The City And The Car

Brad Robertson Issue: Section:

 “What is the city but the people?”

---William Shakespeare, Coriolanus

Wherefore the city?  Why does it exist and whom, or what, does the urban form serve?  Some American cities are built for people on a human scale that can be discerned and appreciated by a person on foot, some form of which has been the prevailing norm for 99.9999% of human history.  Newer cities in America (and in boom countries like India or China) are built on a larger, car-sized scale, built to be discerned and appreciated at 45+mph, which is to say, not at all except by way of its ample parking or as a lovely photo in a travel brochure.  But who wants to go there?

A city not built for humans, a city built instead for cars, is not as much a city, apart from presenting some abstract idea of placehood, than a collection of clusters of buildings connected by ribbons of concrete and governed by some agreed-upon municipality.  Atlanta is such a spot on the map, for who can say they’ve really been to Atlanta and experienced it, the same way one does New York or San Francisco or Paris or London?  Most of anyone’s Atlanta experience will be from a car, catching glimpses of urbanity from the freeway whizzing by behind a blur of peach trees, or in some designated “hot spot”, after searching desperately for a parking space.  Whoever has or can experience Atlanta the way the Bohemians experienced 19th Century Paris or the way I first experienced New York City when I arrived as a goggle-eyed goober from the wilds of suburban Dallas?  On foot, for hours, for the better part of daylight and into the evening, walking, exploring, pausing to eat, to study, to contemplate, to converse with a stranger, to feel the joy of the accidental discovery.  This is how we become and remain human, by experiencing the world around us through all five of our senses and in sharing that with other people.  Prisoners in solitary confinement often lose their sanity because it is in human contact that we know ourselves; it is how we check our baser instincts and learn about our innate interconnectedness. How can one do anything like that zooming around inside a steel cocoon at 45mph?


New York, pedestrian, walkable, human-scaled New York City, is not a car-friendly place at all.  In fact, it is likely the least car-friendly place in all these United States, but even that is only really true of Manhattan.  The greater New York City area has the same average people-per-square-mile density as Greater Los Angeles, so when I talk about New York I really mean, like most people, Old New York and Old Brooklyn… the pre-car New York and pre-car Brooklyn of the 19th Century.  We all know the history of the Great Builder Robert Moses and his pro-automobile, 20-Century-style violence to the fabric of the city, most notably with the Cross Bronx Expressway and the straight ruler-edge line drawn across a map without regard to neighborhood boundaries or geography that condemned the residents of that borough to two generations of dislocation, alienation and violence.  At the time, perhaps it made sense to bulldoze a freeway through a city like it was open country because Eisenhower’s interstate system was actively laying ribbons of pavement all across the land and New York’s Transportation Division (and planners in Boston and Cleveland and San Francisco and Detroit) wanted to be on the road to future and the future was in rubber tires driven by internal combustion. Also, they wanted their share of those freeway dollars.  At that time in American life, The City (not just New York, but any city) was seen as a dark and dirty place, rife with violence and sin, and only a necessary evil to be visited in the name of commerce and prosperity which must be escaped as quickly as possible when the day is done. The automobile seemed a far better-suited (and better-marketed) instrument to that purpose than trains. 

So for the longest time, over half a century, New York City tried to compete with the burgeoning suburbs limning it, accreting to its outer edges in ever more far-flung layers. Choking it, ultimately, until Ford To City: Drop Dead.  Not one additional foot of subway track was laid anywhere in the city while the villages and townships of Queens County and Richmond County (Staten) filled in and spread out across the formerly open land, connected only by roads. After the build-up, almost everything new became accessible only by car.  The distant edges of Brooklyn, the not-Old Brooklyn, followed the same sad path and allowed its famous trolley car network – the very same network which gave its name to everyone’s favorite Golden Age of Baseball team: those erstwhile Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers – to decay and finally the tracks themselves be torn up to better accommodate the ever greater number of cars chugging through its streets.  Brooklyn bears the scars of it to this day and any glance at a subway map will reveal the violence done in the shape of those long, parallel lines of track and no way to travel between them.  Look at it: the D, the F, the N, the B/Q and the 2/5. The 2/5 Line stops abruptly at Brooklyn College because World War 2 halted construction. After the war, people wanted to drive big cars with tailfins and the political will and the money to bring the 2/5 lines to their natural conclusion at the shoreline of Jamaica Bay evaporated.  Those parallel lines ought to be connected by trolley lines at 90º angles but they aren't anymore and as a result some of the poorest and most neglected areas of the city lie in the dead zones out of reach of the subway.  How is a new-comer supposed to explore and enjoy the area around Floyd Bennet Field without a car?  He can’t.  I know, I tried.

The most vexing part of that state of affairs, and it is one repeated across this great land of ours, is that infrastructure is a difficult thing to backfill and it is even harder to replicate once gone from a built environment.  Certain kinds of infrastructure spur certain kinds of development and, in the area around Brooklyn College, two and three story buildings dominate, dotted by parking lots, and that limits the number of people who can live and work there.  If the 2/5 train lines had been completed all the way out to Floyd Bennet Field, we would see a different type of development there today, denser and taller, because not as many people would have to concern themselves with the prolonged storage of their automobiles, even though more people would live there.

For as cities fill-in, people settle into the spaces in between in a particular way and then it becomes a fight against NIMBY-ism and inertia and tradition. Robert Moses was able to commit his crime against the Bronx because he had more power than any mayor or governor in New York history, including the one he ostensibly worked for, but who now has the power to undo these things built for a 45mph world and give this city, any city, back to the people who have roots there, not just those who seek to speed through it without stopping?  True, the East Side of Manhattan is finally getting a 2nd Avenue subway, but it is complicated and expensive and the real estate above the tunnel is populated by some of the richest, most powerful people in the Western Hemisphere.  The 2/5 lines in outer Brooklyn, serving as they do the poor and disenfranchised living literally at the fringes of the city, will never be extended, particularly now that so much time, money and human capital is invested in a car-centric landscape there.  And so, the people there remain physically isolated from the prosperity of the city and the ones who do get out do so in glass and steel escape pods that keep them as isolated as any commuter in Los Angeles or Atlanta.

While they tore down the Central Artery in Boston and gave themselves a beautiful esplanade in its place, they only did so by putting the cars underground. They tore down the Embarcadero in San Francisco, but the political culture of that city makes it a poor translation to the hidebound travails of other older, densely built cities.  If the on-going battle to finally tear down the little-used and unpopular Sheridan Expressway here is any indication, real change in the form of tearing down an abomination like the BQE or reversing the one-way tolling policy on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge will take generations.    Changes like those are simply undoing what has been done badly. Something forward-thinking and positive like building the new Tappan Zee Bridge with public transit (Bus Rapid Transit lanes or – que horror! – actual commuter trains into Rockland County) so it won’t just be sixteen lanes of sprawl-ensuring automobile traffic, will take years of concentrated struggle to change hearts and minds.

But we do have some green shoots.  Our imperious, self-important Napoleon of a mayor has given us the gift of Janette Sadik-Khan, the NYC Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and she has bestowed upon the city ever more bike lanes, the plaza at Times Square and those blessed Summer Streets, when the original purpose of a street, the idea that the street belonged to all who use it not just the motorists who wish to speed through it, is revived for a day during a weekend here and there (but not a week day – commerce and commutes must never be impeded).  This process of making the city less hospitable to cars seems to be gaining in popularity, though we find pockets of resistance everywhere, as anyone who watched the Prospect Park West bike lane fight will tell you, and the city has few friends in Albany.  Or across the Hudson.  Or east of Queens.

New York does have a few cards to play in the battle over land-use, if only it had the political will to enact them.  The most valuable physical asset New York City possesses is its wonderful, walkable streets: everyone needs them, everyone wants to use them during certain times of day, and (like any limited resource) no more “New York city street” is being made, the space they occupy is all there is and all there will ever be. If people want to drive their cars on our streets so very badly, why are we New Yorkers giving it away for free? This is the logic behind congestion pricing, which is that Manhattan is only so big and everyone wants to use it at the same time.  How best to get people to willingly stagger their use of our streets, roads and bridges?  Leverage the power of the free market and attach a cost to their use because, right now, I live and work in Manhattan and my taxes paid for the all the stuff you’re using essentially for free.  Sorry, Long Island, but 34th Street is not your personal short-cut to New Jersey nor is 57th Street there to make your car trip back as short as possible, along with you and tens of thousands of your friends.  All at the same time.

So quit honking at me, please.  You are the alien species here, Mr. Automobile Driver, like a diver on a coral reef, and I refuse to adapt my city to your needs and wants, to make it more like your home town.  I live here precisely because it isn’t like your home town.  And reinstate the commuter tax, because somebody has to pay to pick up the garbage you leave behind on your way home to Paramus.

To be clear, this isn’t a matter of preference.  I like cities, you like suburbs, she likes the country.  Let’s agree to disagree.  Unfortunately, the planet is running out of oil (and pretty much everything else) and sometime in the not-too-distant future we will see $12/gallon gasoline.  $20/gal.  $30.  In fact, our politicians have had us in Iraq for the last decade to push that inevitability as far ahead into the future as possible, so it doesn’t happen on their watch, but it will happen in our lifetimes.  And therein lies the damnable misery of the multi-generational series of bad choices we’ve made in this country, choices which my favorite curmudgeon James Howard Kunstler calls “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the human race” (American suburbia), choices which have warped our politics in a desperate bid to maintain our sprawling, carbon-intensive lifestyle at all costs.  “People like it”, we’re told, as though that were justification enough.  But our politics have become ever more poisoned as the oil addicts fight to keep what they have, with all the sweaty desperation of a junkie raiding his grandmother’s jewelry box for some fast cash to pay for that One Last Hit.

In that struggle to wean ourselves off the dirty energy which built us, Americans have truly come to hate other Americans.  Remember how they mocked President Carter’s sweater and his pledge to reduce our dependence on foreign oil?  Remember how Saint Ronnie ripped the solar panels off the roof of the White House?  Those moments were but the opening rhetorical salvos in a resource war for the soul of this country that culminated in the First Gulf War.  Which led to us being there still today to settle the question of Who Controls The Oil.  We’ve become a country comfortable with torture (the same acts we hung Nazis for after World War Two), as long as the gas to drive to the shopping mall stays cheap.  And Oh My! How our politics have soured, as one party has become a haven for corporate whores, trailing the fading remnants of a once proud leftist tradition behind it in a race to the bottom of the corporate money barrel and the other has gone downright nihilistic, yearning to roll America back to a political environment better suited for the good ol’ days of the 1890’s.

I firmly believe that a major contributing factor, certainly the sole underlying condition enabling the prevailing lurch to the right, and then the far right, is the hermetically-sealed automobile commute experienced by tens of millions of Americans twice a day. It contributes externally: in the form of reinforcing an overlay of physical structure on the living environment that requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain and to move people and goods around in, energy which most easily derives from petroleum, which requires our bloated military to secure and ensure the safe and timely delivery of, to say nothing of all the multinational companies profiting from this very lucrative arrangement, profits they are happy to spend on political clout to keep the good times rolling and on marketing to sell the whole toxic cocktail as an elixir.  Which is how our happy motoring culture also contributes internally and intellectually, because one of the major components of their marketing apparatus is the afternoon drive-time talk radio, in particular filled to the brim with hate speech on the AM dial, blaming everyone who doesn’t look and sound like the driver for all the country’s ills, pushing all the right demagogic buttons.

And they vote.

They vote to keep the country the way it is, or at least to keep it becoming the way they imagine it always to have been.

All of which is, of course, a lie.  But a comfortable lie, an easily marketed one, one that emptied our cities in the 1970’s, a lie that very many extractive industries and the pet politicians they keep on retainer need to maintain their bottom line, a lie that keeps driving so many of us into gated communities where the menace of a dusky-hued child sporting a hoodie and committing the crime of walking (!) and carrying Skittles and an iced tea in a place the neighborhood Dirty Harry deemed off-limits to his kind is sufficient cause for execution, a lie that keeps the 99% distracted by squabbling amongst themselves for just long enough for the 1% to finish the global resource bank heist they’ve been able to pull off in the casino economy we’ve enjoyed since the Dawn of the Age of Reagan, so it keeps getting told and told with disastrous results for the planet and those of us who will have to live in the ruins when their handiwork has sucked the planet dry.  Their performing clowns in the media assist them in this process and it is made all the easier as they leave their air-conditioned house in an air-conditioned car to drive to an air-conditioned office building (parking in a garage) only to retrace those very same steps on the way home.  The 1%’s carnival barkers have a captive audience in that car for those hours and hours of daily, weekly, yearly commuting time and after a lifetime’s worth of a steady diet of Limbaugh and Hannity and Savage, Chris Christie can cancel the desperately needed ARC tunnel project under the Hudson River and the masses cheer him, for his logic is framed in the private language of the drive-time AM hate speech listener.

The physical shape of our infrastructure brought us to this place where the survival of the planet hangs in the balance and the tough decisions needed to fix it are left to politicians elected by a very specialized species of voter only able to exist in a very particular socio-economic historical moment, one created and maintained by and in the name of the almighty automobile and its underlying, enabling addiction: cheap gas.  Quite simply, in America, we pretty much have to drive everywhere and that is because, outside the densest parts of our large cities, we don’t really have proper streets.  And connecting our towns and cities, we don’t really have proper roads. What is a proper road and what is a proper street?

“Roads move people between places while streets provide a framework for capturing value within a place.”

We have, for the most part, an inefficient hybrid of the two which moves traffic too fast to ensure value to the properties adjoining it, but is also not fast enough to move people and goods efficiently. Charles Marohin of the marvelous Strong Towns Blog calls this inefficient hybrid a “stroad.”  We’ve built our whole country on these stroads and in so doing have built what Mr. Marohin calls a “45-mph World.”  A voter accustomed to travelling 45mph in a glass and steel box won’t understand the needs of a place where 45mph isn’t possible or desired and that will ensure that the politicians they elect won’t either.  Yet we are about to bequeath to the next generation a nation blanketed with an infrastructure that cannot withstand $30/gal gasoline and fixing that will be expensive and painful. 

Expensive and painful, yes, but I believe possible and the idea of New York City, often more than the actual place, has already led the country part of the way back to a place where we can fix the future.  In keeping the urban dream alive through the very dark years of the 1970’s and early 80’s, alive often only in the form of TV shows and movies, we now see downtowns, pre-automobile downtowns that had been paved over and made into sterile Monument Valleys of glass and steel (aping New York’s shape while ignoring its substance) or altogether abandoned, nowadays being repopulated by those who crave the benefits of dense urban life: community, connectedness, Life.

This project, the densification of a sprawling American built environment, is crucial and mighty forces of greed and inertia are ranged against its success.  Even in here in New York, the question of wherefore the city and why does it exist and whom, or what, does the urban form serve is a thorny one.  The prosperity that pulled New York out of the bad old days of the 1970’s and early 80’s was largely fueled by the very same financial sector vampire squids guilty of wrecking the global economy in 2008.  A billionaire is our noblesse-oblige of a mayor.  The condos, the prestigious restaurants, over-priced Broadway tickets and exclusive night clubs that give New York the glitz and glamour with which it sells itself are bought and paid for by the those petro-dollars, Mister Beale.  And yet...

And yet...

All great leftwing political movements have been urban movements.  The frission, the connection, the energy to convince and cajole is most-readily compiled in the urban environment.  The Paris Commune of 1871, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Arab Spring of 2011 (would scan better were it more accurately called the “Cairo” Spring – ed.) are all forerunners of our own Occupy Wall Street, its eponymous inspiration making the name illogical anywhere else in the world.  OWS may yet change the world, it has certainly changed the conversation, and even if they fail, something else will arise in its place.  The future belongs to the city-dweller.  The fate of the planet depends on it.


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