality of our lives at many levels.

Romance of the road? What about romance of the trolley? A virtual chorus of Meet Me in St. Louis seems to echo as new streetcar riders spread from Sacramento to St. Louis to Cleveland. For all the sham of privatization, the search for a balanced transportation system grows. Trolley lines stretch out. Ferries and water shuttles expand service. Communities consider the para-transit -- vans to move the young and the elderly. More planners protest leapfrog development that fosters car dependency by creating greater sprawl. More communities promote density and strive to revive compact: cores. They recognize the need to enrich the center, the urban or suburban core from downtown to Main Street that makes walking and transit workable.

Greenways and trails for bicyclists and walking, for amenity and mobility, have proliferated, aided by ISTEA's enhancement funds. Cross-continental and intra-city trails pencilled on new maps could create a walker's Lincoln Highway, on the large scale. "Traffic calming," curbing the car by narrowing and greening urban and suburban streets, has spread on the small. Communities fight the 16 new beltways that would breed more of the same traffic and sprawl from Corridor H Alternatives in West Virginia to CARR, Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, to prevent a road-to-nowhere widening in the Midwest. Pedestrian and bicycling groups grow. Washington, D.C.'s, Surface Transportation Policy Project allies groups from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to Greenpeace and Chicago's Neighborhood Works to crusade against the car and for a federal transportation bill renewal and improvement this fall.

Though we too often ignore the price our car culture exacts and domestic debate continues on the size of the gas tax, the constituency for that grows: If priced truly, oil would, in fact, cost $6 a gallon. Compare the pennies we pay to fill our tanks to Europe or Japan's $4 or $5 a gallon which supports their more balanced transportation systems and you understand why we devote almost twice as much of our gross domestic product to transportation as other industrial nations. Arguments thus grow to make the car pay its way. Advocates offer an ever longer list of fair value fees -- from congestion pricing to a tax per mile to a carbon or gas guzzler tax -- to make the car pay its way and help right the balance tilted to the car culture.

The path to true mobility is to run the reel in reverse, to undo our auto-dependency. The revolution to a world of human mobility without four wheels, may sound arduous or even fanciful, but it is not impossible by any means. Vast changes have occurred: women in the workforce, recycling in the home. We have instituted environmental and preservation laws, sent smokers out of doors, and taken the National Rifle Association from the pedestal that once made it the equivalent of the Boy Scouts in hunting.

If the spurious celebration for the wonder days of driving did nothing else, it helped inspire a look at the waning benefits of our late motor age. More and more harassed Americans have begun to honk their horns for footpower not horsepower, for balanced human mobility, not motorized immobility. May their tribe increase.

Jane Holtz Kay of Boston, Mass., is architecture and planning critic of The Nation and author of the recently published Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (Crown), from which portions of this are drawn. To order the book, see our book page.

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