Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Finding Persons Walking In LA

Henry Grabar in Salon:
"There’s this recycled myth that L.A. was built around the car... Empirically, it’s just not true. The vast majority was built around streetcar lines, the most extensive rail system in the world." ... "This vision of L.A. as the freeway capital of the world is only a small piece of what L.A. really represents... It has great bones. It has fantastic neighborhoods, many of them built at a time when designing was really for walkability." In their view, building the freeways was the great experiment, the imported philosophy, the reshaping. And it never really worked. Traffic and air pollution pushed the city to reorganize its transportation future around a heavy rail system, which opened in 1990 and continues to expand... “We’re trying to unearth that original blueprint” ... "Younger people have decided not to own cars, take public transit, and be generally part of the solution rather than the problem."
Many of these themes resonate for me quite strongly. I agree that a generation of young people treated as trash have noticed that they don't need the hassle of the cars their parents purchased to pretend they were rugged romantic individualists with, just as they have also noticed that their parents and their cars treated the planet like trash too, the only planet they and we all have to live on. An underwater railroad to a sustainable tomorrow is coming into view, with a tide-turning re-orientation of public policy priorities with this rising generation to zoning for walkable cities and the connection of rural lifeways to sustainable mass transit with private cars as the exception and not the rule.

When it comes to it, Car Culture was just one more catastrophically failed futurological experiment in elite-incumbent fraud, like the phony redemptive fantasy after Hiroshima of nuclear energy too cheap to meter. Car Culture crammed Molloch's maw with once thriving liveable walkable city neighborhoods, all to feed the military industrial complex with which America ended the Depression and won its war (and for nearly half a century the spoils of a world we spoiled).

Just as atomic age helices and sparkles and on the kitchen curtains and chrome starbursts on the floorlamps could not turn the frown of Hiroshima upside down... nor could the green counterrevolutionary con of industrial monoculture with its petrochemical soopertractors, fertilizers, and pesticides hide its unsustainable soil and aquifer depletion, lack of resilience and diminishing yields... nor could rainbow-brite petro-plastic tupperware super-abundance hide the crap of the container or the crap it contained or the landfills that swelled to conceal them... nor could the irrational exuberance in Robert Moses' paeans to frictionless traffic flow conceal the white racist flight, the demolished communities, the congestion, the smog, the road rage...

All these phony futurologies set the stage for the neoliberal dematerialization materialized in digital-divides, deregulatory frauds, and white flight from shared governance to frowny-faced Nixonian and smiley-faced Reaganomic retro-futurism. Let us hope that with the refusal of the collective hallucination of Car Culture, perhaps just in the nick of time, we can turn from the delusive reactionary fantasies of The Future to the necessary sustainable problem-solving through shared good democratic governance in planetary polyculture, in the futurity of the present opened up by the ineradicable diversity of the stakeholders who share in the living in it and making of it.


Nick Randhawa said...

Hey Professor Carrico,

While I agree that we need to do away with our dependence on car culture in the US, don't you feel that it played some necessary part in us actually being able to transition to a car free culture? I say this while thinking of Marx and his view that capitalism was a necessary stage for the era of communism. I mean if we just walked everywhere we probably would never have had that video "Google Google Maps Maps" lol.



Dale Carrico said...

The demolition of extensive existing urban and transcontinental passenger rail infrastructure preceded the emergence of Car Culture. Commutes in many American cities via public transportation were quicker and more convenient over a century ago than today.

The destruction of this working system was sponsored by big oil and burgeoning car manufacturers that had gained extraordinary ascendency and vast industrial plant in the effort to supply first Britain then Russia (via FDR's Lean-Lease) then our own tanks and planes for WWII. The proposals were futurological, full of promises of sleek air conditioned missile cars coursing through empty lanes like avatars through cyberspace. The postwar creation of Eisenhower's vast interstate highway system (modeled on the Nazis autobahns), slashed through thriving neighborhoods of color in many cities, enabling the white surburban flight that destroyed the urban tax base through the mid-century postwar boom and incubated the famous late 20thC crisis of the inner cities (a crisis that became the pretext for the first neoliberal looting proposals mislabeled "development"), while establishing the environmental catastrophe and social anomie of surburban sprawl.

Car ownership was on the rise in any case, and rural transportation was importantly inadequate prior to the 1920s, and it is likely that cars would have become an everyday part of life in any case and it would be the responsibility of accountable government to generate infrastructural affordance for that reality as a public good. But the prioritization of freeway construction over passenger rail, the zoning of cities for parking rather than walkability, the support of costly suburban sprawl over affordable mixed use urban housing development were the deliberate and disastrous choices that created not car use but Car Culture in the United States. These choices were driven by parochial profit taking on the part of incumbent elites and both expressed and facilitated white racism every step of the way.

Of all the things to take from Marx, his technological determinism and historical determinism more generally are probably the worst possible theses to take seriously.