getting there

In recent webworks, the blog writer under the pseudonym Bill Hicks writes about changes in public transportation in the Boston area.

Anybody who has been paying much attention to my ramblings here in my own little corner of the net can probably easily see the relevance to what I’ve been talking about regularly, and at some length. The last installment from me was talking about changing arrangements of things here in the U.S., all about getting from here to there, whatever and wherever that might be. If you’ve been paying attention to my little missives to whomever might be reading, you know the story.

It’s not hard to figure out and understand. It’s already smacking us over the head, right now.

Even as the problem stares us in the face, the lack of awareness of the whole picture is astonishing, why I keep writing about it, of course. As I’ve talked about before, even as serious people write and speak about the problems, there is an overwhelming amount of sheer fiction and nonsense bombarding people and confusing the subject. It’s an avalanche of obfuscation.

Hey, but we’ve got lots of sports coverage, general televised idiocy, politics as sports, and so on.

I just came across a really good concise piece on the web a day or two ago that covers some things nicely. It addresses the general kind of problems I’ve just been talking about, for pretty much the same reasons I keep talking about it.

It’s just the way things go that people like to boil things down to some quick shorthand term. The phrase “peak oil” came into being as such a bit of shorthand reference lingo. It covers many things under a general heading, many of them fairly complicated. And the phrase is thrown around a lot now, with many people badly misunderstanding it. Scanning the web, looking through articles coming up in the “Drumbeat” section of The Oil Drum for example, turns up an endless parade of the usual things I’ve mentioned before. Among the articles doing a good job of clarifying the story of oil as things are happening, I find just as many that only serve to confuse matters and mislead people who haven’t dug into the subject enough to understand they’re reading propaganda.

So here we are. As we face all this, a large overall question is, how do we adjust for the future?

I wonder how many stories we’ll be seeing like this, of doing exactly the wrong things.

You won’t even find much serious discussion of the subject, based on my observation. Here in the United States, early 21st century, we’re continuing what has been a normal pattern. As I see it, there are a couple of main themes to this.

One theme is that for decades, the general subject of transportation in the United States has been, shall we say, limited. For decades, most of anything about the subject of transportation has revolved around petroleum fueled cars and trucks for personal transportation and commerce, and the associated road systems.

Here’s kind of a trivial side note item; note the invention of the term “motel” in the US, to describe an altered concept of what has always been known as a hotel before this era in this place. Note the entire concept of the thing. Take the idea of a hotel, but alter it, based on the assumption of guests staying there arriving in their own personal motor vehicle in the midst of a road trip. Rather than a building with an entrance and nice lobby and probably multiple floors, with hallways leading to guest rooms, you have a large parking lot surrounded by a building where all the guest rooms have their own outside door, right on the parking lot, so that guests can park their personal vehicle five feet away from the room (after driving to the front desk to check in, and then driving from there to the room).

Getting into the general subject of transportation leads into a natural categorization, to simplify discussion a little, of local or long distance transportation. This is a pretty large subject, after all, and this gets into a subject that could be material for a whole set of long books, which makes it a little overwhelming to address in a little weblog note. So, then, let’s keep it mainly on the idea of local transportation.

Something immediately comes to mind for me, that strikes me as incredibly strange. The oddity of it has a couple of components to it.

Dwight Eisenhower had a couple of major programs begin during his terms as President that certainly qualify as major turns of events in the history of the United States of America and are significant parts of recent era America. He was the President who created NASA, and the United States began the program of building the interstate highway system. I wonder what he would have thought of the way things have gone with the interstate highway system.

It really isn’t necessary to go off into a whole essay of explanation of the US interstate system here. If you don’t actually know the story, you can go research. What’s amazing, in not such a good way, is how the purpose and use of that system has mutated.

At the time the interstate highway system was conceived, it was a natural good idea, it didn’t exactly need explanation of the obvious to the American people or anyone in government. In a very large country spanning the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the highways of America definitely seemed to be a system that could use some improvements at the time. Making long distance road trips meant traveling a system of two lane roads, complete with all that lined them, countless intersections, routes through cities and towns with all the busy streets and roads of these places being a part of the highway route, and all that involved. All that can take us off on another tangent, as well. For local places, all the highway traffic passing through had both bad and good aspects.

Skipping that, at least for now, the idea was to have a more efficient, quicker, neater means for intercity motor vehicle travel. I’m not sure Ike foresaw what would develop. What we’ve seen in the half century or so of the American interstate highway system is something much different.

There is, obviously, its use as it was intended, for higher speed corridors of roadway for motor vehicle travel between cities. What has developed, though, is an entirely different kind of phenomenon of highway system use. For cities all around the US, what we’ve had has been a phenomenon where parts of the interstate highway system, as a matter of normal practice, have become local roads, used by a great many people every day who are not on some long distance road trip from one city to another. They’re just doing “local” travel, within their area, as their normal daily routine. This is found all over the country, in assorted sections of the interstate highway system acting as “crosstown expressway”, or some sort of metropolitan perimeter ring road bypass, or “business loop”, or some such thing, with the interstate highway standard numbering system assigning a “2” or “4” prefix for these sections of highway.

This has all kinds of repercussions, and this is one of the aspects of the results of the interstate highway development that strike me as strange. The other main aspect that strikes me as strange, is that this phenomenon of “interstate highway as local roads” doesn’t seem strange to many people. I’m struck by how few people seem to even think of asking a question like “is there something wrong with this?” or “is this a problem?”.

If you’re an American, and reading this, you know the phenomenon, if you live in a place ranging anywhere from a sort of medium sized American city up to large city to broad metropolitan area, all the way up to someplace that’s a giant sprawling “megalopolis” (e.g., southern California) where whole batches of municipalities have become one gigantic contiguous sprawl.

You know the routine. Get in the car (or maybe a light truck as personal transportation vehicle, all the SUV and pickup truck and van drivers). Drive to the closest interstate highway interchange and get on the highway. Drive to the interstate highway interchange that’s the closest to the destination place. Rinse and repeat.

I’m not describing some unusual circumstances. For enormous numbers of Americans in our era, daily life includes a regular routine of this kind of shuffling around with “local” journeys being based on this use of interstate highways that are now essentially local roads. Who knows how many people are functioning like this, people who might describe themselves as living in some City X, but barely know that city, because they live in some outlying suburban zone, and while they might travel through the main city in question, they barely know the place, because they’re traveling mostly in the isolated highway corridor. They might have little to no awareness at all of vast portions of the place that they pass through nearly every day.

For many such people, they might pass through large swaths of the city completely foreign to them, with a notion that to even venture into any engagement with the areas they pass through constantly would be distasteful, or even frightening, perhaps with thoughts of “bad areas”, as they might pass through areas of the city that are decaying rot zones. The sick irony is that this very phenomenon of interstate highways as local “commuter” corridors of isolation might be a substantial part of the reasons why some of those areas are decaying or dead.

In a past installment here, I told the story of someone’s criticism of the Chevy Volt electric hybrid when it was being introduced as a production model for sale by GM. Their basic premise for the comment was wrong. The Volt is an electric hybrid that uses electric motors to drive the wheels. The electric motors are powered by batteries, with a gasoline fueled internal combustion engine on board that does not drive the wheels, but rather drives an electrical generator to charge the batteries while rolling along, or even power the electric motors directly.

The comment about the Volt referred to the operating range for the Volt operating only on battery power, with a full charge at the start, without the extended range provided by the gasoline fueled engine driving the generator. The “battery only” range of the Volt was said to be about 40 miles. The comment about the Volt was something to the effect of being a slightly sarcastic remark about the Volt getting you to work but then only getting you halfway home before the thing died. This was based on an incorrect premise, as I said, but let’s ignore that for the moment.

If you took that comment as exactly literal and correct, and assumed that this story involved the Volt getting you precisely one half of the distance of your return journey, doing the math of a 40 mile range covering 1.5 times the distance between home and work calculates a distance between your home and place of work of 26 and 2/3 miles. Call it 27 miles.

The notable point in this is that somebody saw the problem of the scenario as being the 40 mile limit of the Chevy Volt operating on batteries only, not that the more fundamental problem might be that you live 27 miles away from where you work.

I see this as a kind of good general indicator. We have circumstances where people who ought to very easily see and understand things simply don’t, probably because they carry with them all sorts of assumptions and familiarity with situations they have accepted as “normal”.

People who have only known life in a society and era where everything is spread out based on the assumption of all the fuel you could ever need or want being there at your disposal, cheap, and always there, might have serious problems with even conceiving the idea that this state of things might be different.

Given that, we have all kinds of problems facing the subject of transportation and getting around to do what we do, the way we’ve become accustomed to doing them.

Very few places in America in the present have much in the way of seriously dealing with getting around without everybody driving substantial distances in their own personal individual petroleum fueled vehicles. This goes along with the factors of sprawl and the dilemma I’ve already described of the increasing dependence on individual petroleum fueled vehicles and the increasing consumption of fuel. Now, imagine all of that hitting serious problems because of the availability and cost of that fuel, aggravated and compounded by this dependency/consumption interaction.

What then?

In the meantime, given the broader state of affairs now, here in the US, stories like the one I’ve linked are both disturbing, and more likely as time passes, at the same time.

Imagine the hypothetical 27 mile commuter. Now imagine them without the use of their petroleum fueled personal vehicle. If, for some reason, they don’t have that available, chances are between likely and certain that their only option is to catch a ride with somebody else in their vehicle. Imagine nobody has this as a functional option.

I’m not going way out on a limb to speculate that most people of this hypothetical 27 mile commuter kind have no options of functional local mass transit public transit for their journey.

In a time and place when and where we are going to be finding ourselves more and more in situations where we really need such systems, in all but a few rare places in America, they won’t be there. Few people seem to be in support of doing something about that, in an era where large numbers of people hypnotized by propaganda are hyped up in some sort of indignant angst about “Big Gummint” providing any sort of common services to the citizenry as some great evil, and nobody wants to pay any fucking taxes for anything. Any kind of public transportation project to get people around without individual personal vehicles being a necessity for everybody faces low probability of public support in these conditions (even while the same people objecting to any such idea would, no doubt, be absolutely adamant in their expectations of their individual private personal property liberties in personal transportation being continued by the maintenance of all the public roads that make it work).

Much more likely, demands of reduction of anything involving “government spending” as a general principle will lead to more stories of problems, reductions, and eliminations of public transportation systems. We’re taking a bad situation resulting from the repercussions of mistakes and making it worse with new mistakes.

I’ve noticed that many of the people talking about the oil problems we have and trying to sound the warning seem to have a kind of general dislike of automobiles, for various reasons (and reasonable ones). Myself, I like cars. I always have. I like them a lot. I like them as engineering works, I like driving, I like the capabilities they offer. I dislike, very much, much of what we’ve done with them here in the United States (and Canada, for that matter, which seems to follow American practices in many things, such as this).

What I don’t like is the idea of having arranged an entire society, virtually an entire nation, around ways of arranging places and doing things that make cars a necessity for virtually everyone, covering substantial distances to do nearly everything. The destructive repercussions of this are numerous. There’s the insane magnitude of consumption I’ve already discussed. There’s the pollution. There is the destructive effect on the places where we live and work, as we’ve based everything around this assumption of individual motor vehicle transportation everywhere for every purpose for everybody.

Even if you ignore all that, frankly, just looking at it as a car guy, there is the consequence of roads everywhere clogged with traffic, with countless people operating vehicles who treat them like some hybrid of rolling living room or lounge and some sort of automatic appliance, who never really learned how to drive properly, neglect the vehicles, choose crappy vehicles, based on the factors I just mentioned, because they don’t think about driving or really care. This is a whole subject of its own, really, and I might get back to this in some future writing.

In short, any way you look at this, things would be far better all around if we could go about daily life and all we do without the necessity of driving a car, with driving a car as a nice option that’s available when you really need it occasionally. A variety of things would be much better if the only people driving on the roads were all volunteers, so to speak.

There are many things in all this that people have figured out long ago. It’s not a difficult and challenging problem. Figuring out how to have it happen is where it gets weird.

Have cities arranged the way cities have been arranged through much of human history, using what has been learned over centuries about practical ways to have life arranged to function well and be good places to live, before motor vehicle transportation came to be. When motor vehicles are used, have cars that are light and nimble and well designed for function, including efficient use of fuel. This includes having trucks of various forms that are actually only used where things need to be hauled around. Have places arranged so that much of the activities of life can be done simply walking from place to place most of the time. For transportation over distances too long for walking, have effective and efficient systems of public transportation so that getting in an individual personal vehicle and driving somewhere is an option, not a necessity. You know, all of this, something like what they still do, in Europe.

Unfortunately, this gets us into another inexplicably strange area. Suggest all of that, ending with the note that people already understand and do these things, have understood and done these things all along, in another part of the world, and here in the United States of the early 21st century, you’re likely to run into all kinds of insane chattering about it. Talk to an assortment of my fellow Americans about this, and see how many people go nearly psychotic. Oh, so you think Europe is so great, why don’t you go live in Yurrup, then, ya damned commie!

Oh, I don’t know, maybe because I am an American, and would like my own country to function and be a good place to live, and not a disintegrating chaotic clusterfuck?

It’s annoying as hell to even try to talk with many people about the subject of light trucks like the SUV or pickup truck, which ridiculous numbers of Americans own and drive daily as personal transportation everywhere for everything. I have no basic objection or opposition to the idea of the pickup truck or what has come to be called the “sport utility” vehicle (which seem to be used by most owners for neither sport nor utility). They’re great, effective machines for what they’re designed to do. The problem is in people using them as daily personal transportation, never mind hauling things around, often for their own solo ass.

The rationale for this from some people is astounding. It became obvious to me a long time ago that for a majority of SUV and pickup owners, these things are much more of a matter of some kind of fashion than actual practical purpose. But, then, that’s part of a subject of its own for another edition here.

Talk to an example typical SUV operator tooling around with a mobile phone held to the side of their head, and you will probably get a load of opinions about any ideas of close, integrated city arrangements such as is found in Europe and “old fashioned” ideas of American cities. Talk about condensed and functionally integrated traditional concepts of city layout, and you’re likely to get something back saying that this just doesn’t work, it’s crowded and congested and this and that and the other thing, including, ironically, traffic. Then, they’ll go about their daily life in suburban America, driving themselves in dense congested traffic along with everybody else taking the same sections of interstate highways that are being used as local roads, and packed on to the same five lane main roads on some “supergrid” layout, or whatever they call these arrangements of big five lane roads on a one mile grid.

In people in this kind of mindset, the idea of any kind of public mass transportation doesn’t exist in their view of how things work or how they should be. Ask about this, and you can find predictable responses. In this mindset, the question is usually, why do we want that? They probably tend to think that there’s no need for any such transportation systems, because we just drive cars. They probably tend to think that driving your own vehicle is just the obvious normal only way, and anybody who isn’t must be some sort of “loser”, otherwise they would be driving their own car. They think, especially when influenced by all the political noise and reality distortion, that any kind of public mass transit is “wasteful government spending”, where they’re convinced that any sort of service for the general public good is paying taxes for them to personally pay for something for somebody else.

You can’t even begin to get a grasp and understanding across to many people of the issues involved, and why we should even have any kind of public mass transportation at all.

When I started this piece, I threw in the title of “getting there” as a thought off the top of my head with a kind of double meaning; one being the idea of how to get to a general public consensus of understanding the situation we’re in and how to get things going to deal with our future, the other being the fairly obvious concept of getting from one place to another in the course of doing the things in daily life.

Given the kind of attitude in people I’ve been talking about, maybe a different title could have been “everybody stranded“, with the subtitle “and with no fucking idea how they got there“.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: