The American Car Culture Is Running Out of Gas

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The Philadelphia Inquirer

The American Car Culture Is Running Out of Gas

John Timpane

Call it a change of plan.

Across the nation, the price of gasoline is sending more and more Americans to public transit.

This ridership surge points up three things: (1) These millions of new riders can do it. Most of them always could have. They just didn't. (2): We're not at the end of car culture yet . . . that's a few generations off . . . but (3) it's clear, in not-quite-hindsight, that the U.S. car culture does not work.

Meanwhile, more people are parking the car and hopping on the train or bus. Just ask the people at SEPTA. Director of public affairs Richard Maloney says: "It's been a steady upward curve for the last 18 months, 14 percent growth in that time and 24 percent in the last three years, driven primarily by gasoline prices." Growth is greatest, he says, in regional rail, among suburban communities, and among people with long car commutes.

On the eastern side of the Delaware, New Jersey Transit's Trenton-to-Camden River Line had its best-ever quarter ended in September, averaging a record 7,900 riders a day, and followed that with another record quarter through December. And the Delaware River Port Authority says ridership on the PATCO High-Speed Line is up 7 percent from a year ago.

All of which fits a big national pattern. According to a May 10 New York Times survey, metro Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco all are seeing ridership spikes, with big gains both where public transit is long-established (New York, Boston) and where it is comparatively new (Houston, Charlotte, N.C.).

Clarence W. Marsella, chief executive of the Denver Regional Transportation District, told the Times that gasoline prices had brought on a "tipping point" regarding ridership. Maybe so. Or is this just momentary, and once we get used to higher prices, we'll backslide into former habits?I can imagine a reasonable objection: "The car culture doesn't work? The car has made our lives possible! It has made this country great, made contemporary life what it is today. Life without cars - without the unquestioned right to personal mobility at will - is unimaginable. You couldn't have the suburbs without the auto. Didn't Frank Lloyd Wright design his modern suburbs based on the car? And Levittown . . ."

Agreed. All true. Car culture got us where we wanted when we wanted - for five generations. Much has been spectacular, beyond what could have been dreamed 100 years ago.

How, then, can I say that car culture doesn't work? Because the cost to individual and communal life, and to the environment, has been too high. And the bill is just now coming due.

It's not evil, just heedless. People take the opportunities they're given. They have the right. The car symbolizes freedom, rights of passage, career, sexuality. We've created the national road system, bought hundreds of millions of cars, based hundreds of millions of lives on the assumption that Hey, we can just drive. But all that time, we've been burning resources, replacing none. (How much steel have we put back in the ground? How much oil?)

We've basically laid the environment to waste, millions of acres never to return, all because there was no plan B. Roads are good things - but where you build a road, you outrage an environment, and no one ever rectifies it. The sad sprawl of the 1980s and 1990s, when people let towns metastasize into hastily planned and built exurban strips - that worked well, didn't it?

And does anyone think the morning and evening rush is good for us? Individually and as a society? Single drivers (70 percent and more in many metro area traffic jams) in single cars, edging ahead, until sometimes it seems as if the ambient blood pressure is about to blow? (Studies show traffic jams do contribute to stress and high blood pressure. But you knew that.)

And wasteful: The car commute amounts to a willing sacrifice of billions of hours of precious, productive time. U.S. Census figures suggest the average U.S. driver spends 100 hours commuting a year (the standard vacation, 10 work days of eight hours apiece, is only 80 hours). Philadelphia ranks fifth among cities with a long one-way commute (29.4 minutes); New Jersey ranks third among states (28.5 minutes). Traffic jams waste time, and therefore bucks: A 2007 Texas Traffic Institute study said that in 2005, folks wasted an average of 38 hours a year stalled, for grand totals of 4.2 billion hours, 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and a loss to the economy of $78.2 billion. That's what I call not working. (At least you can work on a train or bus.)

This has wrecked family life for many who live farther and farther from work - and so work farther and farther from home. It has created the commuter suburb, whose residents have little to do with their towns except, just about, the bed where they happen to sleep between commutes. How great is that?

We will all put up with it, as long as we can get where we're going.

I sure did. It's with us for the foreseeable. But no one has to love it. Many are now finding there are other ways. As oil gets scarcer and pricier, people may start to work closer to home, based on resources. They're starting to, it seems. That may benefit cities, with people increasingly opting for "elegant density" and closeness to work and amenities. We should have been doing this all along. We just weren't paying attention.

So, no, we haven't reached the tipping point - we've reached a pocketbook point. When things really tip, we'll discover - gasp - we don't have enough trains and buses for those who need them. (Already, says Maloney, SEPTA "has every available car in service" and is "searching internationally" for more train cars.)

Life will change. The roads will start getting lonely. It's a while off - but worth thinking about. Maybe then we'll make a plan B.

John Timpane is the associate editor of the Inquirer Editorial Board and editor of Currents.

© Copyright 2008 Philly Online, LLC.

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