Introductory Bloviation

“At moments of social transition, people are often trying to see the past in order to move forward.  Weakly stimulated by the present, we compulsively return to the past, which has the effect of eclipsing the present, which makes us return to the past.”

 Thanks, Walt Whitman, for providing such a wonderful invocation to the proceeding. And to all those who see fit setting forth toiling through this typing of mine, greetings, and welcome.

Is common sense being driven out the window?

The processes of human conurbation have always fascinated me, on myriad levels, and I’ve spent a lot of time investigating them both ethnographically and in a classroom.  And one thing that I concluded long ago, a conclusion that has only been buttressed over the years, is that transportation systems are the pulmonaries through which any urbanized area breathes while its downtown is the heart that pumps its vitality.  They are inextricably entwined and, if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other, etcetera and so forth and so on, until soon the whole system begins spiraling downwards towards inevitable collapse.  Another thing that’s true is that Americans left cities wide open for predatory redevelopers by so-called manifesting their destiny in the suburbs during the post-World War II era.  Why did they do so?  They were lured by at the very least misguided, often bigoted government highway and lending policies that subsidized suburbs at the expense of cities.  (Argue with me.  Go ahead . . .  Please, feel free.)  The myth for this exodus, i.e. that Americans just love their cars and lawns sooo much, only serves to propagate and reinforce the desires of the, if you will, Powers That Be.  (James Baldwin: “What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.”)

With that said, based upon my heretofore largely anecdotal evidence, throughout America our arterials are clogging, our downtowns are for all intents and purposes decaying, and we as a society are choking and congesting, figuratively and literally – especially here in Central Texas:

http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/2009/air_quality_big_push.htm

http://www.txdot.gov/public_involvement/ozone.htm

http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/cgi-bin/compliance/monops/ozone_actionday.pl

http://www.impactnews.com/northwest-austin/recent-news/5932-austin-barely-escapes-nonattainment-status

Air pollution adversely affects an individual’s health.  Because clean air is a basic precondition of our health it should be considered a basic human right.  Most of us in developed countries, however, are suffering from exposure to many air pollutants and, thus, it can be said our rights are being violated.

According to many researchers, airborne particulate matter decreases life expectancy and prolonged exposure to certain air pollutants can even cause human infertility.  Pollutants such as ozone irritate people’s breathing, among other things triggering asthma symptoms, and exacerbating if not outright causing heart disease.  Furthermore, researchers are beginning to link exposure to smog with autism and lower IQ scores in children, and to link the whole what can only be termed “suburban sprawl social experiment” with obesity.

And what is the primary source of air pollution?  According to many, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Transportation is the largest single source of air pollution in the United States.  It causes over half of the carbon monoxide, over a third of the nitrogen oxides, and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons in our atmosphere in 2006.  With the number of vehicles on the road and the number of vehicle miles traveled escalating rapidly, we are on the fast lane to smoggy skies and dirty air.”  All this got me wondering: “Should the so-called ‘basic God-given Americanized right to drive the biggest vehicle one can afford on an increasingly extensive roadway system’ myth that has been inculcated into and perpetuated by us virtually from birth supersede our basic human right to live our lives in a healthy manner?”

So I started to inform myself about the topic, in the process discovering such entities as the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Wendell Cox’ The Public Purpose who have things like this to say: “It appears that reducing vehicle miles would not produce a similar reduction in greenhouse gases from cars . . . It is precisely more intense traffic congestion that we can expect if federal laws and policies should force most development into present urban footprints . . . Policies aimed at reducing driving could damage the economy. . . (and) policies which seek to reduce VMT may hinder economic growth without reducing emissions”[source]; and “Densifying and centralizing, so-called ‘smart growth,’ or directed growth strategies will, if successful, worsen traffic congestion and air pollution”[source]; and, finally, “Simply put, without smart growth, the international financial crisis that has raised so much appropriate concern would have been much less severe.  Thus far, the policies of the Federal Reserve Board have failed to take notice of this important connection.  Any serious effort to prevent a repeat of such destructive price volatility will require removing these destructive land use regulations that have . . . add(ed) inordinately to the financial distress that is being felt around the world.  Economics-challenged state and local politicians must not be permitted to steer the international economy into an iceberg”[source].

Huh?

We should be driving more?  Increasing urban density will only increase the amount of vehicle miles driven per capita?  “Smart growth,” not financial shenanigans driven by the outright avaricious pecuniary greed of those nattering Babbitts, nabobs who, deregulated by Reagan, can and will do pretty much anything to anyone in order to fulfill their American Dream® of forever living beyond the business cycle, is to blame for the most recent market failure?  Come on, those people can’t be right.  Can they?  Or is it like what Doris Lessing said when she observed that “When principles are invoked, common sense goes out the window”?  And I won’t even mention Peak Oil!  (“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on,” in an aside Mark Twain whispers to me, “Or by imbeciles who really mean it.”)

Albeit and in any case, according to the above referenced Texas Public Policy Foundation report on transportation in Central Texas (and something that I am pretty certain can most likely be said about any metropolitan area throughout this fair country of ours):

  • Over the 1982-1997 period, roadway capacity has not kept up with population growth.  While population was rising 106 percent, lane miles of roadway increased by only 66 percent
  • Over the next 25 years, highway traffic demand is projected by CAMPO to more than double in the Austin area
  • Roadways would represent the overwhelming portion – 98 percent – of new demand.  It thus seems inexplicable that local transportation officials would commit such a large proportion to expensive transit strategies that by their own projections would accomplish so little

What?!  Wait a second.  We as a society, at this moment in our civilization’s epoch, must now solely focus upon building more and more highways, each bigger than the last one, in order to relieve congestion, mitigate smog and, thus, provide an anecdote to a lot of our societal illth?  Also, as soon as a highway construction project breaks ground, hasn’t it already been obviated?  And, hey, doesn’t highway construction, in and of itself, produce profound negative externalities?

Wendell Cox furthermore claims, “Fundamentally . . . rail simply does not reduce traffic congestion” and “the retreat from indefensible traffic congestion positions often leads to regrouping around another concept called ‘transit choice.’ . . . This further implies transit that is auto competitive . . . (and) the minimum requirement for auto competitiveness (is something that) is as fast or nearly as fast, from origin to destination, as the automobile” all of which “indicates a fundamental problem with transit: It is bereft of reason . . . (Because) even their long-range plans anticipate little measurable improvement in transit’s market share.”  In sum: “There is little that can be done to provide genuine transit choice.”[source]

Is I’m sure what is a most esteemed gentleman colleague of mine indeed correct?  Does transit really have to be auto competitive?  Our multi-modality should be confined to roadways, tollroads and flyovers?  We must remain wedded to automobiles as our only choice to get wherever we’d like to go whenever we’d like to get going?  Is adding more choices to our transportation system really such an illusion?  (Especially seeing as to how transit choice has historically done nothing but enhance the livability and facilitate if not outright make cities ranging anywhere from New York, San Francisco, Nashville and Boston to Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Los Angeles [Yes indeed Los Angeles] – this list can go on and on and on . . .) grow so diverse?  Isn’t the purported American Dream® all about maximizing its citizens’ choices?  Are mindsets like Cox and his ilk serving (for whatever reason; what reason, exactly?) to keep us on a bleed-until-bankruptcy transportation plan?  Just like those actuated by the banking, insurance, health, et.al. industries?  (And isn’t that the same kind of strategy Osama Bin Laden is employing against us?)

I once again re-familiarized myself with the fundamentals of cost/benefit analysis before googling the topic, which is how I came across this study on why cities use supply side strategies to mitigate traffic congestion externalities as well as the Victoria Transit Policy Institute then asked myself, “Is the effect of light rail on traffic congestion really that negligible?  Will it really accomplish so little or, in fact, adversely affect a community both socially and economically?  Might it be a good idea to employ existing, underused infrastructure rather than building more roads?”

My interest thusly piqued I furthered my research, wherein I learned that pro-road and anti-choice mentalities such as those cited above rely upon the statistical universe of the Texas Transportation Institute in order to perpetuate their myths.  A Bible within which, in order to answer my own questions and satisfy my own curiosity, I begin delving forthwith.  At this point, however, I believe another thing cannot be argued.  And it is that something must be done about something if this civilization that we call America can flourish once again instead of being bloviated beyond such abject mediocrity.

Tom Stoppard: “Every exit is an entry somewhere else.”

For more in this series please see: Commonsense? Re-fenestrated! (I); Commonsense? Re-fenestrated (II); Commonsense? Re-fenestrated (III); Contriving Multi-Modal Contrivances; and A “Truer” Cost of Sprawl?

4 responses

26 01 2012
Hillary

Are there any examples in Austin of under utilized infrastrucutre that could indeed be utilized? I have always been interested in that general idea/concept and wondered if there have been any proposals in Austin.
As far as America’s obsession with cars and lawns, I don’t think that will last forever but it will take a couple of generations for the pendulum to swing. Our parents were the baby boom generation that was raised by parents (I’m generalizing here) that were brainwashed by the mighty highway act and “American Dream” ideal. Our parents grew up believing and living that lifestyle, the norm. Of course, as time passed eyebrows started to raise as they got older and more aware bout environment, health and more but the fabric of their being was still inherently influenced by the American dream. Three even four generations later, we can’t help but subconsciously drift, like moths to the flame, to the idea that the true measure of success, the American dream is a big house, yard and a couple of auto-mobiles. Change is hard. It’s hard for one person but a whole generation? A whole America? Talk about a tectonically slow shift. It will happen but we have to be patient… Nobody, especially Americans, like to be told they are wrong or told to change. That just galvanizes them against the change. As planners and designers, we just have to keep doing our work, producing information and alternatives and eventually, the pendulum will swing. At least I think so. Common sense is there, it is just outdated.

18 03 2013
vallier

For David Parvo – Are you the same David Parvo who wrote about Strelnikoff? If so, could I send you an email? I have a project to collect music from Ljubljana (not Texas) and would like your input! Thank you…

18 03 2013
David

Yeah, man, you’ve tracked me down!…I’ll shoot you an email right quick.

25 04 2013
Jackson Cassady

Hello David, I’m sorry I didn’t see a way to contact you here other than leaving a reply. Hope you don’t mind. My name is Jackson Cassady. I lived in Austin from ’79 to ’02 before moving to Corvallis, OR where I currently hang my hat. I came across your work doing research for a story I’m writing about the South San Gabriel River. In particular I’d like to ask you about water treatment policy and development trends in Central Texas. I’ve been impressed by the breadth and depth of your involvement with quality of life issues and would be very grateful if you’d be willing to field a few questions from me by email or phone. Cheers – Jackson

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