Car Cravings

Car Cravings

For a multitude of reasons, the USA would be a much better place if we reoriented our cities and towns towards transit based development. Getting Americans out of cars and onto trains, buses, bikes, and our feet would drastically cut our oil consumption and go a long way towards combating our obesity epidemic. Freed from car dependency, our towns and cities could return to the human-scaled and pedestrian-friendly communities many of them originally were. As we spent more time walking in our own neighborhoods and sharing rides on trains and buses with our fellow citizens, we might see a resurgence of American community life and public participation. With 2008 upon us, it’s not too much to say that the future of our country literally depends on kicking our addiction to oil.

The key to changing the car culture is to first recognize that this isn’t a religous argument. Even as a die-hard transit advocate I don’t believe that cars are evil or that they should be banned. In fact, automobiles are wonderful inventions and they’ve given us unprecedented personal mobility and freedom. They’re not going away any time soon not because of some conspiracy by oil and automobile companies (though these may certainly exist), but because cars are darn useful and people enjoy driving them.

The real problem is automobile dependency. A community (or a country) dependent on cars as the primary means of personal transport is going to be inherently more dispersed, more costly, and most likely less equitable than one built around transit lines.

There are many solutions out there, from carbon taxes to outright bans on automobiles in cities. In my opinion, the best and fairest solutions are those that make drivers pay the true cost of driving. (A lesson in negative externalities awaits those interested.)Or maybe we could just make cars really expensive. As promising as low-emission vehicles are, a billion people driving Priuses is way worse for the environment than ten million driving gas guzzling 911 GT3s (MSRP US$107,500). And taxing the heck out of those ten million Porsche owners might buy us a lot of nice new trains and buses.

Full disclosure: the 911 was my childhood dream car — and still is.

(Inskip Porsche, Warwick, RI)

From A to B

From A to B

I was waiting for the B train back to Brooklyn when the A pulled up. Not my train, but something caught my eye. “Far Rockaway via JFK Airport” the sign said. I blinked.

The chime rang and the doors began to close. A quick step and I was inside. The people looked different than the ones on my train. Poorer, darker. After Jay Street, I was the only guy in a suit. After Nostrand, I was the only white one.

Somewhere in Queens, the train left the tunnel and I could see rows and rows of small old houses from thirty feet up. You could see right into the backyards and even in some of the windows. Everything was unashamed and out in the open: rusty above-ground pools, moldy Big Wheels, soggy cardboard boxes. When the train stopped at these elevated stations, the cold wind would fill the car, blowing in husky guys wearing uniforms that said JetBlue, DHL, SkyChefs.

A few stops later and we were at the edge of the airport. I followed the crowd up an escalator and onto a smaller, newer train that reminded me of the monorail at Disney World. I hadn’t thought about that trip in a long time. It was our last family vacation before Dad split. He never told us he was leaving for good, just that he had to take a trip. I used to wonder how a person could just leave his family like that, but eventually I stopped.

The little train made its way around the terminals. I got out at Terminal 9, the last one. It was old and decrepit and there were construction barriers everywhere. You couldn’t tell if they were tearing it down or fixing it up.

The next flight was in ten minutes. Shit, I thought. I’m not going to make it. I walked faster. Got through security quickly. “Final boarding,” the announcer began. I started to run. The gate was at the very end of the concourse — a straight shot but still several hundred yards away. I ran faster. I felt my chest burn. My ankles hurt. I thought I might lose a shoe.

I got there just as the door was about to close. I was winded and I wanted to vomit, but Goddamn I made it. I found my seat and sat down, sweaty but satisfied. In a few hours, I’d be in Orlando. I closed my eyes.

The A pulled out of the station and a few moments later a B arrived. I got on and was back in Brooklyn in about 30 minutes. I picked up the kids from day care and we ate pasta for dinner. My wife and I watched TV until we both fell asleep.

(Jay St Station)

Lost in the Land of the Lost

Lost in the Land of the Lost

Although it’s a fairly common belief here in Brooklyn that early humans spent their days battling dinosaurs for food and real estate, it simply isn’t true. The fossil record unambiguously shows that dinosaurs and humans never co-existed, which precludes scenes like the one hanging in my living room of a scantly clad she-warrior riding a triceratops. During the Age of the Great Lizards, in fact, mammals were a lowly bunch of pre-human scavengers and deadbeats, bolting in fear at the mere mention of a brontosaurus. (Broadway’s Les Miserables is an excellent chronicle of the mammalian struggle to get out from under the thumb of T-Rex and his scaly ilk, if you’re into musicals.) It wasn’t until the Great Comet/Ice Age/Alien Invasion that these ferocious and ornery beasts were vanquished, making way for the ascent of mammals, who were next on the waiting list. Through evolution, these creatures would eventually become the species we call “people.”

I’ve often taken pleasure in smugly deriding the “humans vs. dinosaurs” myth as silly “Land of the Lost”-based history, but now I wonder how long I’ll be able to say it with confidence. Recently, researchers from the American Museum of Natural History reported their discovery of a small prehistoric mammal fossil in China — with an even smaller dinosaur partially digested inside its stomach. Mammals munching on baby dinosaurs? That’s bad-ass, yo. Now that we know early mammals were much more gangsta than we’d been led to believe, what other revelations await us?

Perhaps we have already seen the Land of the Lost — and it looks a lot like Brooklyn.

Parts, anyway.

(“Alligator” by the awesome Tom Otterness, MetroTech Commons, Brooklyn)

To Serve or Protect?

To serve or protect?

They seemed awfully young, they were wearing dress uniforms, and they didn’t have guns. They looked alert, scanning the throngs of busy commuters quietly and methodically. I thought they might be a symbolic sort of protection, not unlike the unarmed National Guardsmen that are stationed at Grand Central and Penn Station. Or maybe it was part of their training, the way NYPD rookies are now sent into the worst precincts right out of the Academy. Was Atlantic Av Station on high alert now? Whatever the reason, they became part of my daily commute.

One day, one of them made eye contact with me. I felt I was being checked out. Did I look suspicious? I wasn’t offended, just curious as to why I had merited any attention. For some reason, the moment stayed in my mind.

On Saturday, I saw them again — differently. They had pamphlets, brochures. They were speaking to young men. They were recruiting.

(Atlantic Av Station, Brooklyn)

The Lean

The Lean

Maybe in other cities’ new-fangled subways they have those screens and announcements that tell you when the next train is coming, but here in NYC, we do it the old fashioned way.