The American Freedom Machine

One of the benefits of foreign travel is its ability to bring one's societal myopia into clearer focus. While sitting in traffic the other day waiting for the light to change, a vision of our family's summer vacation to Switzerland came wafting back into my consciousness. Long an advocate of alternative transportation, I was delighted by the variety of means of mobility we found there, including cable car, motorcycle, tram, van, walking, bicycle, bus, utility cart (both electric and motorized), trolley, automobile, and most impressively, modern trains. Many residents there own no automobile whatsoever, using bicycle, city bus, and trolley in town; trains for longer trips. The trains are electric: fast, quiet, clean, and on-time. Nearby France's TGV trains are even faster, reaching 180 miles per hour. This diversity is a result of these countries' needs for preservation of natural and cultural resources and maintenance of national independence and security.

Upon returning home to Virginia, I found our state embroiled in controversy. Traffic is building at a fever pitch, roughly tripling in the last thirty years, rendering turning our highways into death-traps. I came to visualize that what we have built for ourselves is a transportation mono-culture, where the personal automobile is the sole means of transport for virtually every purpose. But the cost is enormous.

In no mainstay of modern life in America is supply lagging behind demand as in our automobile-based transportation monoculture. Author James Gleik writes in his book Faster, that while everything around us from phones to computers to television is speeding ever faster, "From 1970 until 1996 the mileage driven by Americans rose four times as fast as the population and eighteen times as fast as the number of new roads... with the all-too-predictable result that driving has become one of the few mainstays of modern life that are genuinely slowing down." So regardless of the acres of land we will sacrifice and the billions of tax dollars we will spend, we will never again build new roads fast enough to meet demand. Gleik again, "We can only marvel at the growing dissonance between our streamlined highway technology and the reality of traffic." Near gridlock is commonplace throughout our urban areas. There are no paradigms to solve our traffic problems that don’t include significant cutbacks in automobile use.

Yet we still talk seriously about widening Interstate 81 to eight lanes at a cost of over $13 billion won’t die like they should. Imagine instead a high-speed train from Roanoke to Knoxville, Washington, or Richmond, carrying passengers there in safe, non-polluting, stress-free, traffic-free comfort.

No mainstay of modern life in America is taking as great a toll on our environment as is our automobile-based transportation monoculture. Every automobile is a carbon pump, vaporizing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. Oil dripping cars is a major source of water pollution as well. Plus, highways dictate the development patterns which exacerbate urban sprawl and decline of our inner cities. Our communities are less liveable, our farms and forests are decimated.

No mainstay of modern life in America is contributing more to our global trade deficit, is adversely impacting our national security, or is less sustainable than is our automobile-based transportation monoculture. During the Arab oil embargo of the 1970's, which brought our country to its economic knees, we imported 30% of our oil. Today we import over 60% and growing. Our society is frightfully vulnerable to shortages of fuel during international instabilities.

Few, if any, of the mainstays of modern life are less egalitarian than is our automobile-based transportation monoculture. If you are younger than sixteen, elderly, poor, or physically or mentally challenged, you are literally imprisoned in your home or entirely dependent upon someone else for mobility. Thousands of drivers devote considerable amounts of time and effort as chauffeurs for those our transportation system has abandoned.

Finally, no mainstay of modern life in America is responsible for more tragic deaths, injuries, and stress than our automobile-based transportation monoculture. We sacrifice 43,000 people each year to the carnage (Is this a pun?) while literally millions of person-hours are wasted in frustration, fear, and rage.

So ensconced are we in the automobile paradigm, it resonates almost heretical to suggest the obvious conclusion: further expenditures in our monoculture, other than for spot safety improvement and maintenance, are counterproductive towards a more efficient, secure, peaceful, safe, and healthy nation and planet.

The light turned green and swept me from my reverie. I hit the gas, motoring on while wondering if our society will ever muster the courage to set a new course down the road.