Fevered Dreams

Commentary, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

When I was 22, and totally dependent on mass transit, my walking shoes and my 10-speed Raleigh bicycle for my transportation needs, I dreamed of the day that I would get a decent-enough paying job to afford an automobile.

I dreamed of it often. Especially on the morning I sat on the bus heading from my one-room apartment in northwest Washington, D.C., to my job downtown. It was like any other morning, except that one of the homeless people on board lost control of his bladder and, as the bus turned, everyone else raised their legs so that the sea of urine could roll downhill unimpeded.

On another day, I stood at the bus stop and glanced up the street looking for the long-delayed bus. A group of young toughs thought I was looking at them as they dealt drugs, so they surrounded me and began shoving me. I made my escape but I would have rather been in that dreamed-of car, sailing down city streets in relative safety.

I recall these and other disgusting and sometimes dangerous moments in my years of riding mass transit to put a damper on those in our midst who believe that cars are always bad and mass transit is always good. The Orange County Transportation Authority, charged with developing the transportation systems that move us around, is dominated by ideologues who echo that trendy anti-car sentiment.

That’s why, no matter how low the predicted ridership numbers and how high the predicted costs, OCTA officials emphasize light rail rather than roads and freeways. I call it nostalgia as public policy, as planners ignore the way Americans really get around and instead try to build retro-style systems that would prod us to live like in olden days.

Listen to the New Urbanists, Smart Growthers and transportation planners talk about light rail and other similar systems when they are speaking at their taxpayer-subsidized conferences. “Cars pollute.” “They destroy communities by promoting ‘sprawl.'” “Light rail and buses are more egalitarian, and they build a sense of community.” “It’s wasteful to have a yard and garage and live in the suburbs rather than in a high-rise or row house.”

That’s what they really believe.

The people who promote such social engineering think back to the good old days, when they went to college in places like Washington, San Francisco, Boston and New York. They walked and they rode the subway and they took the bus. It was all so wonderful then, before they grew up, moved to the soul-destroying suburbs and commuted alone in bumper-to-bumper traffic along the smog-enabling freeway.

I remember things differently.

Light rail, with its agonizingly slow-moving trolley cars, is now the system of choice because it offers an old-timey urban aesthetic. OCTA can’t get the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds needed to build this system, so officials there are now likely to switch gears and promote a “bus rapid transit” system instead. I’m not opposed to more buses per se, but think of this system as light rail on rubber, with costs almost as high as rail. The specifics don’t matter to transit planners. Most important to them, BRT would keep the light-rail dream alive, because sometime down the road, the bus lanes could be converted into rail tracks.

BRT won’t make any more sense than CenterLine in terms of ridership or costs, especially if the initial $100 million-per-mile costs are accurate. The Register Editorial Page has often made the cost/benefit argument against light rail, but that always falls on deaf ears. That’s because this is a debate about a lifestyle vision, not about transportation.

Rail theologians talk about the ugliness of car-driven sprawl, but never mention the ugliness of transit-driven urbanization. Try hopping on a train from New York City’s Grand Central Station to Westchester some time, and look out at the abandoned high-rises that define the Bronx landscape. As a longtime transit user, I can attest that the transit-dependent world planners are recreating is a dreadful dystopian place of shuffling, huddled masses filing into train cars and buses, building their lives around other people’s schedules and other people’s preferences.

Ignore those glossy transit brochures, with their drawings of happy, latte-sipping commuters waiting for the train. I think instead of the two years I depended on the bus in Des Moines, Iowa, where I skidded down the ice-covered sidewalks to catch a bus that could arrive anywhere from 10 minutes early to a half-hour late.

Of course, it was usually late, especially on those frightfully cold Iowa winter mornings, when our group of pathetic souls would stand huddled around the bus stop to shield ourselves from the whipping winds and below-zero temperatures.

Growing up in and around Philadelphia, I don’t recall the elevated trains, subways or trolleys being particularly friendly or clean places. To walk through the urine-drenched subway tube was to take one’s life in one’s hands, as drug dealers and muggers waited for customers or victims there.

Even Washington, D.C.’s Metro system, which I depended on during my college years, was no joy. It was clean and well-patrolled, unlike the aged Philly subway. But the stops were often isolated, leaving the rider in lonely, dark parking lots at the end of the journey. The subway had limited hours, so riders could be stuck if they ran a little late. I remember once trying to lug groceries home in the rain on the D.C. bus.

What misery.

Then the glorious day arrived that I got that job. I could finally buy a sand-colored 1983 Ford Escort, with its cheap woven upholstery, four-speed stick shift and air conditioning. That enabled me to leave my inner-city neighborhood, with its trash-strewn sidewalks and constant sirens, and move onto a tree-lined street in the Virginia suburbs. I could commute in comfort, listening to the radio far away from anyone who might have bladder-control or cleanliness issues.

I even car-pooled for a while – but it was when it suited me, not to take advantage of those blasted HOV lanes. I racked up 20,000 miles the first year, driving to the West Virginia mountains, the Maryland beaches and everywhere in between. It was the feeling of freedom, of the open road, of being able to come and go as I pleased.

One activist group that helps the poor released a study years back acknowledging that the best form of transportation for the working poor is a used car. Good for them for acknowledging the truth: Most people, rich or poor, would rather drive than be herded into rail cars. We’d rather read Car and Driver magazine about 300-horsepower Mustangs than listen to lectures about sustainability.

Mobility is freedom. Which largely explains why government officials, academics and planners are so hostile to the automobile, suburbia and every other icon of the American Dream.