The War on Cars

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 6 1998 3:30 AM

The War on Cars


       I don't advocate or foresee the abolition of cars. What is at issue is our utter dependence on them and their tendency to grievously degrade our human ecology. Your opinion seems to be that the "privacy, convenience, mobility, and carrying capacity" afforded by cars is so tremendous that they eclipse all other considerations. I see a number of problems with this view.
       One is that mobility as an end in itself is meaningless without destinations worth going to and places worth being in. This is manifestly the situation in the United States. The evidence is plain to anyone who looks out on the ubiquitous panorama of eight-lane highways, strip malls, parking lagoons, fry pits, muffler shops, jive-plastic garden apartments, housing subdivisions, office "parks," and all the other familiar furnishings of the National Automobile Slum. Are there any sane Americans who fail to recognize the demoralizing consequences of such a degrading human ecology?
       Privacy is a legitimate claim, but human beings are social creatures, too--and our current arrangement has eliminated the public amenity necessary to sustain civic life. What a car-dependent lifestyle has given us is private luxury and public squalor. The supermarket parking lots of Beverly Hills are not appreciably less depressing than the parking lots of Camden, N.J. Without the armature of civic life and high standards of public amenity, private life dissolves into paranoia, political grievance, and crime.
       Convenience as a social virtue was nicely summed up by historian Kenneth Clark, who observed that Americans don't know the difference between civilization and comfort.
       You must simply be misinformed about the vaunted "carrying capacity" of our car and freeway systems. Any Traffic 101 student knows that rail outcarries cars by a rate of 40,000 to 2,500 per hour per lane. Evidence of this can be understood by the unfortunate users of New York's Kennedy Airport.
       The current situation in our cities is much, much worse than you assert. Parts of central Detroit are reverting to wildflower meadows. Minneapolis, Des Moines, Omaha, Memphis, Louisville, Dayton, Hartford, Baltimore, and scores of other major American cities are virtually dead at their centers. The supposed "choice" Americans enjoy of life "on the outskirts" must be viewed as a historical abnormality, not as a permanent condition. Suburbia has no future. Economic, political, demographic, and ecological forces are underway that will require us to live differently.

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