Sunday, September 26, 2004
Regular MOJ readers know that several of us are interested in questions of urban planning, land-use policy, etc. So, consider spending a few minutes with this article by John Tierney in today's New York Times magazine: "The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)".
The article is a gold mine, and includes discussions of some really interesting things being done with highway design, toll-road policy, etc. -- particularly in San Diego.
Here's a quote:
Americans still love their own cars, but they're sick of everyone else's. The car is blamed for everything from global warming to the war in Iraq to the transformation of America into a land of strip malls and soulless subdivisions filled with fat, lonely suburbanites. Al Gore called the automobile a ''mortal threat'' that is ''more deadly than that of any military enemy.'' . . .
I sympathize with the critics, because I don't like even my own car. For most of my adult life I didn't even own one. I lived in Manhattan and pitied the suburbanites driving to the mall. When I moved to Washington and joined their ranks, I picked a home in smart-growth heaven, near a bike path and a subway station. Most days I skate or bike downtown, filled with righteous Schadenfreude as I roll past drivers stuck in traffic. The rest of the time I usually take the subway, and on the rare day I go by car, I hate the drive.
But I no longer believe that my tastes should be public policy. . . .
Like Tierney -- and like many other academic / "BoBo" / Jane Jacobs-loving types -- I prefer smaller, older houses; sidewalks; mixed-use development; density; etc. I also find mind-numbingly tedious the hectoring of many "anti-sprawl" types, whose opposition to suburbs seems to stem as much from snobbery toward "those people" who live in them as it does from real data or a principled embrace of a strong community ethos. Tierney challenges many assumptions -- particularly unexamined environmentalist dogmas like "we are losing too much farmland", or "commute times are getting longer and longer" -- that are not challenged often enough.
Discussing a group of theorists he calls the "autonomists", Tierney writes:
These thinkers acknowledge the social and environmental problems caused by the car but argue that these would not be solved -- in fact, would be mostly made worse -- by the proposals coming from the car's critics. They call smart growth a dumb idea, the result not of rational planning but of class snobbery and intellectual arrogance. They prefer to promote smart driving, which means more tolls, more roads and, yes, more cars.
Drawing on authorities ranging from Aristotle to Walt Whitman, the autonomists argue that the car is not merely a convenience but one of history's greatest forces for good, an invention that liberated the poor from slums and workers from company towns, challenged communism, powered the civil rights movement and freed women to work outside the home. Their arguments have given me new respect for my minivan. I still don't like driving it, but now when the sound system is blaring ''Thunder Road'' -- These two lanes will take us aaanywhere -- I think Bruce Springsteen got it right. There is redemption beneath that dirty hood.
If I remember correctly, Alan Ehrenhalt made a similar point in his wonderful book, "The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America."
Now, I would not endorse the argument that "because automobiles and sprawl both reflect and enable autonomy, automobiles are therefore good." Still, I'm chastened by observations like this:
Intellectuals' distaste for the car and suburbia, and their fondness for rail travel and cities, are an odd inverse of the old aristocratic attitudes. The suburbs were quite fashionable when only the upper classes could afford to live there. Nineteenth-century social workers dreamed of sending crowded urbanites out to healthy green spaces. But when middle-class workers made it out there, they were mocked first for their ''little boxes made of ticky-tacky'' and later for their McMansions. Land Rovers and sports cars were chic when they were driven to country estates, but they became antisocial gas-guzzlers once they appeared in subdivisions.
I'd welcome others' reactions. . . .