Sunday, January 10, 2010

The False Luxuriousness of Necessity

Now that we're a decade removed from the 20th century, it's easier to look back and evaluate it as a whole. It was a century of such tumult that by the time its echoes start to fade away, it won't be long before the 22nd century dawns. It was a time when old ways were upended and societies were rewritten, and technology played an integral role in that. The way I see it, the automobile is probably the single most influential technological shaper of the 20th century - but we can't let it define the 21st century in the same way.

Looking north along La Cienega Boulevard at Beverly - Los Angeles, California

Before the age of the automobile, cities were densely-packed because they had to be - horse-drawn or, later, electric streetcars were the only affordable means of mass transit - but the development of streetcar suburbs like my own neighborhood of Parkdale, followed by the arrival and the general accessibility of the automobile, allowed cities to fling themselves out over the landscape. While Los Angeles County is a concrete ramble today, seventy years ago there were still wide parcels of undeveloped land there.

It's easy to understand why the automobile was so popular - it imparts an idea of freedom, of being unchained. Without automobiles, the suburban explosion of the late 1940s and 1950s would not have happened in a form resembling the one we know. While the early pattern of streetcar suburbs consisted of bands of residential development fanning out from streetcar lines, the automobile imposed no such order on the landscape. Behind the wheel of an automobile a person could go anywhere, and the new suburbs were built accordingly.

Thus, in the second decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves living in a world where many of the basic operating principles seem to have been set down in the care-free, car-filled 1950s, springing from a view of the future that held automobiles as a general good, and saw no negative consequences that the twin fists of Technology and SCIENCE! couldn't overcome. Maybe they'd have been right, environmentally speaking, if we'd transitioned from internal combustion to electric power much, much sooner. But environmental issues aren't the only ones created by the enshrinement of the automobile.

The problem, I think, is this - so much of our social infrastructure has been designed around the concept of the automobile that in many, many places owning one is no longer a luxury and has become a necessity. As far as I'm concerned, this is totally the wrong way to do it. I've never seen the "freedom" of the automobile as quite living up to its propaganda, and I don't like the idea of being obligated to own an automobile because people sixty years ago thought that cars were a cultural ideal. Fortunately, since I live in a major city with a large and functional transit system - definitely a rarity in North America - I don't have to own one, and it's that lack to which I credit my current middle-class lifestyle.

In the suburbs themselves, though? Forget it. Since they're built so extensively around the assumption that every person, or at least every family, has a car, the car-less are left out in the cold - worsened by the limited nature of public transit in suburban communities, as the density is too low to sustain frequent, reliable service. While I lived in Barrie, if I wanted to strike out on my own my only option was Barrie Transit - a system then built on a handful of routes with buses passing the stops every thirty minutes, so long as they stuck to the schedule, which wasn't necessarily so. During my time at university I relied on Peterborough Transit to get around, which was frequently an interesting proposition in itself - at that time, Peterborough Transit buses didn't depart the downtown bus depot until all the routes had arrived, and so the posted schedule and actual arrival and departure times gradually but surely parted ways as time went by.

Automobiles aren't entirely to blame for this, but they do play a significant role. As people shifted from public transit to private automobiles, the transit agencies' ridership and revenue decreased. The abandonment of streetcars in favor of buses in all but a handful of North American cities only hastened this. Steve Munro recently posted a 1952 report to the Toronto Transit Commission which acknowledged that streetcar abandonment policies in larger North American cities had, even by then, seen "results which... leaves open to serious question the wisdom of the decisions made."

To avoid an automobile being a necessity in a modern city, a strong public transportation system is absolutely vital. That's my concept of freedom, to be able to go around my city as I choose, and not be forced behind a wheel because of decisions that were made decades ago. The most important freedom is choice, and it's that lack of freedom of choice in transportation that will, I think, tarnish the suburban luster in the 21st century.

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