All The Roads are Haunted

Driving and Dying Every Day

We’ve all seen the little crosses and corsages left standing, undisturbed, along the highways and byways of the world. One of the great miseries and mysteries of humanity is the automobile. We climb into our little, mobile living pods, and rev powerful engines, take to the roads for absolutely everything. We go to the store, go to work, take our kids our school – everything, everything – driving – driving – driving. Car sales are up. Warren Buffet is buying car dealerships. The planet is choking on our exhaust fumes, and we’re driving, driving, driving. In all the talk of the dangers of socialized health insurance, and the mandate to maintain health insurance, the little niggling tidbit underneath the headline was the necessary distinction between car insurance and human insurance. Apparently, cars are a luxury, not a necessity. I challenge anyone to live in any city in America west of the New England states without an automobile. Have fun on those 3 hour bus rides, those endless, endless bus rides that swallow every waking moment between work and home into a commute. No, my friend, we all need cars, too. We all need private insurance for our cars. It would be cheaper and safer if there was universal car insurance, but no one wishes to even have that discussion when the idea of socialized medicine is apparently too contentious for polite society. It would also be cheaper and safer to reconsider how we build our cities.

Death rides on these roads, with us. “Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people are killed in road crashes each year and as many as 50 million are injured. Projections indicate that these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years unless there is new commitment to prevention.” (WHO World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention) If a disease was killing 1.2 million people, annually, and critically-injuring 50 million a year, it would be an epidemic with a charity foundation or two, and countless hours of research into the solution for the deadly illness. Instead, design, itself, is responsible for our condition, and we intentionally design towards the goal of cars, wrapping our new communities around roads designed for them, and bending old communities until automobiles will fit. We pay a price for this, in blood.

A school bus driver was recently arrested in San Antonio for fleeing the scene of a deadly accident that he had caused. He pulled out in traffic, and an 18-wheeler had to swerve to avoid hitting the bus. Instead, the semi slammed head-on into another vehicle, instantly killing the man inside. At around 6:00 am, the dead man was likely on his way to work. At that hour, it is unclear if there were children in the bus to witness the accident. Presumably, the children would get on later, and the driver, with adrenaline and shaking hands after his near-miss, would have pretended nothing happened. Just another day, and there was a crazy accident, and now the kids are off to school. A softball team was in a bus accident, and members of the team died so young, with so much unfulfilled promise. Drunk drivers kill someone daily, and keep killing. Texting and driving kills. Don’t drive distracted.

In the Netherlands, a town proposed a novel solution to promote safe driving. They took down every road sign – every single one. There are no speed limits, no huge glaring retail signs, and no road markers. Everyone is expected to figure out stop signs for themselves. Everyone is expected to be responsible for each other, and drive responsibly. The jury is still out on the long-term impact of this system. The people are certainly skeptical. The idea is to make the roads more dangerous, ergo everyone must slow down and make eye contact and try to engage with what’s happening instead of just relying on right of way. In theory, it makes sense, but it is hard to be the town where the testing occurs. It is hard to watch kids walk to school in the town that will be trying something new wherein the roads are made less safe on purpose to increase awareness, which will – somehow – magically produce safer roads.

When do we stop blaming drivers and start blaming roads, as a concept, and the cars themselves? At what point do we admit that the system of highways and intersections that slice up our streets are also a cut into flesh, where we prefer the convenience to the many over the lives of the few.

People love their cars

Horses are dangerous, too. Horse manure was such an inundating force in the ancient world that whole systems of agriculture depended on the constant input of horse manure as fertilizer, which was only recently replaced by the artificial nitrogen fertilizers that have steadily increased with the spread of modern agricultural techniques.  As a replacement for horses, cars have much to recommend them. They are faster, stronger, poop in a manner that requires no individual human energy to clean up, do not have brains and wills that can cause pain, and can be constantly re-engineered for safety feature after safety feature. People are trained to see their car as an extension of their self. They are designed to have faces where the headlights, bumper and grill combine to form something resembling an abstract face. Some of them even look like stormtrooper helmets. We are fed advertisement after advertisement, and see them as a status symbol. The care that we drive will change the perception of us. Driving the wrong car in the wrong neighborhood sends a message that we don’t belong and the cops will pull us over. A beat-up, used car in a nice neighborhood is a magnet for police inspection. A fancy, gussied-up foreign machine in a poor neighborhood is the same sort of draw in the poorer neighborhoods. We are what we drive. And, we should be careful to pour so much of our sense of identity into any inanimate object.

Loving our car is loving one’s image of ourselves in the car, loving the thing that the car says about  us. Cars don’t speak, though. Cars just drive. They have no soul, no heart, and no stake in the world. Pumping them up with computers and artificial intelligence is only going to make them less human, more artificial. They will no longer be extensions of our living spaces; they will become their own proprietary space within which we are only a visitor. They will burn fuel of one sort or another with the indifference with which aphids devour weak plants.

They came from somewhere, too. A mountain was ripped open, naked rock exposed to air and all life stripped away to get to minerals below. The oil was pumped up from the ocean floor, where delicate habitats are damaged over plastic and machine parts that will be made from the oil. The metals were smelted – even electric cars will have metal parts that are smelted – and there will be smoke and fire and heat. There will be rare earth minerals in batteries that will be toxic for a thousand years after the car has moved beyond useful life. When the car is done, what happens to it? Where will it go? Some junkyard will lay it out for parts; some shipyard will move mangled pieces of metal to scrapyards and scrap metal buyers and all the world will make large vehicles to move the dead vehicles into facilities that can reuse the materials for new vehicles, someday. Repurpose the dead. Tear it apart and rebuild.

Love these cars, and pour into them. They do not love back.

Asleep at the Wheel in Urban Planning

There’s this scene in the documentary about the renowned architect Louis Kahn, talking about his failure to influence the redesign of downtown Philadelphia. He envisioned a space more like the great European cities, where people leave their cars in parking garages outside the downtown areas and spend much of their time on foot. He was shouted down. Today, in south Philly, people will triple park, park in the median, park anywhere they can. People will squeeze their cars into every crack and crevice. It was too hard to imagine a world where every street isn’t lined with cars, where every road cannot be used for pedestrian traffic, and there will be no more stickball in the street for the kids, who must stay off the street lest they die.

Our urban spaces have become incredibly dangerous for children as a result, in part, of our obsession with cars. Horses aren’t particularly safe around free-roaming kids, nor is the stench and wanton phage of pounds of manure particularly wholesome for children, but not everyone had horses. Most people walked or found alternative transport to their desired destination. City blocks used to be more like a tiny village, as they are still in parts of New York, all over the country like New York, with all these wonderful neighborhoods united in bowling leagues and churches and festivals. There are so many pieces to blame; alienation in our communities does come from cars, at least for some part. The suburban communities have become the places go to get away from their family and old neighborhood, not the place to reunite on the other side of the stress and urban decay. We separate, because our cars give us the freedom to drive out past the highway, past the old neighborhood, and out farther and farther away, commuting in to work, so our kids can go to school somewhere they can walk and be safe. It is ironic that we use the very thing that most makes our streets unsafe for children to make possible a living situation that we choose to make our lives safer with out children.

Urban planning has so embraced automobiles that suburban enclaves are designed with them in mind. Dead end streets funnel out to winding arteries that connect with thoroughfares that connect with highways. Everything is connected by a road. Even where there are no sidewalks, there are roads. Carving through the canyons of our inner cities, there are roads like rivers that flood in steel twice a day, and sometimes three times, when the flood of commuters strikes. Even when we imagine our public transportation, it is mostly buses, which are just like cars except larger and they make more stops. Trains are passe. Streetcars are quaint and really only for tourist districts. There is no other form of public transportation, really. No one has bothered to imagine or design anything, because people love their cars. With love comes a failure of the imagination to see beyond the limitations of the beloved. This infatuation extends long into old age when the independence of being able to drive is taken too far by our aging neighbors, and dangerous drivers with slow reaction-times roam through our communities with far more regularity than drunk drivers, who are generally only operating in certain times of day.

There is No Backup Plan

Any time a system that is vital to the safety and well-being of the community can fail without a backup, that system is just not robust. In Atlanta, the roads failed. A simple ice storm arrived, and about half an inch of ice on the road became so crippling that people were stranded across the city, abandoned their cars and ditches and found temporary shelter in the aisles of shops and restaurants along the way home, because that tiny sliver of ice upon the road was too much. And, the back up plan involved shoe leather, and walking. For folks on one side of town, who commuted to the other, there was this moment, sitting in their car, where they had to decide to leave their car and try to find help in the storm. There was this second moment, where they were huddled into a fast food restaurant or big box store, and they had to decide whether they wanted to try to make it home on foot. Fourteen miles isn’t a moment in a car, but for an old man in an office building, it’s a two day trek into the unknown.

There was no backup plan if the roads failed.

The trains don’t run through enough neighborhoods, with enough stops. There are no bike paths or linear parks that carve a pedestrian-friendly as-the-crow-flies loop through the city. There is no other way to get from point A to point B if the roads fail.

Roads fail all the time. They put metal sheets over the broken places and put the pot holes on the list. The bridges are falling apart and need to be rebuilt. There are whole communities that will be cut off, soon, and their land will be deemed worthless without better infrastructure to reach it. If the bridges fail, what, then? If the roads collapse, what then?

Our cities and society are built upon too many things that are assumed to be eternal constants, eternal public goods. For all that the highway system did to connect our communities and open up America and the world, there are no bike trails, no new train cars, no new horse trails and kayak lines and canals. There is only the road, and always the road, and forever and ever amen.

The first road, as we know it, built expressly for automobiles, was built in 1938. ( There are people alive today who remember living in communities without cars. The roundabouts, that today are something of an annoyance in our straight ahead cars, with our traffic lights and four-way intersections, were ubiquitous, then, for the ease of the carriages that could not turn on a dime at the time. Many of our older communities, like Atlanta, have absurd roadways, weaving in and out of old footpaths and cowpaths, all swirling around and impossible, a network of roads so dense and obtuse that maps are required, or massive reconfiguration on par with what New York did to create the blocked and perfect boulevards and avenues.

In the Future, We Won’t Even Drive

One time, before I had a GPS on my phone, like we all do, now, I got lost north of Atlanta. I had to stop and ask for directions. I was told not only the way to get home. I was told why that gentlemen knew the way. It was explained to me that his cousin went to school in Alpharetta, and that’s how he knew how to get there. That’s how he knew the best way. He used to visit all the time, at that old high school in Alpharetta. He was from Dunwoody, but he had gone to prom at Alpharetta, with his cousin’s friend.

Once upon a time, stopping to ask directions meant looking a human in the face, and making a connection. One requested aid, and received it in return, a moment of time.

One time, again before GPS, I stopped in Austin, lost so very very lost, and just needed to know which way to drive to hit I-35. I knew the interstate was either this way or that way, but I didn’t know which one after getting spun around on the rat warren streets in the older neighborhoods. Gentlemen on the stoop of a convenience store chuckled a little while they confidently pointed the way, and I thought how weird that was until I realized they were pointing me in the wrong direction, and I was getting farther and farther away from the city.

These days, I have a GPS on my phone and I can charge the thing in my car. Last night, my phone ran out of power while I was crossing the city to go to a new restaurant, and I pulled over and sat in a parking lot for a few minutes with the charger plugged in to get it back on, to get back on the road with directions. I couldn’t tell you where I went, or how I got there, except to say that the GPS was correct.

They’re making self-driving cars. Soon, we will just sit in them and look out the window. We will tell the car where we want to go, and it will take us there, and along the way, we will smile dreamily at the city lights. We will all just be passengers, alone in our cars. We will love our cars. They will be like little living rooms with refrigerators tucked under the seat cushions to keep beverages cold, and perhaps a snack. Pulling into a drive-through for food, we will just hand over control of our car to the company that provides the food without a thought for hacking or malware, assuming ourselves safe. We will trust the cars with our lives with the sort of totality that one never felt about horses, who gazed back at us with such intelligent faces, such deep, demi-human good sense. The only difference between a car and a smart phone, then, will be the size of the thing, and the number of apps one can store on them for longer trips.

What will be the point of houses, then, for most of us? Rent is too damn high and will likely remain so. If our cars can drive us on renewable resources, provide such incredible shelter and comfort, and drift around anywhere we might like to go while we are sleeping, there will be no point for a single person who is able to work remotely to bother with leaving the car at all.

It will become this permanent shell. Exercise machines will be designed for commuters to keep them healthy. These commuters will chase sunsets and scenic vistas and restaurants and seasons and fleeing disasters.

Since we all love our cars with gasoline, there are going to be plenty of disasters to come. There will be plenty of reasons not to leave one’s car, if it can drive itself all night, with batteries storing the power of the sun and the occasional charging station. Commute, then, everywhere, and remain safe in the shell of the beloved machine that has so transformed us, and so quickly. One hundred years ago, our streets were for pedestrians and horses and bicycles and wild dogs and the reckless push and flood of everything at once. Now, there are only cars. Bicycles have their own special lane, sometimes. Pedestrians occasionally have sidewalks. All are subservient to the steel birds soaring at the center of everything.

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