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Reclaiming the street for Real Americans

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | December 2, 2014

Some things are central to being a Real American, things that make us the best country; others are not.  In the first category are driving alone anywhere I want;  with light traffic, few stoplights, and no tolls, pedestrians, or bicycles; parking free when I get there; and two-dollar gasoline.  The way things were for a few years in Southern California, back in the day.

Now that that’s established, the bad news: ugly facts are undermining our core values:

(1) Roads are free and a basic human right, but even patriotic politicians like Sam Brownback can’t figure out how to get them without (trigger alert, I know this is a family blog) taxes.

(2) Even if we pay for them, it seems we can’t lane-mile our way back to the golden age; every beautiful new freeway or widening is immediately congested to the pre-existing crawl.  And people are less and less willing to have neighborhoods bulldozed for highways.

What to do?  Many cities are looking at ways to get some large undeserving classes of people out of cars, leaving room for us Real Americans on the road.  I’m thinking about the ungrateful hipsters who are refusing to be their kids’ chauffeurs for  twenty years, leaving their cars behind in the Pleasantvilles where they grew up and flocking with bicycles to places like Boston and San Francisco and Brooklyn and Portland. Also poor people. A lot of these folks vote Democratic, by the way, so prima facie don’t deserve the freedom to sit alone in traffic listening to the radio.

An obvious way to do this is (another trigger alert) public transit, and not just buses stuck in traffic with the cars.  What we had all over every big city when we fought and won World War II, built Hoover Dam and the TVA, had free public universities people were proud of, and all that Commie stuff.  One form is surface light rail,  which doesn’t require tunnels, and runs in the street.  Because we trashed so much of this and lost our expertise over a half-century (especially how to build it), we are learning old lessons and reinventing wheels. Halfway down the story, we learn that:

Unlike in Europe, the United States lacks uniform standards for the basic features of a streetcar. That means customers might ask for longer, wider or faster vehicles or those that can handle different loads or ride on different suspensions. “You’re essentially designing a new vehicle. [It’s] very expensive to set up a manufacturing line and only build three or five of a particular product type,” said Yraguen, the Oregon Iron Works president.

Way back in the ’30s, the most successful streetcar in history, fairly described as the DC-3 of  urban transport, was designed by a committee of street-railway company representatives and made by different companies all over the world.  About 5,000 were built, and the PCC cars, as they are called, are still operating, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Maybe the federal government could create more value by coordination than by just sending checks?

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community (tag line: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts).

Comments to “Reclaiming the street for Real Americans

  1. Why the sneering tone when talking about “Real Americans”? Are you referring to those of us who have left the “Golden State” for the Midwest? To those who pay a good share of the taxes that provide the funds for the professorial hands that will bite them? To those who don’t see Barack Obama as a particularly inspiring leader? — Whatever the referent may be, the elitist tone is unmistakable.

  2. When any “planners” come up, with a new draft, for a viable US Constitution, give a whoop.

    We have real football and basketball, to help with the wait, at CAL, for any viable academic performance, which makes it, to this media, so whoop.

    I don’t expect any of today’s dilettantes, to put first things, first.

  3. My little critic is standing on his chair with applause and whistles, Prof. O’Hare!

    It reminds me of a native San Franciscan, getting on in years, who told me how her father, who worked in the Chronicle building on Market Street, could get from his desk at work to the dining room of their home in Vallejo using the streetcar and the ferry in less time than she can in her car today, and could do the crossword in the meanwhile. And at less cost to both the family and the larger community and the planet at large.

    Brazil and Colombia are building sky trams, while we Real Americans are setting records for sales of SUVs. It’s almost as though a corporate capitalist will sell you the rope that will hang their own children.

    We could (and do) go on and on, but let me instead shed one point of light: the figure of the flaneur in Continental literary imagination arose in the short sweet spot between effective urban street lighting installation and the arrival of car culture. Once cars came on the scene, urban walkabouts were a lot less zhe nuh say kwah.

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