Sunday, April 22, 2007

I Remember Back When We Only Had Wood Burning Cars...

Sweet Jesus, read this post by Devilstower and tell me you don't hear Grampa Simpson in your head. Apart from sounding curmudgeonly ey's also conflating two different issues, federal highways and homogeneity. Just look:

At the start of those days, it quite famously took weeks just to get from one coast to the other by driving, so we undertook (you know, for national security reasons) the greatest engineering program ever tackled by any nation on Earth -- crisscrossing the United States with a network of broad highways. It was a bold project. It was huge experiment. It was possibly the silliest thing that any people ever did to themselves.
Really? It's silly to not want it to take weeks to go from coast to coast? Ever heard of "interstate commerce"? Devilstower may be happy, wherever ey is, going without products from the other 49 states, more power to em. But me, out here in little old Rochester, I'm might happy that I can occasionally have citrus during our 11 months of winters. You know how I get my citrus? From a supermarket, which got it via truck, which delivered it via the highway system, probably all the way from sunny California. And yes, you can go on and on and on about carbon footprints and eating locally, but the fact is that reliable interstate transportation is a necessary evil. Calling it "silly" shows a complete lack of thought about this issue. But wait, it gets better:
Fifty years after we starting the concrete flowing, we have 47,000 miles of Interstate highway. 47,000 miles of mountains sliced in half, small towns either bypassed or bisected, and intersections so devoid of character that a stop in Gillette, Wyoming is indistinguishable from a stop in Greenville, South Carolina.
I suspect that Devilstower's real beef is with trans-continental homogenization. That's a real issue; I've traveled all over the place recently and have found that shit really is pretty much the same with the exception of major cities. But highways didn't cause homogenization; they may be a necessary condition, but they're not a sufficient one. Homogenization is caused, among other things, by
  • A desire for homogeneity among the populace: People like McDonald's because its a known quantity.
  • Economies of scale: It's hard for independent shops to compete with large corporations. Large corporations tend to be uniform; when they outcompete the little guy they bring uniformity in their wake.
I'm sure I could think of some more, given time, but you get the idea. Blaming the highways for there being a Starbuck's on every corner just doesn't make sense.

And don't get me started on mass transportation. Mass trans is all well and good in densely populated areas, but what about if you want to travel through the great wilderness between cities? Where am I going to find a train thats a) faster and b) less expensive than driving between Rochester and oh, say, Washington DC? I actually do that fairly regularly in about 7 hours for about $80 worth of gas. If I wanted to do it with Amtrak it'd take 10 hours and cost $118 one way. Its not competative from a price or time standpoint. And god forbid if I want to go somewhere like Lewisburg, PA, a nice little town that isn't generic yet. It's got a highway running right by it, but I can't imagine it becoming accessible by mass transit any time soon even if all of Devilstower's funding dreams were to become reality right now.

So let's summarize:

  • Mass transit is great, but it doesn't meet all transportation needs.
  • Highways are not the root of all evil. They bring us things and let us go see our friends in other cities.
  • Homogenization is real and ugly, but is not a necessary effect of an efficient interstate highway system.

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