April-May '00

Alive & Well in U.S.

Notes from the Cultural Wasteland

The Lesser of
2 Evils

Rape Shield Laws

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Leggo My

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That may come as a shock to you. Americans, they say, have a love affair with their cars. You can see the evidence for that any time of the day or night. Just get on a busy thoroughfare and try to go somewhere; thousands of other "lovers" will compete with you for the open highway.

Interstate 4 bisects my community. The clogged artery takes commuters from one coast of Florida to the other, most of them headed from bedroom communities toward the center, where the jobs lie. According to Congressman John Mica's office, the highway safely carries 40,000 cars a day. Unfortunately, 80,000 cars a day travel the road, and that number increases by 10,000 cars every year. The city of Orlando prides itself on its plans to become a "world-class" community. While the rest of its culture strives to catch up, the city already has world-class traffic jams.

Perhaps you live in one of those fortunate communities that doesn't have a traffic problem. Chances are, however, that it will. Americans began steadily moving to urban areas after the second world war, and that trend has continued unabated. It will continue indefinitely, say the futurists. If you don't already spend a major portion of your life sitting in traffic, you probably will within a few years--unless, of course, your neighborhood is shrinking, losing population to nearby urban areas.

I started thinking about traffic a couple of months ago, after a traffic accident almost killed me. I was driving my little sporty red economy car down one of those major thoroughfares that carried more cars than it could safely handle. The road was under construction, being widened so it could handle more cars. An urban-assault vehicle--forgive me, I mean sports-utility vehicle--turned in front of me.

The next thing I knew, I was watching the driver of the SUV get out and walk around. I thought I should get out and talk to her, but when I tried, my door wouldn't open. I could hear someone moaning loudly, and I finally realized the noise was coming from inside my car. It came from me, that moaning. Then I realized my leg and back both hurt really badly and I couldn't breathe too well.

An hour later, an ER doctor wouldn't tell me for sure if I was going to live or not--he didn't want to "jinx" me. According to new-agey writers, you're supposed to return from a near-death experience having seen a beautiful white light at the end of a dark tunnel. You return with an understanding of the big meaning of life, and all that stuff. I came back thinking about traffic.

Most communities react to choked roads and traffic jams the way mine does--by building more roads and widening the existing ones. Since my accident, I've been down the road where I almost met my demise a few times. The construction is finished and traffic moves more smoothly now. There will probably be fewer accidents on that road, now. Maybe, for a few years until traffic increases to dangerous levels again, no one else will almost die there. Eventually, however, too many cars will again choke that road, and there will be more construction.

My community has tried for several years now to muster support for a rail system. Unfortunately, as communities grow and urban sprawl spreads, traffic and other urban problems begin to cross municipal boundaries. Big, expensive projects like mass rail transit don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting built unless urban planners and politicians--and their constituents--can manage to erase those boundaries and see themselves as part of a bigger community.

The inconvenience of sitting in a traffic jam gives one reason to rethink our transportation technology, but there are other, even better ones. Idling or moving ahead at top speed, our millions of cars sitting still release tons of pollutants into the air to whittle away at the ozone layer and steadily add to the greenhouse effect and its global warming. Meanwhile, they slowly but surely deplete the fuel on which they run.

If you drive, you are surely aware that gas prices are rising. When that happened in the 1970s, Americans fell out of love with their big muscle cars and luxury sedans, then turned their affections to Japanese and European economy cars. Gas prices eventually stabilized, however, and they started buying big cars again, like the one that damn near killed me. Now, in response to current conditions, Honda has introduced a gas-electric hybrid; the Sierra Club has actually given them an award for it. Toyota will soon follow. When electric cars first came out in the 70s, they were little more than glorified golf carts, but a spokesman for a central Florida Honda dealership says that this one is "a real automobile." He adds that sales are brisk, with many of the buyers trading in gas-guzzling SUV's and pick-ups.

This is an encouraging trend. However, it's not enough. No matter how fuel efficient and environmentally friendly individual transportation becomes, it's still going to be less efficient and friendly than mass transportation. Politicians and community leaders can eventually agree on terms for rail and other mass transportation, but they need our support. We have to set aside our ego-attachment to our cars in favor of the larger community we live in--and the one that our children will inherit.

Pollution and depleting fossil fuels aside, the best reason for the eventual demise of the automobile has to do with safety: humans aren't always capable of managing our technology. Think about it--you get into a powerful piece of machinery and move at high speeds over ground, sharing a thin strip of pavement with powerful machines driven by other people, some of whom you wouldn't feel safe walking alongside down the sidewalk. I think about that a lot when my own child talks to me about getting his driver's license.

We humans are quick-witted but slow-moving creatures. We are blessed among the animal kingdom with big brains, opposable thumbs, and the ability to walk upright while carrying tools. The trade-off, however, is physical fragility. Our maximum speed is around ten miles per hour, and even that puts a strain on our fragile skeleton. When our technology carries us faster than that, we begin to get injured.

If evolution had meant for us to go 70 mph, it would have made us look like cheetahs.

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