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||| Car culture and the landscape of subtraction |||
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The hit foreign film of the late 1980's, Cinema Paradiso, provides a marvelous metaphor for our current international predicament. The movie wonderfully demonstrates how our collective obsession with automobiles has savaged our cities and diminished our sense of place and community. The central character within the movie is the "Paradiso" cinema, located on a generous piazza in a small town in Sicily. The movie house, along with the church, provide, not only the dominant architectural features of the piazza, but also provide the heart and soul, respectively, of the community. The piazza of 1954 existed as the hierarchical gathering space for the town, with its open market, cultural festivals, and even an outdoor movie screening space. In the movie, people continually traverse the space by foot, bicycle, and horse-drawn cart. Upon the protagonists return to the town in the 1980's, the once glorious urban space had been usurped by modern progress. Pedestrians are scarce as cars speed across the piazza dodging the multitude of parked vehicles. The former projectionist, turned famous movie director, appears devastated to see the "Paradiso" condemned for demolition, only to be replaced with a parking lot. In the final scene, we see the theater blasted to smithereens in the background, the weeping nostalgic crowds in the middle ground, and, in the foreground, the rooftops of Fiats and Volkswagons.
Although the film ostensibly presents a general critique of modern industrial society, in the forefront is the burgeoning obsession with the machina. The Sicilian town's identity and sense of community was lost with the compromise of the piazza.. Crucial public space had been handed over, free of charge, to the priviledged few who could afford an automobile. Unfortunately, this is the typical state of affairs in America's cities. This (de)evolution in transportation was not a natural progression. The rise of the automobile's popularity was greatly encouraged by obstinate politicians and profit-motivated corporations. Additionally, the complicity of modernist urban planners and architects, dehumanized traffic engineers, and demagogue developers cannot be ignored. Their collective post-war creation has left us with a mountain of debt, a sprawling suburban ooze, polluted and crumbling inner cities, and a landscape devoid of farmland and forests. All in all, ours is the landscape of subtraction. Cars have contributed nothing to our urban condition, our communities, and our environment. They have only taken away. What started out as a promise for a better life based on unlimited mobility, has become a modern day obsession, as solitary commuters idle in endless traffic jams wondering where all of the cars came from.
Indoctrinating the compromise of public space
Owning and driving an automobile has become a prerequisite for conformity in our popular culture. To not drive in America is seen as aberrant behavior. Using mass transit is for people too poor to own an automobile, or for big city dwellers who deem the auto commute inefficient. Riding a bicycle is seen as either a recreational act, or only as a method for children and pre-teens to get around. Walking on a country road or a suburban strip, where seldom doth a sidewalk appear, immediately elicits suspicion. Surely only a lunatic or a criminal would do such a thing. In the land of apple pie, every "normal" citizen gets around by car. After World War II, buying a suburban bungalow was even considered a patriotic act. William Levitt, the Long Island developer for whom Levittown was named said, "The suburban homeowner could never be a communist . . . He has too much to do!" The aphorisms, "no one messes with a man's set of wheels", or "what's good for GM is good for America" has incredible power in our culture.
The indoctrination into our auto-dominated culture begins at very early age. Children play with toy cars and trucks. They build miniature suburbs with Tonka trucks and cranes. Every Barbie doll or G.I. Joe figurine needs the accompanying vehicle to be a complete set. Many children's toy vehicles are ornamented to appear like cars, even though mechanically, they are similar to bicycles. Many young boys build miniature race tracks of plastic, emulating the stock-car racers seen on T.V. By the time these children become teenagers, they will have their sights set on that 16th birthday with the driver's license soon to follow. Who can blame them? With many living in suburbs spread so thinly, bicycle trips become impractical, and mass transit is non-existent. Those priviledged enough, will receive a car from their parents as a gift. Most others though, will need to work to support their new, used cars. Surely, some will argue that they need a car to get to work... so that they can have money in order to maintain their cars... so that they can get to work...etc.
From there, one's adult life becomes a constant barrage of images to reinforce the "normalcy" of car ownership and use. Psychological reinforcement comes heavily from our media sources. One third of all T.V. advertisements are for automobiles and a great deal of newspaper space, including the weekly "automotive section", is appropriated to present images, statistics, and commentary based on cars. This prohibits a reasonable debate on our collective auto obsession, since the media's finances are so tied in with the auto industry. The government, too, is saturated with lobbyists representing the interests of the auto, oil, tire, and road construction industries, thus prohibiting major promulgation of alternative transportation funding. Subtle apparitions also occur in other ways, e.g. the glorification of winning a "new car" as the top prize in a T.V. game show or at the New York Marathon, auto company sponsorship of bicycle races, etc.
While the media continue to glorify accidents involving airplanes, trains, subways or buses, over 40,000 people a year - a Vietnam War total -die in car accidents. 1 According to the U.S. National Safety Council, the death rate per mile travelled in a car is 18 times greater than in a train and 97 times greater than in a bus. 2 This does not include pedestrians; in New York City alone, 283 pedestrians were killed and 15,600 were injured by motorists in 1993. 3 Within the developing world's chaotic mix of motorized and non-motorized vehicles, the driver and pedestrian fatality rate is close to 20 times greater than in the United States. 4 Car use also adversely affects human health by promoting a more sedentary lifestyle than, say, someone who gets around by bicycle. The ethos of the car oriented suburbs, says the social critic Lewis Mumford, "creates an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before the television set." Urban commuters who drive to and from work increase their levels of stress and hypertension, as they long to escape traffic and arrive at work or at home. Being stuck in traffic will subsequently affect worker's morale and productivity, and, along with delayed delivery of goods, costs the American economy $100 billion a year, according to the General Accounting Office. 5
The subsidizing of the American motorist
The promotion of car culture is clearly evident in the massive subsidies bestowed upon motorists to enable them to drive almost anywhere as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The true costs of driving an automobile are obfuscated, for their disclosure would certainly reduce auto use and make alternative means more attractive. This would not be compatible with the interests of the oil, car, road construction, or development industries, all of whom contribute heavily to politicians on the local and national levels.
Ample cheap and free parking is a significant way in which motorists are subsidized. Real estate values in urban areas are costly, yet motorist are allowed to use up to 100 square feet of public space for the storage of their vehicles. What reserves the side of the street to be used for the sole purpose of parking cars? Could one use the space for storage instead? To put a trampoline, maybe? Could one open up a futon in a parking space and sleep overnight? What privileges car owners to eat up such valuable urban space, when others pay hundreds of dollars for apartments hardly bigger than a parking space?
The allotment of public space is just one of the many ways in which motorists are heavily subsidized in our country. Charlie Komanoff, an energy consultant in New York, calculates a total subsidy of $700 billion per year, averaging out to about $5.50 per gallon, through the federal and state government levels. He estimates that this is roughly equivalent to what the individual motorist pays for upkeep, fuel, insurance, taxes, etc. Therefore, he reasons, driving in the U.S. is done at half price. The other half is provided for by the taxpayer. This puts those who do not drive: the elderly, poor people, or those who choose not to, at a severe financial disadvantage.
According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, taxes from gas, new car purchases, and registration, cover only 2/3 of the costs of building and maintaining highways and roads. 6 The remaining costs arrive via the general tax fund. To cover the myriad of costs associated with driving, gas would have to be between $3-$4 per gallon. 7 This is closer to the rate found in European countries, where gas tax is 5x greater than in the U.S. (Additionally, taxes on new car purchases overseas are close to 50% of the cost, where here, the rate is 5-10% of the total cost of the new car.) Considering the uproar over President Clinton's 1993 request for a 10 cent increase in gas taxes, it is easy to see why hidden subsidies need to replace a system of direct taxation.
The primary cost of a car dependant transportation system is the construction and maintenance of highways, roads, and bridges, to the tune of $200 million a day. 8 However, there are many other ways in which motorists are getting a "free ride". A significant portion of our security forces are utilized in automobile related issues: accidents, thefts, traffic control, and parking enforcement. These police officers could be much better utilized going after true criminals, rather than waving rush-hour traffic along, or investigating a minor traffic accident. Many of these accidents expound yet another burden on the taxpayer by disabling expensive pieces of public infrastructure. Destroyed fire hydrants, light poles, mailboxes, street signs, guardrails, planters, etc. become financial burdens that would be mitigated in a society less reliant on automobiles for transportation. Besides municipal police, State Police units are an enormous public expense, and apprehending highway speeders seems to be their raison d'etre.
Additionally, a large portion of health care costs are related to car accidents. Oil and car companies get large public subsidies, ranging from tax breaks to oil exploration permits on public lands. Employers are allowed to deduct from their taxes the expense of providing parking for their workers, and receive tax benefits for providing company cars. They are more strictly limited when it comes to tax incentives for mass transit or bicycle use. 9 The environmental damage due to car use: dirty air, dirty water, deforestation, etc., is impossible to calculate, but certainly not insignificant.
Perhaps the most expensive endowment of all, lies within the tangled fabric of our foreign policy. Every year, we spend billions of dollars to protect our oil tankers travelling through the Persian Gulf, as well troops for foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia. We even went to war to preserve our "right" to drive wherever, and whenever, we saw fit. This prompted Senator Bob Dole to say: "We are there for 3 letters: O-I-L. That is why we are in the Gulf. We are not there to save democracy. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, and neither is Kuwait." Meanwhile, if we had continued conserving oil after 1985 at the same rate as before, we would have eliminated the need for any oil from the gulf. 10 The industrialized world's thirst for oil has allowed it to become pawns in international politics by their intense reliance on petroleum. This dependence plays right into the hands of dictators like Saddam Hussein, who know exactly how to provoke our enmity.
The great suburban build out
Government and corporate encouragement of car use, and suburban sprawl as a support structure for our fallacious economic "growth" is nothing new. It began in earnest in 1936 with the creation of the National City Lines Company, a corporate front group representing General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and Mack Trucks. For the next 15 years, this powerful company bought out 45 street car and trolley systems throughout the country. By the 1950's, all 45 transit systems were completely dismantled, opening the way for private car use and increased bus service, a demand that GM was all too happy to supply. This was the sad fate of public transportation in Los Angeles, a system nearly as extensive as New York's. Eventually, National City Lines was found guilty of criminal antitrust violations, but the verdict was moot, for the great suburban build out was in full throttle.
Meanwhile, in the 1930's, Roosevelt's Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created to put the post-depression construction industry back on its feet, and to improve the housing stock for Americans. The FHA subsidized banks through the federal treasury, and therefore allowed for reduced downpayments, and extended mortgages. Unfortunately, the FHA did not guarantee new loans for those who wanted to build or renovate in the inner cities. Maybe this should come as no surprise considering that one its commissioners happened to be on the Board of Directors of the Standard Oil Company. After WWII, the government allowed the millions of returning G.I.'s to own homes without any necessary downpayment, and mortgage interests were made tax deductible. Thus ownership was made less expensive than renting, and with the planned system of new highways, white veterans flocked to the burgeoning suburbs.
As farmland and forests were being paved over with housing developments in the 1950's, the county and state road systems were becoming overburdened. Our economy demanded more growth, and the Federal Government began the largest public works project in our history, the Interstate Highway System. President Eisenhower began funding the highways after a hearty recommendation by his self appointed commission, chaired by Lucius D. Clay, on the Board of Directors of General Motors. 41,000 miles of new expressways spread over the country like a complex of veins and arteries. 11 Apologists for the vast new highway system insisted that they would quicken urban evacuation in the case of a Soviet nuclear attack, and, that they would provide enormous expanses of pavement and concrete to act as firebreaks, allowing sectors to remain unscathed.
Many companies had enormous profits to make through suburban expansion. The obvious beneficiaries were the oil and car companies, but many others which produced appliances, lawn mowers, lawn care products, etc. stood to cash in also. A major player was General Electric, who realized that every new home was certain to need a new washer and dryer, refrigerator, stove, blender, and other convenience items. GE knew that their fortunes lay within the increased unpopularity of urban apartment living. To encourage this, they sponsored many exhibitions and architectural competitions to glorify the modern suburban house. Famous architects normally won the competitions, bringing with them the legitimacy, and press coverage, of the single family suburban home.
While large sums of money funded the creation of highways and airports, rail improvements were all but forgotten. Sustainable, non-polluting alternatives have never been encouraged by our government except in emergency situations such as oil embargoes. The sprawling suburbs came to a crawl after the 1973 oil embargo, and subsequently President Carter sought alternative energy sources and decreased automobile reliance. After the election of Ronald Reagan, the oil cartel weakened, Iran and Iraq were soon to be engaged in a long and brutal war, and the oil market was flooded. With cheap gas, bank deregulation, and Reagan's tax policies, suburban development and car-use went back into high gear throughout the 1980's. During this time period, Federal funding for highways nearly doubled while the funding for mass transit was actually reduced by 10%. 12 In 1994, $20.3 billion was assigned to roads and highways while only $1 billion was allocated for rail improvements. 13
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1. "Mobilopathy", Ralph Slovenko, Journal of Psychiatric Law, Summer 1984.
2. "Accident Facts", National Safety Council, 1993.
3. New York City Dept. of Transportation Safety Division.
4. "Rethinking the role of the Automobile", Michael Renner, Worldwatch Report #84, 6/88.
5. "Smart Highways: An Assessment of their potential to Improve Travel", U. S. General Accounting Office, 1991.
6. "Highway Statistics", U.S. Federal Highway Administration, 1992.
7. "The Real Cost of Energy", Harold M. Hubbard, Scientific American, 4/91.
8. A.P.M. Newsletter, 8/93.
9. "Cars are Evil: Automobiles and the Environment", Stefanie Pollack, Conservation Law Foundation, 7/90.
10. Rocky Mt. Institute, Amory Lovins, at the First International Conference on Auto-Free Cities, New York, 1991.
11. The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler, 1993, p.106-107.
12. "Acting in the National Interest: the Transportation Agenda", the Surface Transportation Policy Project.
13. National Association of Railroad Passengers, 2/94.
At time of writing, Philip Goff was a graduate student in urban design at the Univ. of Oregon.
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