De hunkering naar het paradijs


De auto in de ban, dit symbool van vrijheid en welvarendheid? Het is als het slachten van de kip met gouden eieren. Zeker niet slechts zuiver financieel bekeken, want wie de ruimte beheerst heeft de macht in handen, mogelijk zelfs de absolute macht. Dat is de achtergrond van het autosysteem. Het is ingebonden in het zo door Eisenhower gedoopte “militair-industrieel complex”, waarvan hij, o ironie, als de grondlegger beschouwd kan worden.
De wisselwerking tussen oorlogsvoering en vredestijd en die met daadwerkelijke wapens werd geïnstitutionaliseerd, niet alleen aan de productiekant maar ook door een ongekende infrastructuur. Hiervan was Eisenhower de geestelijke vader met zijn z.g. Defense Highways. De naam is program. Saillant, zo kregen de Duitsers eer voor hun vooruitziende blik, die door Hitler onder zijn regime tot uitvoer werd gebracht. De slogan toen en nu: “Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger”.
Er is alles voor te zeggen dat fascisme zijn meest wezenlijke uitdrukking vindt niet in het politieke bedrijf maar in het beheersen van de ruimte.



They crowd streets, belch carbon, bifurcate communities, and destroy the urban fabric. Will we ever overcome our addiction?

Adam Gopnik


For many Americans, cars are as potent a symbol of freedom as guns are, even if they have similarly destructive consequences.Photograph by René Burri / Magnum


“The Honeymooners” (1955-56), the greatest American television comedy, is—to a degree more evident now than then—essentially a series about public transportation in New York. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) is a New York City bus driver, deeply proud to be so and drawing a salary sufficient to support a nonworking wife in a Brooklyn apartment, not to mention a place in a thriving bowling league and membership in the Loyal Order of Raccoon Lodge. His employer is the Gotham Bus Company, which seems to be the sort of private-public enterprise that, like the I.R.T., built the subways. He and his best friend, Ed Norton (Art Carney), who works in the sewers, make daily use of the subway and bus system, which was designed to whisk the outer-borough working classes into light-industrial Manhattan. Neither the Kramdens nor the Nortons seem to own an automobile. When Ed and Ralph go to Minneapolis for a Raccoons convention, they take a sleeper car on a train.

What’s striking is that no one watching in the fifties needed to think about any of this. Public transportation was the self-evident bedrock of working-class life. Yet it was also in the mid-fifties that the hipsters and beatniks and rebels feverishly celebrated the car and the burst of autonomy, even anarchy, it offered to postwar life. In Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the car was the vehicle of liberty for the bohemian kids of those working-class Brooklynites. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” pities those “who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on Benzedrine / until the noise of wheels and children brought them low,” while dreaming wetly of the glories of the open road, which leads to sex, possibly with an idealized version of Neal Cassady, subsequently memorialized as Kerouac’s irresistible Dean Moriarty. Cars are for poets and outlaws, the subway for the intimidated and the enslaved.

Kramden and Norton vs. Kerouac and Ginsberg: today, everything has flipped. Public transit is now the cause of the reforming classes, and the car their villain. The car is the consumer economy on wheels: atomizing, competitive, inhuman—and implicitly racist, hiving people off to segregated communities—while the subway and the train are communal zendos. Good people ride bicycles and buses; bad people ride in ever-bigger cars. Capitalism, not Dean Moriarty, is in the front seat.

The history of transportation will always be social history, writ large. Food tastes can change from decade to decade, even from year to year; the history of transportation tends to span half-century intervals, marking whole epochs in consciousness. How we move unites us. The Paris Métro and the New York subway, built at roughly the same time, undergird two cities where people ate and made love in different ways but remained modern, in large part, because they moved rapidly in units. The weary and wary faces of Daumier’s people, in his images of “Les Transports en Commun,” are still familiar. Any insular New Yorker instantly “gets” Paris and its Métro; it’s harder for us to “get” Los Angeles.

Perhaps because transportation histories take place on such a big scale, they tend to be highly moralizing: we can be amused by the small gradations in how we eat, but major alterations in how we move must have, we think, some cause or even conspiracy behind them. And so the history of roads and what runs on them often ignores the tragedies of good intentions and the comedies of unintended consequences that genuinely got them going. People routinely insist, without evidence, that the wide boulevards of Paris were built by Baron Haussmann to prevent revolutionary barricades, even though boulevards were a nearly universal feature of urban development in the later nineteenth century; Philadelphia built them extravagantly, and Kansas City boasted that it had more boulevards than Paris, without any Communards to cannonade. People always maintain, similarly, that the big auto manufacturers killed L.A.’s once efficient public-transit system, leaving the city at the mercy of polluting and gridlocked cars. That this is, at best, a very partial truth does not weaken its claim on our consciousness. Even our local effort to cast “master builder” Robert Moses as a unique culprit in the story of what went wrong in New York—too many expressways and not enough trains—runs into the fact that Moses was essentially executing ideas that nearly all reformers of his era shared; what happened in New York happened in other big Northern cities at the same time. Meanwhile, the preservationist movement that stopped his worst plans is now under fire from the same progressives who used to despise him.

Two new books take up the case against cars, the dominant mode of twentieth-century transportation, from a generally progressive perspective. Daniel Knowles’s “Carmageddon” (Abrams), despite its jokey title, is a serious diatribe against cars as agents of social oppression, international inequality, and ecological disaster. Henry Grabar’s “Paved Paradise” (Penguin Press) is an anti-parking polemic, with many bits of mordant social history related in a good-natured and at times puckish vein. Both books make an argument for alternatives—rapid transit, trains and trolleys, bicycles—but they spend most of their time damning the current conjuncture.

For Knowles, cars are unredeemable instruments of evil. He is a writer for The Economist, and his book reads like a series of Economist pieces: briskly written, well researched, and with a knack for landing the significant statistic right after the crisply summarized argument. Though he has a few horse-and-buggy narrative mannerisms—he insists on ending a chapter with a paragraph foreshadowing the contents of the next—he is passionate about his subject. Cars are dangerous beyond description, their noxiousness beyond the planet’s power to scrub away. America has exported its car addiction to the developing world, where congestion, pollution, and destruction of the urban fabric are even worse than they are here. The swelling metropolises of emerging nations, such as Brazil’s São Paulo, are bad mock Los Angeleses, their economies stalled along with their traffic: “A huge amount of economic growth has been squandered, with the extra income that people are earning being spent sitting in traffic on ever-more polluted roads, instead of on actually living better lives.”

No remedy seems possible. The electric car is a chimera, producing more pollution in its construction than its existence justifies, and the dream of a driverless car can never be realized. Knowles details the casualties caused by driverless cars, with perhaps too obvious pleasure. (Overreacting to accidents is a bad habit when it comes to new kinds of transportation: the disaster of the Hindenburg helped end dirigible travel, a mostly safe, efficient, and by all accounts exceptionally pleasant means of conveyance. “Oh, the humanity!” an announcer famously moaned as he watched it burn, but humanity would probably have benefitted from more and better blimps.) Still, Knowles is persuasively scathing about the absurdity of Elon Musk’s version of a subway—an underground tunnel that sends individual Tesla cars looping through Las Vegas, common train compartments having evidently been judged crime-prone.

Knowles does ride several slightly dated hobbyhorses, often imputing cupidity as an explanation where stupidity alone would do. Jane Jacobs, the enemy of expressways, is given a breathless introduction, and her half-century-old triumph over Robert Moses’s plan to build a highway through SoHo is related yet again. But even those of us who think of her as something close to a saint can still recognize that, as with all saints, not everything she believed was true. The West Village she loved was a snapshot taken between economic epochs.

Knowles also blames expressways—he focusses on one that goes through Atlanta—for enforcing the segregation of American life, by separating suburbs and inner cities ever more aggressively. And yet ascribing general transportation schemes to local American evils risks missing the bigger picture. In the postwar period, projects like that were everywhere. Paris created its own version with the Pompidou expressway, cutting off the Right Bank from the river, an amputation that ended only last year. Philadelphia got the Delaware Expressway, courtesy of Ed Bacon. As revisionist urban historians have pointed out, the disagreements among urbanists hardly fall along neat political lines; many of the devils in this story, like Bacon and Edward Logue, were the more consciously progressive figures, while the angels were defending stagnant and immobile arrangements that eventually priced out all but the rich—so that Jacobs’s beloved Hudson Street, left mainly unaltered in its small-scale charm, has few remaining locksmiths and bakers and is a ghetto of the wealthy.

Progressive urban planners genuinely believed, in a period of panic about the death of cities, that their renewal depended on up-to-date infrastructure. The sensibilities that, in the nineteen-seventies, tore down beautiful old Shibe Park, in North Philadelphia, and moved the Phillies to the soulless Veterans Stadium considered the move an obvious improvement. That the electric trolleys being abandoned in Philadelphia were greener and more efficient was not an insight available to that time. We need not find cloaked and sinister reasons for our ancestors’ bad decisions, when ignorance and shortsightedness—the kind we, too, suffer from, invisible to us—will do just fine.

The great architectural historian Reyner Banham even made the case, back in the nineteen-sixties, that those cities, like Los Angeles, which built themselves around automobiles instead of streetcars and subways actually benefitted by being less “monocentric.” (Europeans are still startled to see, in movies like “Training Day,” that in L.A. gang members live in big houses.) The downtown-centered city that we yearn for is, perhaps, an archaic model, and Americans have voted against it with their feet or at least with their accelerators. Those of us who live in and love New York have a hard time with this argument, but it is not without merit. Los Angeles is a different kind of city producing a different kind of civilization, and its symbol, that vast horizontal network of lights dotting the hills in the night, is as affectionately viewed as its polar opposite, the vertical rise of the New York skyline.

Grabar’s book, though smaller in the scope of its indictment, is more entertaining in the specificity of its indignation. In the mono-causal genre that flourished in the nineties, we got the little-thing-that-changed-the-world book (longitudecod); our grimmer decade now offers the simple-thing-that-ruined-it-all book (sugar, parking). Grabar is earnest in his view that parking is a grave social problem, but his book is of necessity consistently entertaining and often downright funny. Although it is possible to make parking into a serious subject, it is impossible to make it a solemn one. The humorless French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted that comedy occurs when something organic is transposed into something mechanical, and that seems to be the case here: a stomping, hat-throwing fury is directed at a stationary metal box.Grabar has a journalist’s essential gift for making a story out of people, not propositions. He fills his book with engaging eccentrics, including the Serena Williams of New York “traffic agents,” Ana Russi, who once gave out a hundred and thirty-five parking tickets in a day. Yet he has a tale to tell. The need for a place to put internal-combustion vehicles when they weren’t being operated followed closely on their invention. A question comes inevitably to mind: Where had they parked the horses? In fact, stabling was a huge nineteenth-century problem, because horses produced effluents, in steaming, fly-ridden piles, and had to be fed. (The exhausting intensity, not to mention the insalubriousness, of a horse-pulled culture is hard to recapture.) When horseless carriages took their place, Grabar says, the civil-minded assumption in America was that private developers should be obliged to provide sufficient parking to accompany whatever building they had just built. “The idea of parking minimums, proposed in the twenties, rolled out in the thirties, and expanded nationwide in the forties and fifties, was obviously enticing: cities could force the private sector to fix the parking problem,” he explains.

These minimums were consolidated in the Parking Generation Manual, a single volume that has had monumental effects on the quality of American life. Though first officially published in 1985, the manual codified more than half a century’s practice into a set of fixed injunctions: so many parking spaces required for each building type. These calculations could be fantastically minute. “Parking requirements for funeral parlours were determined based on some combination of fourteen different characteristics, from the number of hearses to the number of families who lived on the premises,” Grabar reports. Rules got drawn up and were almost universally accepted—because the logic seemed impeccable and because no one goes to planning meetings to dispute such things except other planners.

A paradox was quickly felt. The system, reinforced by the powerful Institute of Transportation Engineers, created a permanent logjam, in which huge quantities of urban space were devoured by parking. Architects and developers were constrained from building well, since the parking they had to supply dictated the form their buildings could take. The classic main street of little stores crowded one next to another became impossible to re-create; every store had to be surrounded by the moat of a parking lot. “Mostly, America just stopped building small buildings,” Grabar writes. “Parking requirements helped trigger an extinction-level event for bite-sized, infill apartment buildings like row houses, brownstones, and triple-deckers.” Intended to insure that parking was paid for by the private sector, the system instead swallowed up vast tracts of what ought to have been public and pedestrian space. The American town lost its heart, became strip-malled and overrun, because the street front had been consumed by places to put the cars that brought you there. It was the nineteenth-century manure problem—only with sterile spaces rather than smelly piles.

Fortunately, Grabar’s story of bad parking has a good-parking hero: Donald Shoup, a U.C.L.A. engineer, who is celebrated by a Facebook group with many thousands of members. What made him a hero was a series of papers, eventually turned into a fat 2005 volume called “The High Cost of Free Parking,” showing that the parking minimums were based on a fantasy about how and why people drove in the first place, and that, rather than ending the congestion, the minimums were producing it. The answer to the problem lay in market forces—pricing parking at its true cost, and making the parker, not the public, pay for it.

Shoup led a movement that, among other things, helped bring the parking meter back to many cities that had long abandoned it as a relic of an earlier age and a deterrent to business. The burden of paying for parking was now on the auto owner, a concept that met great resistance. Conservatives see parking as liberals see health care—as a right, to be underwritten by the state. Indeed, the idea of putting a market price on parking your car is somehow viewed as outrageously confiscatory among those who would like to put a market price on everything else. And so, in the classic American manner, the parking meter, like the face mask, became a fetishized symbolic object. In certain rural states, the fight against parking meters takes on an obsessive quality, documented by one academic study with the matchless title “Park Free or Die: Rural Consciousness, Preemption, and the Perennial North Dakota Parking-Meter Debate.”

Shoup’s most forceful advice was simply not to think much about parking—to build without brooding over where people would park their cars. Just as a mere Band-Aid often does help heal a wound, ignoring a problem sometimes does make it go away. Grabar gives the example of downtown Los Angeles; it had long been abandoned because the parking spaces necessary to build couldn’t be found, but it returned to life when mandates for making commercial spaces residential were removed, in 1999. In the first two decades of this century, the downtown population more than tripled.

The fact that new buildings didn’t come with parking spaces meant that people had to search to find one, and they did. In truth, Grabar never fully explains—and I have read his chapter three times, sure that I’m missing something—what the downtown-L.A. crowd does with its cars. (Nobody in Los Angeles except a truly quixotic bicyclist can survive without one.) The answer seems to be that Angelenos now do what New Yorkers have always done: scrounge around for slots in available if not adjacent parking garages, search for serendipitously vacated spaces. It is another form of pricing; an unease in finding parking creates a greater ease in living life.

Must we end the automobile? I come before the court trying the case of its extinction as someone who has never owned a car—who never even drove one until recently, and then only for a few weeks a year—and has ridden the 6 train daily for most of the past four decades. Nonetheless, the argument for the car, like the argument for homeownership, resides simply in its appeal, an appeal already apparent to the majority of people on the planet. It is not only that the car provides autonomy; it provides privacy. Cars are confession booths, music studios, bedrooms. It is significant that the best song about travelling in cars is called “No Particular Place to Go.” We pay an enormous price for our automotive addiction—in congestion, time wasted, neighborhoods destroyed, emissions pumped out, pleasant streets subordinated to brutal expressways—but telling the addict that the drug isn’t actually pleasurable is a losing game. There is some slight hope in saying that it isn’t healthy, and that the replacement for the drug is about as good. But understanding this emotional infrastructure in favor of cars is vital to imagining their possible replacement.

The grip of the car as a metaphor for liberty is as firm as that of guns, if perhaps with similarly destructive results. Consider the paranoia unleashed when urban planners recently disseminated the benevolent idea of the “fifteen-minute city.” The model is based on places such as New York and Paris, where most goods, from groceries to haircuts, can indeed be found within a fifteen-minute walk of your home—in many New York neighborhoods, it’s closer to five, and in some Paris neighborhoods closer to two. Yet its enemies decried an anti-car conspiracy led by statists who wanted to force citizens into tiny, concentration-camp-like areas from which they would have no exit. The French academic Carlos Moreno, the most recent proponent of the fifteen-minute ideal, has had to deny being in any way anti-car. (He is anti-car, but in a gentle, vehicle-reducing manner, not a vehicle-eliminating one.)

One can recall even such a professionally patrician conservative as George F. Will insisting that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism,” while “automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates.” In England, by contrast, conservative opinion has typically swung the other way, with the great conservative poet Philip Larkin (to whom Will has properly genuflected on other occasions) having had his crucial “Whitsun Weddings” epiphany on a train. Indeed, so powerfully associated is Larkin with the railroad that there has been a Larkin special on British Rail. And John Betjeman, the other great British conservative nationalist poet, was even more fanatic in his devotion to railroads and in his hatred of motorways. The commitment to one conveyance rather than another appears to be a matter less of reason than of familiarity and nostalgia.

In this country, what seems to be missing from arguments for better and more public transit is the passionate constituency aroused by cars and by bicycles. (Jody Rosen, in his lovely chronicle “Two Wheels Good,” details how the bicycle has been treated, historically, as a self-propelled engine of grace.) Everyone agrees that it would be great to have a fast train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but people won’t reshape their lives to make it happen. Irrational passion is the fuel of realistic politics, and few people feel passionate about public transportation. Any innocent who dives into high-speed-rail issues discovers that every opposing argument has something to be said for it: the country is too large; our tax structure is too weak; it could work only if there was less permitting; it could work only if we had a European-style social democracy.

Ultimately, the cultural climate counts most. In less than twenty years, Wi-Fi went from an oddity to a felt necessity. People mostly don’t feel that way about trains or light rail. We would like to have a faster, more efficient rail service from New York to Boston—but, if we have to settle for Chinatown buses and car pools and shuttle planes, we’ll manage. The fact that it takes six hours to get from Baltimore to Boston, when a faster train can cover the longer distance between Paris and Marseille in four, does not move us to protest the obvious failure of ambition.

A civilization can’t hide its values from itself. Every argument about the impossibility of building public transit—fast trains or electric buses or light rail—could have been made about building the New York City subway more than a century ago. The difference is that New Yorkers all wanted the subway. Trains were their Wi-Fi. A 1904 report in the Times on the development of the new subway bore the subhead “few accidents in subway,” and boasted that there had been few “very serious accidents,” then blithely mentioned a tunnel collapse in which ten men were killed and an explosion that cost the lives of six workers. It seems safe to say that if sixteen people had been killed in a driverless-car experiment—or, for that matter, in the development of our mostly completed Second Avenue subway—the project would have been taken off-line.

Archie Bunker, the bigoted, growling antihero of the TV series “All in the Family,” which began in 1971, is basically Ralph Kramden fifteen years on, having moved to a row house in Queens—historically underserviced by the subway, in part because the bridges to Queens mostly don’t have train tracks, and in part because of dastardly Moses—and having moved from the overabundant Eisenhower years to the paranoid Nixon era. Now he is overcome by nostalgia, voiced in the show’s opening song, for the old LaSalle sedan and how great it ran. Human beings are meaning machines, searching for symbolic attachments and rewriting their own fables in retrospect. The rearview mirror is as powerful an instrument of transportation as the accelerator. We can’t help looking backward as we go forward. It’s how trips begin, and accidents happen.


The NEW YORKER22 mei 2023



Uitgelicht: bron

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