The bane of civilization

Civilization has taken two wrong turns which are difficult to reverse. Gasoline-powered automobiles and purely residential land developments are so common in the United States that they are taken for granted. A world without these two features seems like science fiction or fantasy, but such a world would be better than our present condition in many ways.

Nineteenth century inventors in Europe and in North America experimented with several ways to improve transportation. Steam power was favored at first, but electric cars were also tried. By the end of the century, gasoline-powered internal combustion engines had prevailed over other kinds of powered vehicles. Gasoline seemed to be a more efficient energy source, requiring less time to refuel and more travel between refueling stops than electric vehicles. Gasoline was also less expensive, being a byproduct of the production of other petroleum-based chemicals such as kerosene. Electric starters and the use of lead in gasoline to prevent engine knock made gasoline-powered cars the prevailing choice of consumers in the twentieth century.

What’s wrong with gasoline-powered cars? Problem one is air pollution. Some air pollution comes from wildfires, dust storms, volcanoes, and cattle; some comes from factories, power plants, and landfills. A great deal of air pollution comes from transportation. Sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other dangerous chemicals are produced by burning gasoline. Expensive fuel additives and automobile components try to reduce air pollution from automobiles, but the benefit is insufficient. Problem two is expense. Every generation of cars is more complicated than the previous generation because of safety devices, anti-pollution technology, computer-operated components, and conveniences. What once was a helpful tool that cost a few hundred dollars and was easily maintained and repaired by the typical owner has become an investment of thousands of dollars that requires maintenance and repairs by trained professionals. Problem three is volume. Every day the roads are packed with cars (as well as trucks, buses, and motorcycles) carrying people to and from work, school, stores, social events, and other destinations. People arrive in bad moods because of the traffic. Road rage is increasingly common. Problem four is the constant construction, widening, and repair of roads, making them less usable for months, sometimes years, before the project is completed. The benefit of automobiles is largely offset by the burden these tools have become.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, the convenience of automobiles led to a change in housing patterns. At first, the United States had imitated Europe with several urban centers separated by vast regions of farmland. Small towns along transportation corridors met the needs of farmers and travelers, but most non-farmers lived in cities. They did not really need cars: they could walk to school, to work, to church, and to neighborhood stores, or they could ride a bus or a trolley to get where they wanted to go. Churches and stores did not need parking lots. People knew their neighbors because they passed each other on the streets and sidewalks and alleys. After World War II, new housing developments began to be built in the suburbs. Each house had a carport or a garage, because the only buildings in walking distance from each home were the homes of neighbors. Stores and churches built in the suburbs now needed parking lots. People did not need to meet their neighbors—they went from their houses to their cars and drove wherever they were going—to work, to church, to shop, or to the gym to exercise, since they were doing much less walking than before.
Several factors led to this new way of living. A strong economy allowed families to live further away from the cities and to drive their cars wherever they wanted to go. Attempts to end segregated education through busing persuaded a lot of families to move farther away from urban areas. Simple stubborn individuality and independence made American workers decide to live where they wanted in spite of inconvenient distances to work and shopping and church. Land developers persuaded Americans we wanted to live this way, with big housing developments and big shopping malls and superstores and everything else that goes along with these changes.

I grew up in the suburbs. I don’t hate them unconditionally. But for nine years, living in the suburbs, I was still able to walk to school; and, when we wished, my parents and I could walk to church. My father rode the train to work for several years, until the company built a new office structure in the suburbs; after that, he had to drive to work. My mother drove to the grocery store every Friday; most weeks she carpooled with my grandmother and my aunt. Occasionally the family would drive to a shopping mall to buy clothing or Christmas presents.

Now it’s a rare day when I do not drive a car. I drive to work and back. I drive to church and back. Usually I drive to the store and back—the nearest grocery store is about a mile from my house, so if I have enough time and little enough to carry home, I sometimes walk there. I drive to the bank, to the doctor’s office, and to the mall. I drive to the mechanic, or on occasion I have to pay to have the car towed there.

Civilization has spent centuries building these problems. They cannot be fixed overnight. But, in the words of Bill McCay, “There has to be a better way.” Tomorrow I will describe a better way. J.