Monday, January 31, 2011

Freedom to Move

Every weekday morning around 9 Pacific Time, the day's transportation headlines from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Metro Library and Archive show up in my inbox. Over the past couple of months, ever since the midterm elections in the United States ended the Democratic Party's dominance in Congress, I've been seeing more and more stories about transit initiatives encountering heavier and heavier resistance in government committees that are now dominated, or led by, Republican Party lawmakers. Witness the case of planned intercity rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly-elected Republican governors moved to cancel these programs.

Highways aren't getting the same rap - something that, to completely honest, comes as absolutely no surprise considering the strength of the Republicans' grip on the wheel. The open road has always carried connotations of freedom, the idea that people can just pack up their car and go where they want, when they want, how they want. While the truth is significantly more complicated, the simple meme of "roads mean freedom" is deeply entrenched in the United States' cognitive ecology.

The real barometer of freedom is choice. The infrastructural decisions of the past several decades, decisions which not only continue to echo but are echoed today, prioritized the development of highway networks over railway and urban transit expansion in both the United States and Canada. But we can't just blithely assume that what has held true for the past few decades will likewise continue uninterrupted into the future. We can't assume that people will always be able to pack up their car and go where they want, when they want, how they want. What if, for starters, they can't afford the gas?

A population's movements can be controlled by means far subtler than the internal passports demanded by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and which are still used in Russia today. We've already spent decades engineering our society around the idea of automotive mobility - it wouldn't take much now to use that dependence against us.

A China Eastern Airlines A340-600 taxis toward the runway at Vancouver International Airport

Imagine a future where the railways pull nothing but freight between cities... a future where oil shocks have come and gone, and the price of gas has reached such heights that the kind of intercity driving common today simply isn't economical anymore, or a future where the highways have been made limited-access only. It wouldn't be too hard to justify in the wake of, say, a national emergency. Sure, you could still go point-to-point by air; but air travel is the easiest method of transit for governments to control. I would not be surprised - but it would disturb me greatly - to live to see a future where air travel is far more regimented and controlled than it is now, where very few people fly anywhere other than government-approved sun destinations because the pre-ticketing background checks are just too much of a hassle. If you can't afford to drive, you can't get on a plane, and there aren't any trains you can take from one city to another - then how free are you, really?

There always need to be options in how people can get from point A to point B. In business, that competition is necessary to prevent consumer gouging. In government, it's just as necessary - to head off one potential mode of oppression and control.

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