Car Wars

I went to a talk yesterday by Martin Melosi on the historical impact of the automobile on American cities. Melosi is an urban and environmental historian who’s written several big books on urban transportation, communication, and sanitation networks. His talk was heavy on facts and anecdotes and light on conclusions, so my notes on it will be too. But it was interesting.

Modern streets and roads are (like young academics) highly specialized. They have one thing they’re good at—collectors, commercial strips, arteries, ring roads, dispersers—and they’re not very good at anything else.

Cars have a voracious appetite for land. Leaving aside pollution, traffic congestion, dependence on fossil fuels, they just take up a whole lot of space. The average car is parked for 90% of its lifetime, and even when used remains nearly empty. As a result, about half of a modern city’s total land area is dedicated to automobiles and designed to their specifications: streets, driveways, garages, and parking lots. Ronald Horvath called this “machine space.” Machine space is not public space in any meaningful way. In fact, machine space can be remarkably hostile to human life. We live in segregated cities: human beings are unwelcome in half of our own cities, unless chaperoned by our automobiles. (NB: I’m paraphrasing and editorializing here. Martin Melosi didn’t use loaded terms like “segregation.” That’s me being overdramatic. But he did say that in many parts of Houston you can be ticketed for walking without a car.)

Melosi is too good a historian to fall pray to technological determinism. The effects of the automobile are socially and politically constructed—they are choices we make, not inevitable impacts of the technology. For instance, it’s common to say that western cities like L.A. or Houston sprawl like they do because they grew up after the automobile. But that kind of growth was also dependent on patterns in municipal politics after WWII that gave big city governments sweeping powers of annexation. And the modern “ring city” is similarly a product of the political power of the exurbs and suburbs.

All that said, it is striking how virtually all the choices made in postwar American urban planning have been in line with what is best for the car. Street systems a hundred years ago were, Melosi said, “about as poorly designed for cars as it was possible for them to be.” Today the opposite is true.

The first question came from a great old codger who insisted on calling Eisenhower “General” Eisenhower, which always mildly amuses me, like people who call Muhammad Ali “Cassius Clay.” Somehow he managed to get a dig in at Michael Dukakis (“I think Michael Dukakis is a piece of shrimp stuck to a piece of baloney!”), which took some doing, because who the hell said anything about Michael Dukakis? But his question was about the Cold War rationale for building the Interstate Highway System to move troops or evacuate cities in case of nuclear war. Melosi said that claim was really secondary. The federal government wanted to build highways for commerce and traffic relief, but the defense rationale was required to allow the federal government to move into highway building, traditionally a power of the states. I’d never heard that explanation before.

Another question was whether the modern “multi-nucleic” city—cities where there is “no there there” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland—could fulfill the city’s “historic role as a bastion of social diversity.” That kind of stumped Melosi. It would have stumped me as well. I don’t know if I grant the premise that cities have always behaved in that way, but certainly it’s interesting to think about.

Follow Up: The NYT Magazine this week (9.26.04) had a section on automobiles, including a strange article called “The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)” that allegedly offers “a social, moral, and environmental case for driving more.” I don’t actually think it does anything of the kind, but it does smear environmentalists as snobs and anti-populist aristocrats.

The looniest part of the article suggests adopting the term “Gulfstream liberal” to describe all those snooty liberal anti-car activists who fly around the country in private Gulfstream jets. (Huh? Wha? Only liberals use private jets?) (The article mentioned by name exactly two (2) liberals who used Gulfstream jets: Arianna Huffington (is she really a liberal?) and, um, someone else. The wife of Larry David, I think.) Apparently, those oh so liberal Gulfstream jets burn ten times more fuel per passenger on a cross-country trip than an airliner, and twice as much as an all-American Humvee. Which would appear to mean that a Hummer burns five times more fuel than a freaking commercial airliner, but that wasn’t the author’s point.

So that was demented, but then the next article cheered me up completely: FLYING CARS!