28 November 2011

It's Not a War, it's a "Global Struggle"

The opening salvo has been fired, and the much-anticipated "War on Cars" has finally made its way to the Windy City, via an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by one John McCarron, adjunct professor of urban studies at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. It's the sort of screed we've come to expect, full of outdated stereotypes, faulty logic and straight-up misinformation.

Let's begin with the elephant in the room. From 2001-2009, 369,629 people died on America's roads, an average of over 41,000 per year. To put that in perspective, that is just above 0.1 per cent of the national population, equivalent to a city the size of Minneapolis being wiped out, or nearly 125 9/11 attacks. I really think it's time the streets-are-for-cars-so-everybody-else-can-get-out-of-my-way-or-go-fuck-themselves crowd drops the "war on cars" rhetoric. Unless, of course, they're willing to confront the crimes against humanity waged in their name over the past couple of generations. Nearly everybody has lost somebody near and dear to them in an automobile crash, yet somehow we accept these losses as the cost of simply moving around. Per capita casualty rates are significantly lower in every other industrialized nation, so why does it need to be this way?

To answer this, we must look at how we've built our cities over the past fifty years. It's no secret that trillions in federal funding has gone to subsidize freeway-centric development. We've paved over some of the most productive farmland in the world so that people could feel like gentleman farmers of yore, tending their quarter-acre lawns. It always takes time for latent costs to become apparent, in this case a confluence of factors including the housing market collapse, rising crude oil prices, crumbling infrastructure, political gridlock and a rash of other reasons have created a perfect storm of generational discontent.

He's right about one thing, all the bike lanes in the world are pointless for the elderly or infirm. But then again, so is auto-centric development. When my 95-year-old grandmother's eyesight got too poor for her to drive safely, she had to leave her small-town home of nearly four decades to move in with my parents. Not that she necessarily wanted to, but the nearest grocery store was twenty miles away, and the prospect of being a shut-in unable to walk to even the most basic of amenities can be a powerful motivator. This speaks more to a history of misplaced priorities than anything. You're expected to drive, drive, drive, everywhere you go, until you get too old and start running people over, then we don't care about you anymore. May as well check yourself into a hospice and welcome the enveloping darkness.

I'll grant McCarron one more point. He would look silly in "cyclist couture", then again most people do. But to presume that you need to be Spandexed-out to ride a bicycle is patently absurd, and proof that he is clueless about what is fueling this cultural shift. Anybody dressed in such a fashion who is not involved in an organized race, is, in my estimation, a dweeb, and I enjoy snickering and sneering at them every time they whip past me and my heavy steel-frame commuter. I'm in no mad rush, you see. Even at my slower pace I can make the trip downtown in roughly the same amount of time it would take to drive, fight off traffic and search for parking. Furthermore, I certainly get no ego boost from cycling. If anything, my id feels threatened every time a driver passes too close or speeds by.

It's time we recognize that maybe cars just aren't all that good for us. Something happens to us when we get behind the wheel, where even the most good-natured among us turn into assholes. We suffer from a national addiction deadlier than all illegal drugs combined. I readily admit that cars are useful tools, but heroin can also be a useful sedative. Our reptilian brains progressed through all of evolutionary history going only as fast as our two feet could take us. Then somebody domesticated the horse, and we maxed out for another 4000 years or so. We've had the use of cars, and the speed and power they represent, for about 100 years, "forever" in our short-attention-span culture, but hardly a blip in the Grand Scheme of Things. Will cars even still exist in another century? What am I, Kreskin? In some form I'm sure they will, but I doubt we would recognize them as such. Will every single person drive around by themselves all the time? Most assuredly not. People are changing their habits, and society is being forced to come along. This is hardly limited to Chicago, to the United States, or even to the developed world. As a species, we are finally realizing that moving people is more important than moving cars. And if you don't like it, move to Houston.