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Day 25: Cars

Caught in another big rainstorm at the mouth of the Klamath River, I huddled under the protective cover of an old, run-down gas station, eating a Snickers bar for comfort.  I wondered idly to myself how long the place had been out of business — the Gas 4 Less sign, now partly covered in moss, read $2.25 per gallon.  I stared at the rainsplashes in the driveway puddles, ignorant of the forecast, but looking for a sign that things were letting up.  Before long a Subaru Outback pulled up, no doubt lured in by the old sign’s false promise of amazingly cheap gas, but they kindly used the fruitless detour to ask if I needed a ride somewhere.  “No thanks, I’m all set,” I said, for perhaps the 10th time this trip.  “Stay dry!” she said with a smile as they pulled back into the traffic of Highway 101.

Though it takes all the willpower I can summon to turn down rides in the rain, I have to admit, I love not having a car.  As I mentioned in my last update, it makes life a hell of a lot easier on the trail, especially when it comes to camping.  I feel totally liberated to walk straight into any public park or beach in the evening and throw down my sleeping bag, since, as I was saying, the authorities almost never catch you, they catch your car, parked in the wrong place or not displaying the proper permitting.  And more importantly, it allows me to explore this coast largely on its own terms, on its beaches and bluffs rather than on highways, and at a pace that lends itself to thinking and watching.  My uncle says that the slower you go, the more you see, and that’s the truth.

An old coastal logging road, eaten away by the erosive ocean.

An old coastal logging road, eaten away by the erosive ocean.

Of course, NO CARS was part of “the rules” of this trek — but back at Stanford too, I loved not having a car.  It certainly gave me a lot of exercise — after a little mental pedaling, I’d estimate that I put over 5000 miles on my bicycle while at Stanford.  That’s nearly the equivalent of riding across the country from San Francisco to Washington D.C. and back, yet it never felt like a chore; it was all just in the day-to-day of riding to the office, visiting friends, or going to the grocery store.  Moreover, for me, a car is one less thing to deal with!  I love that it doesn’t matter if I drink 1 (or perhaps 5) too many at Friday Beer; I never have to worry about leaving my car, I can just ride on home and pass out.  For me personally, cars are stressful at best — what with the gas stations, smog checks, oil changes, insurance, traffic, parking — and downright dangerous at worst, responsible for over 30,000 deaths in U.S. each year.  More than rattlesnakes, black bears, and a herd of elk blocking my trail, cars are certainly the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered on my trek so far.

I love not having a car so much that it makes me wonder why the infrastructure of this country is built so completely for cars.  (I invite anyone who disagrees with the premise of the last statement to try walking from Palo Alto to San Francisco, as I did a few weeks ago.)  It struck me as so wrong-headed, as I hopped over guard rails and jogged warily across freeway interchanges, that our cities should be designed not for the people who live in them, but for the cars they drive.  It’s not simply because American culture has a torrid love affair with the automobile.  The reasons are deeper, and more nefarious, buried in a forgotten chapter of American history.  The human-car romance was not love-at-first-sight spontaneous; it was manufactured — designed and calculated by the industries that stood to gain.

Back in the 1920s, our American cities looked rather different than they do today.  Nearly all transportation was via railways, on electric cable cars, trams, and trolley buses.   Bradford Snell, an anti-trust attorney with the U.S. Senate who made a career of researching the auto industry, testified that “In 1922, only one American in ten owned an automobile. Everyone except for the one in ten who owned an automobile used rail.”  The railways ran through the middle of nearly every major street in nearly every major city, with the newcomer cars relegated to the sidelines.  The railway rides were smooth, clean, safe, and quiet — which greatly influenced the health of the cities themselves.  It was at this time that Alfred Sloan, the president of General Motors, recognized an opportunity: He would motorize the American city. 


The “gas stations” of some of these small towns are endearing, like this single pump outside the general store of Westport. The handpainted blue sign says “GAS PARKING ONLY!” with a smiley-face.

General motors began a campaign to kill off the railways, spelling the demise of our burgeoning, innovative public transportation systems.  The campaign employed a mix of strategies, most notably to replace the railways with bus lines, ultimately believing that Americans would prefer not to ride the bus and would therefore purchase GM vehicles.  Using a front company with no visible ties to GM, called National City Lines, GM began to buy up and muscle out the streetcar companies, ripping up the tracks, heaping the railcars in junkyards, and replacing them with Yellow Coach buses.  Soon the oil and tire companies joined in financing the destruction of the railway system.  After a major exposé by a man named Edwin Quinby in the 1940s, the government finally took notice and began an investigation, ultimately finding the corporations guilty of conspiracy to monopolize local transportation.  Each of the corporations was fined a measly $5000.  But billions of dollars in lobbying and advertising later, cars are still king, and our public transportation is still mired in some other era, in worse shape than it was a century ago, perhaps the poorest public transportation system in the industrialized world — and the result is endless congestion, motor deaths, carbon pollution, and cities that you can barely walk through.  This is all known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, detailed in the excellent 1996 documentary Taken for a Ride (highly recommended!).  It is surely not the only reason for the decline of U.S. public transportation, but it surely is a big bad one.

If you’re like me, reading this story might make your blood boil a little bit.  This secretive campaign by industry was so duplicitous, so transparently self-interested, seemingly with no regard for the public good…  Shouldn’t it be people and their elected representatives, not industries, that decide what kind of world we want to live in?  I can’t help but wonder what our cities would look like now if public transportation had been free to keep progressing and innovating.  Something tells me that people wouldn’t be spending a full work week each year stuck in traffic, or eat 1 in 5 of their meals in the car.  The incomparably ugly freeway interchanges — fenced, littered, and graffitied — might be green space in a public transportation corridor.  Suburbia might not have sprawled out and gobbled up our countryside as it did in the post-war years.

But if your blood is boiling, if your indignation is riled, fear not!  When it comes to cars, America is slowly changing.  More and more young people, especially those living in urban areas, are asking the superb question, “Why would I want this expensive, loud, dangerous vehicle that I can’t seem to find a parking space for anyway?  Wouldn’t I rather bike, walk, or train to work, saving money and getting some fresh air and exercise to boot?”  I’ve seen it happening around me — this past year, I lived with 3 fellow Stanford students in a completely car-free household — and it worked!  Sure, carless-ness made the occasional climbing and hiking trips to the mountains a bit more complicated, but it’s easy enough (and more fun) to catch a ride for a trip like that.  (Or, if you run the numbers as my friend Hari did, it’s still far cheaper to rent a car for trips to the mountains every other weekend than to own one).  The point is, car ownership is no longer a given for young people in this country, even for young parents with children.  The net result?  Car ownership is actually going down in the U.S. — even accounting for the recent economic downturn.  Bike sharing programs, web-based car-pooling programs, and free Wi-Fi on buses and trains are all helping drive us away from driving.

Plants busting up through the asphalt on the shoulder of Highway 1.

Horsetail busting up through the asphalt on the shoulder of Highway 1.

Of course, this promising trend is overshadowed by global patterns, where major developing nations such as Brazil, India, and especially China are rolling out cars at a dizzying rate.  Back in 2010 there was a traffic jam outside of Beijing, in case you didn’t hear about it, that stretched over 100 km and lasted for 9 days.  On the bright side (if you can call it that) a new industry sprang up overnight around this fiasco, bringing food and water to the poor stuck people, and carting away their excrement.  Spectacles like this are only going to become more common as the global car population grows from about 1 billion today to more than 3 billion by the middle of the century.

So, the falling car ownership in the U.S. is overshadowed by global trends — but it is not negated by them.  Our mistakes in this country — the collusion of industries, inadequate government oversight, and the loss of our priceless public transportation infrastructure — as well as the new change of heart in our nation’s young, stand as a cautionary tale and point an arrow towards a better future, for civic leaders and urban planners who cock an ear and listen.



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