Why My Love Affair with the Automobile is Gone
For the past 100 years Americans have had a love affair with the automobile. We’ve paved over millions of acres of land, rebuilt our cities to accommodate it, and changed our lifestyle to focus on the convenience and independence of driving almost anywhere we wanted in the country quickly and faster than we could have in the railroad era. I recall projections of futuristic cars that also could fly and high-level walkways between buildings that would separate pedestrians from automobiles. The Segway is about as far as we’ve come.
But convenience has come at a high cost. In addition to the billions of dollars we’ve spent building highways, we kill more people with cars every year than we do in wars. That’s not counting the millions more who are maimed or are left isolated in poverty because they don’t have the money to buy or operate a car.
When I was 16, I was “car crazy.” I followed the announcements of the new models every fall, went to the Texas State Fair to see the automobile shows, and fantasized about becoming an automobile designer. Now almost 60 years later and after ownership of eleven used cars, I dread driving in the congested traffic of the Triangle, but I’m left with no other viable options. Bus service here isn’t viable for older people and currently is used only by the working poor. Van service is provided for those on public assistance in rural areas, but with a few exceptions in the Triangle you’ve got to be able at least to walk to a bus stop. I live right next door to a large regional shopping mall and up the hill from an extensive greenway system so I get to walk a lot. But if I want to go to Chapel Hill or Durham for a meeting, concert, or theater I have to get in my car and fight the traffic on I-40. If traffic is good, I can make it in 30 minutes or less. If traffic is bad, no one can even guess how long it might take. The state has put up TV cameras every few miles; has helicopters hovering over the roads, and TV and radio stations carry regular traffic reports just like they do for the weather. Of course, that doesn’t do much good when you’re stuck in a jam. Raleigh made the national news a few years ago when a sudden ice storm shut down the roads for a day.
The recent trend in urban planning has been to build “self-contained” communities with housing, retail, offices and green space all part of the overall design. We call them livable communities because of their higher density, but in fact they’re still dependent upon the automobile and consume millions more acres for parking lots or garages. We can walk within the communities, but the automobile is the only way to connect them.
I recently visited the 2-year old community of Mayfaire in Wilmington, NC that was plopped down in the middle of a pine barren between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Coast to “service” a metropolitan area the size of Rhode Island. Although it is between US Hwy 17 and the Military Cut-Off road, it was so new that my GPS had a hard time finding it, and it wasn’t on the printed map. It’s almost as big as the Brier Creek Community that was hung off I-540 between Raleigh and Durham a few years ago that has just kept growing until the collapse of the housing market. Of course, developers want to go where land is cheaper, and suburban sprawl has dominated our cities for the past 50 years.
No, the automobile isn’t going to go away, but our infatuation is fading. Witness the literal rise of condos in every major city as folks grew tired of their commute downtown to work and play. Retail businesses left the center city decades ago with the proliferation of regional malls with acres of parking and national store brands, but the re-emergence of downtowns have been built on entertainment, offices and housing. We’ve got a glut of unsold condos now as the market was overbuilt, but that’s the pattern of developers who are always a couple of years behind the curve.
So are we going to bring public transit to the Triangle? Well, Chapel Hill already has a functioning bus system, and Raleigh, Durham, and RTP are improving service, but those systems will only slightly alleviate crowding on the highways and roads. Commuter rail using standard trains operating on North Carolina State Railroad tracks only for morning and evening commutes seems like a viable option within the next decade. But light rail or heavy rail commuter service similar to other major cities seems unlikely to become operational for at least another 20 years. Without considering the billions of dollars that such a system would cost, the bureaucratic process takes decades just to plan much less build even a few miles. We’re promised a couple of toll roads in southwestern Wake County within a few years, but that’s only going to compensate for the long delay in completing the southern loop of I-540.
We’ve come a long way from the 1950’s when “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country” to now where they are begging at the public trough for a hand-out just to survive. They’re blamed for mismanagement, high labor costs, and building inefficient, unsafe, and poor quality cars, but that is only part of problem. The fact is we’ve reach the saturation point of not only how many cars the economy can absorb with every new model year but also how many miles of roads and highways we can build to carry all those cars. We can’t build our way out of traffic congestion in the cities, and the Interstate Highway System has exceeded its design capacity, is not properly maintained, and doesn’t have adequate fire and police services in place to respond to emergency situations in rural areas.
So is Europe the model? They’ve heavily taxed gasoline for decades to pay for high-speed rail, local public transportation, and set very strict regulations for urban land development. We’ve talked about plans in the US for similar services, and I recall attending hearings 20 years ago about high-speed rail in Texas with no results. Even now Amtrak has very slow and limited service and antiquated rolling stock except in the northeast corridor where it can compete with the airlines. We “nationalized” the passenger rail service with a “semi-autonomous” corporation that is burdened with political manipulation and without adequate capital funding. But the public didn’t support it and didn’t want passenger rail service, and so we let it languish into near obscurity like the inter-city bus service. The airlines and the automobile companies also actively fought it, and Congress acquiesced. The brief panic with the short rise in gasoline prices brought a rush of business to Amtrak that claims its ridership hasn’t subsided even with the collapse in oil prices. But without setting a national priority of building a viable national passenger rail service and providing the funds to pay for it, we’re never going to have service comparable to other developed nations. “Build it, and they will come” won’t work if we don’t provide good service at reasonable prices, and that means a heavy public subsidy. Of course, we subsidize the highway network and the air traffic control network with billions of tax dollars, but there are big lobbies to promote those subsidies. Most rail passengers are only retirees with little political clout.
I still name my cars and know nearly every brand and model. I just bought another new one last spring before the financial markets bubble burst. My timing was off because I could have gotten a much better deal if I had waited just a few months. I’m very pessimistic that I will live long enough to see adequate public transportation in the Triangle comparable to other metropolitan areas so I will have to keep a car even though I really can’t afford the big expense. My friends who are getting too old to drive are moving into retirement communities where most services are provided and weekly van service takes them to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments. I don’t want to move into an old-age ghetto, no matter how fancy and upscale it may be. I may end up like a distant relative who was told by the DMV that she couldn’t renew her driver’s license after she reached 100. Fortunately, I’ve still got a few years left to go.