Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ding, Ding, Ding Went the Bell

Yeah, another weird interest other than department stores. Mass transit, especially light rail.

When I read about mass transit's pretty good Election Day -- give it up in Kansas City, but things looked OK in Seattle, Honolulu and elsewhere -- I started looking for Jon Talton's take on it and Yglesias', because I believe that light rail specifically and upgraded transit in general are necessary for the health of America's cities and our global competitiveness, as do they. And thus, as noted in previous posts about the election, another area where, when I want my team to win, I don't want to read about it straight, no chaser.

And I certainly do not really want to read about it as reported by a foe of light rail such as Wendell Cox. Heck, I don't even really want to read a balanced story in which Wendell Cox is quoted as an "On the other hand" to the American Public Transportation Association.

It just makes me mad. At the same time, it was Cox who first showed me his posts from driving around European cities as they really are, and not just the central areas that Americans generally see, that suburban sprawl is not just an American disease. (Anyone been to the new giant malls on the bypass around Rome lately? Driven 15 miles northwest of Madrid and still been in suburban Madrid and stopped at a McDonald's drive-through for a Coke, and said, gee, I thought Europe was different?)

If you really want transit as a viable option, you have to acknowledge much of what Cox points out -- that the more money people have, the more apt large numbers of them are to buy single-family detached or double houses and use cars to get around to malls and highway stores. This is not just some weirdness of the United States; we just went there first because we had wide-open spaces, low cost of land, a domestic gasoline industry, a larger middle class, a government determined to make people homeowners out of fear of Bolshevism, and no need to rebuild our cities after the destruction of two wars. We decided to destroy them on our own.

But for all the abuse heaped on Los Angeles' visionaries in the 1930s and 1940s for rejecting mass transit in favor of auto-oriented development, was this not prefigured in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright? Le Corbusier and CIAM? Soria's linear city for Madrid? It seemed like a logical idea at the time, and was not simply General Motors killing the Red Cars, whether it did or not. (The genesis for this post is having seen Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," in which a very petite streetcar masquerades as a Pacific Electric interurban to Pasadena.) Los Angeles thought that being totally car-dependent would make it the city of the future; just as heavy investment in public transit now seems like a good bet in the L.A. region to its voters, having seen what unbridled growth with a car-dependent system means in 2008.

But Cox wants light rail to fail because he believes that low-density housing and auto usage for everyone is the answer. Well, fine, but I don't agree; if we all get everything, in the end none of us will be able to get anything; or, as I see Cox's view, if you win you get what you want, and if you lose, well, you lost, not my problem. And the views of mass-transit advocates -- most of them, I hope -- have progressed since the 1960s, when there was a "the world should be Manhattan or Paris" view coupled with that of people living in places such as Manhattan who didn't use cars and didn't like them and therefore thought the world would be better if no one used them. Well, fine, but America is not Manhattan any more than France is Paris. All the well-to-do Parisians may very well live in the city, but lots of rich Lyonnais appear to live in very California-like suburban houses with swimming pools and garages. That ship has sailed. Mass transit is a supplement for the car, for what mass transit can do better. Sort of like newspapers in the Internet world.

But whatever form of publication they take, one of the major problems for newspapers in the 21st century is that by nature they are neither too warm nor too cold, so, as the Bible says, people spew them out of their mouths. Newspapers try very hard to be fair, and generally succeed; yet they look at things through prisms. When the River Line light rail was proposed to run between Camden and Trenton, The Inquirer gave it fair coverage, but you could tell its prism was that light rail and mass transit are good things; it reflects the view of transit-dependent Philadelphia as well as the puritan-liberalism that too many cars are just bad for us -- self-indulgent wastes of energy and gas.

The Burlington County Times also gave it fair coverage, but its prism was that since the line was connecting two cities outside the county, how was it going to help the county; and thus it paid more attention to people in Palmyra and Riverton who didn't like the horns and feared that criminals were going to commute by rail from Camden. (The image I've always loved -- home robbers standing at the light rail station with four TV sets; the officer walks up and says, what are these? Oh, we bought them at Best Buy and carried them here. )

The Inquirer took the regional view, as a regional newspaper; the BCT the local. The Inquirer stories struck me as more positive to light rail. Yet neither paper's work was unbalanced. If you really wanted or really hated light rail, though, you probably were not happy with the coverage. Used to be you were stuck with that. Now, pro- and anti-rail groups can start their own sites and link to pro- and anti-rail stories around the world, and if light rail is your issue instead of reading the local newspaper you can spend part of your day reading My Personal Light Rail Digest Today. Newspapers see their advantage in the 21st century as providing "perspective"; but I am wondering if this is a losing game. I can get all the perspective that agrees with me I want on any issue that I choose; and if I don't care that much, do I want perspective? Maybe what I want is just to find out what's going on.

And that will bring us to Voice of San Diego -- but not for a while. A lot of traveling ahead in the next couple of weeks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With the federal, state and local governments trying to just dig out of the hole the US finds itself in, it will be decades before light rail will be taken seriously in this country. Indianapolis is talking about it alot but will need a massive infusion of federal and state money to accomplish it. In another year Indiana will be cash strapped just by paying out unemployment benfits. That will be the same for hundreds of other like minded projects.

As far as perspective goes, I was told that after reading the business section of a large metro newspaper for one year the reader should have acquired an MBA level of business knowledge - more information, less perspective.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana