Sprawling

Posted on May 14th, 2006 by George.
Categories: Uncategorized.

I just walked in the door. Literally. The A/C is still off. My bag is still packed. The mail is unopened and my deodorant has worn off. But there’s something in the air between Orlando and my house, and I have to put finger to keyboard to get it out before it leaks out my ears like so much smoke.

First off, where was I? The short answer: Macon. Macon, Georgia, home to Mercer University and one of its most illustrious students, my sister Caroline. No, it wasn’t a three-day weekend. Only two. But it was Mother’s Day and Macon is roughly halfway between the Cape and Nashville. So I met my parents and one of my sisters there (the other one, Dutchie, is too busy on the trauma rotation at the nation’s 3rd-busiest ER for happy little jaunts to Georgia).

I know what you’re thinking, Ez, so I’ll stop you right here: yes, I passed through Valdosta. Twice, in fact. But the unforeseen circumstance of a passenger precluded our long-overdue visit. He had to be in Macon by 11:30pm. That’s when the last car rental agency in town closes on Friday nights. And I left work at, oh, about 5:30pm Friday. Let’s just say you’re not supposed to be able to make it in six hours and leave it at that. On the return leg, well, I didn’t know how much either of us would get out of a five-minute interaction. It’ll happen one day, though. Trust me.

Speaking of fast cars, I had an interesting experience between work and picking up my rider in Orlando: a state trooper pulled me over on a deserted divided highway. “License and registration, please.” Done. “I pulled you over for exceeding the speed limit. Is your speedometer broken?” “No, sir, I just have to be in Macon by 11:30pm and I was at work later than planned. I was just trying to make up some time.” As he walked back to run my plates I realized he hadn’t quoted me a number. No, “I clocked you at 70 in a 55.” Odd. He quickly returned, handed me my documents and tapped the door sill. “I’m gonna let you off with a warning this time. Please slow down.” “Thanks, officer.” That’s it. My first warning in nearly a decade. Hooray for good karma.

There is balance in the universe, however, because Dad was pulled over by Officer McI’vegotsomethingtoprove in Macon for running a stop sign. Only problem is, he was in a caravan between my sister and I, and we all stopped at that sign in succession. After the clever, “stop signs are the same in Tennessee as in Georgia” and a little grandstanding, he let Dad go. “Don’t take my kindness for weakness,” were literally his parting words. Any psychologists out there?

Whatever, all that’s not the point. It’s just the backstory. The point is this: well, I can’t sum it up in a sentence. But considering I’m starting to sweat from the lack of A/C in here, I’ll do my best to place the weekend’s epiphany as succinctly as I can in the following paragraphs.

We are too sprawled. I’ll spare you the requisite “I love America” preamble and I’ll even forego a treatise on my profound and impassioned love of cars. But what I want to say has been fermenting inside my head for too long. It’s time to let it pour.

Let see if I can draw a line through this tangle without coming across as a doomsday prophet. America’s love affair with the car may not be her downfall, but it sure ain’t helping anything. Of course the issue is complex, and I can’t pretend to know every intricate detail, but I’ve been thinking about this long enough to see the big picture, and it’s no Mona Lisa. Feel free to fill in any plot holes with your comments.

Europe enjoys the fortuitous accident of developing its cities before the invention of the automobile. This kept the city in the city and the country in the country. In between municipalities were vast expanses of farmland or unspoiled wilderness. Forests. Meadows. Mountains. River valleys. In town everything was on a human scale; you could walk anywhere you needed to go. Yes of course I know they’re bulging around the edges now. But the city core has never really died, and city planners have had the foresight and maturity in budgeting and governance to provide for reliable public transit to the growing suburbs.

America didn’t really hit its stride until the last century. Things started picking up after the Industrial Revolution, sure. And cities that were large before 1900 still have incredible, manageable downtowns. New York. DC. Chicago. But look at places that exploded after the Depression and the World Wars, like LA and Houston and Atlanta and (insert large southern or western American city here), and you see grids (if you’re lucky) that exist on an automotive scale rather than a human scale. We all know that a lack of city planning and zoning coupled with baby booms equals cheaper land further out. The tumult and upheaval of the sixties, and subsequent abandonment of city centers didn’t help either. Yes, I know there’s a rennaissance underway in certain lucky locales, as evidenced by the skyrocketing real estate values in places like Chicago and San Francisco. But it was during a conversation with my mother on the half-hour ride to Caroline’s church this morning, passing through all the abandoned strip malls that dot the otherwise pristine pine forests of central Georgia, that the drawbacks crystallized in my mind.

1. Time wasted in transit. The further you are from your destination, the longer it takes to get there. You are wasting precious hours of your life simply waiting to arrive.

2. Isolation. You can’t say hello to other people on the street when you’re sealed away from the world in your car. It may be a sanctuary, but what is it a shrine to? Individualism, selfishness, waste.

3. Sedentary lifestyle. You’re getting somewhere alright, but you’re not burning those frappuccinos. You’re burning dead dinosaurs. All that Starbucks is going straight to what you’re sitting on.

4. Increased stress. The bald truth is that we are not courteous, attentive, well-trained drivers. The very sprawl that I’m bemoaning dictates that everyone have a car. Imagine the uproar if our government required American drivers to be as skilled as the privileged German or British drivers wealthy enough to afford a car, who have paid thousands on courses to be able to pass the rigorous tests, and who obey traffic laws, yield the right of way, keep in the right lane except to pass, et cetera. The path that we have chosen as a society, our laziness and inability to plan and manage our growth, has relegated us an endless ballet of road rage as we go about our daily tasks with every other Tom, Dick and “My-attention-is-so-divided-I-don’t-realize-my-blinker-is-on” Harry on our clogged asphalt arteries. LA already knows that the solution is not more lanes on the freeway. Oh, there’s a new, wider highway? Rest assured, we will rise to meet that challenge. We all get in our cars to go to work and the same time, to come home at the same time. “Forget staggering, that would never work.” Welcome to the age of the super commute. I could write an entirely separate essay on the average American driver, but I’m getting too fired up.

5. Fatalities. The simple fact is that planes and trains piloted by trained professionals and maintained by responsible mechanics crash orders of magnitude less frequently than Suzy on her cellphone eating fries and yelling at the kids.

6. Wasted resources. We have to pave the continent to get anywhere. We build everything bigger than it needs to be because we can. Do you really need to carry two tons of steel with you everywhere you go? No. Have you ever seen a parking lot in the suburbs filled to capacity on an average day? The subway, a commuter train, sure. If they’re designed and planned well. But think of all the parking lots in your town. All that wasted space. All that lack of nature.

7. Wasted energy. Speaking of nature! As energy is my pet topic, you’d do well to get comfortable in your seat for this one. Do you have any idea how inefficient it is to have each individual stop and go under their own power in ten thousand different directions versus everyone moving together in one direction at one time? Traffic jams are caused by one person hitting the brakes. The ripple effect lasts for hours. Every car on the road is too heavy. Every one. There’s a misconception out there that more mass = greater safety. That is entirely untrue. Seatbelts save lives. Crumples zones save lives. Airbags and ABS and TCS and head restraints save lives. Attentive, focused, courteous, well-trained drivers save lives. SUVs do not. Cadillacs to do not. A hunk of steel does not. I’ll spare you the physics. We don’t have time.

We build big cars because we can. Because there is no incentive to be efficient. Because our economic system is flawed. Because there is no value given to natural resources. The free market could work on this problem if we simply set the initial conditions properly. Spare me the complaints about gas prices. Understand this: you do not pay as much as Europeans. Hell, you’re not even paying for the gas! You’re paying the price of drilling and extracting and refining and transporting and storing and marketing. The energy is free as far as you’re concerned. You’re not paying for the gravity-driven fusion inside the sun that provided the radiation for the prehistoric plants to grow. You’re not paying for the chemical process that takes place over millions of years to turn organic matter into long, burnable carbon chains. You’re not paying for the heat and pressure inside the earth’s crust. We’re going about this all wrong. Petroleum is the cheapest on paper. But it’s not the cheapest in reality. Every tank I pump into my car is borrowed. Our entire economy, your job, your way of life is dependent on oil. It is the lifeblood of this country, not merely an addiction. It will be a long and painful process to convert. But it is a necessity if you want your current luxurious lifestyle to continue. And I don’t care if you live in a trailer in Micanopy. If you can jump in your two-ton steel box and drive anywhere you want for less than what you make in a day, you’re in the lap of luxury.

You can see how this idea can quickly get out of hand. And I haven’t even touched on the price we pay! Global warming. Intense weather. Changing climate. Extinction of species. Air pollution. Wars in petroleum-rich countries. It’s not all petroleum’s fault, I admit. A lot has to do with the paradigm that applied no value to natural resources in the first place. A lot has to do with an accelerating population. Something big is going to happen while my generation is alive. Can’t you feel it coming?

“Ok, fine. But what are the solutions, Chicken Little?”

The first is to get a clue. Energy is not free. If you’re treating it as such, someone somewhere down the line is going to pay. Maybe not with their money, either. Maybe with their job. Maybe with their house. Maybe with their life.

The second is to step up and take responsibility. Society is not some nebulous other. We are society. You yourself are a walking, talking, thinking microcosm of society. Be the change you wish to see. Do what you can to conserve. Tell others. Push for change in any way you can imagine.

All energy can be traced back to the sun. I don’t care if it’s uranium from the formation of the earth, fossil fuels from organic materials plus time, wind, water, waves, tides, or geothermal (you could argue that last one due to the Earth’s own heat, but I’ll trump you with the Earth forming from the protoplanetary disc of the sun). It is the ultimate solution to the maintenance of the lifestyle to which we’ve convinced ourselves we’re entitled. Of course there are drawbacks to everything. You have to create solar panels or solar towers from something. But I’d much rather mine a relative handful of exotic metals to produce enough solar cells to cover Texas than convert every drop of dead dinosaurs into carbon, sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Notice I haven’t even touched on fusion. When you figure out how to bottle the sun, you let me know.

That was much longer than I intended, and I don’t even know if I got my point across. But I’m sweating, and there is mail to be read and clothes to unpack. And it’s past my bedtime. Time to turn off the coal-powered laptop, turn on the coal-powered air conditioning, and get some shut-eye.

Appreciate what you have now. Love the internet for everything positive it can do. I’m not saying it won’t always be there, or that we won’t progress to the point where we can responsibly venture off this rock and get our eggs out of one basket. I’m just saying there’s a mountain of work to be done, and you’re much more likely to lend a helping hand if you know why.

13 comments.

Ez

Comment on May 15th, 2006.

LOL You missed the blog post… I am in Athens, GA as of the end of March. Though I did go home this weekend.

Thankfully, I am not going home every weekend that I can. Though it has been about every 3rd weekend. I have to work others, though I could do the work from there.

Part of the problem with oil will disappear doomsday scenario is too many “futurologists” have made erroneous predicitions. How soon will we crash the global economy if we continue as we are? Ask a dozen people, you probably will get a dozen answers. Unfortunately, futurologists are generally wrong and rarely correct.

My favorite rebuttal (I’m not a believer) to the claim that the oil is disappearing: oil is not from decomposing ancient plants and instead is being renewed by bacteria. Instead, it just happens that the oil is found at that geological level. That going deeper, one keeps finding more oil. The bacteria we find in the oil is chewing up the rocks and produces the oil as a byproduct. The supposed rationale for this is that many oil fields still in operation were expected to go dead years ago.

In my own point of view, all this is actually pretty good for the further development of humanity. Lasting change only occurs when the current methods are no longer feasible. The ideas are out there (like genetic variability); but until life gets so bad these ideas need to really be used, people will continue on their own paths.

What about Europe, you say? Europe was devestated by WWII whereas the USA found WWII to be a economic windfall.

That’s all for now.

Ez

Comment on May 15th, 2006.

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek: The Real Story of Pricey Oil

george

Comment on May 15th, 2006.

Oh, I remember that post now! Ah well. I imagine Athens is a hipper place to visit anyway. ;)

That bacteria thing is patently ridiculous.

I agree that this problem might eventually aid our development. But if we can see it coming, why must we wait until it’s almost too late? Why must the impetus for change be external?

And that Zakaria article is a great link, thanks. I have yet to read his column and not wholeheartedly agree. Fair, balanced, factual and moderate. His solutions are common-sense, too. Thanks, Ez.

lacey

Comment on May 15th, 2006.

I’ve been thinking about much of the same things lately, mainly the price of living in a place that requires me to burn fewer dinosaurs and how it’s hard to pay to live here. One of the big reasons I moved to Chicago was the public transportation…but because of the time required to use it, the expense (it’s almost as expensive as owning a car), and the inconvenience, I went back to the car. It’s faster and more convenient. I use a bike for local stuff, though, and I fully support that because you get to enjoy nature at the same time. That’s really accomplishing something.

It’s almost like we’re being forced as people on earth to put gas in our cars, though. There just aren’t enough cheaper options for electric/hybrid cars. And really, why would bedfellows oil, automotive industries, and certain government folks try to help us out? They know we’ll pay for it if we have no choice. I’ll put gas in my car even thouugh I know I will never be able to afford a hybrid.

Really, it’s the earth that’s just suffering, and that makes me feel much, much worse than my shrinking pocketbook. Our air is terrible, our water tastes bad, and our resources are non-renewable. And what about the people who don’t have access to ANY of this stuff? It’s their right, too, to have clean water and a just society. But there’s too much money to be made, I guess, from cars and oil. It’s a shame, isn’t it?

+mojan.

Comment on May 15th, 2006.

Dang, George — those are some nice “in transit” airplane pictures on your Flickr page!

george

Comment on May 16th, 2006.

Here is the story that Ez is referring to.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12779051/site/newsweek/

And here is a column outlining the first step in the solution.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9024768/site/newsweek/

It seems Mr. Zakaria and I would get along quite well.

Lay-c: I know that feeling of helplessness. We do all we can. Riding the bike is a great way to help, including stretching out the distances you’re willing to go. I ride mine to the movie theater three miles away. Not only does it provide an easy excuse to exercise, but under a certain distance, it’s faster than a car. You never have to worry about parking, and traffic is rarely an issue. For most of the time I’m in transit on a bike, I’m at full speed. You can really go places at 15-20mph.

Also: just because we might not be able to afford hybrids doesn’t mean we don’t have any choices. I average 32mpg in my trouble-free 2000 Saturn, a car you could find for $6000 or less. There are plenty of K-cars that do with light weight what hybrids do with expensive electronic powerplants. We control the demand. I’d say if you’re not driving an SUV then you’re already helping.

Money can be made on efficient technologies. The profit margin may be a few percentage points smaller in the short run. So in a laissez-faire free market, it’ll never happen. But we don’t want that kind of market. We know and have seen what it’s capable of: the raping of the earth. What we need is the government to step in with scientifically-based mandates that outline what is and is not acceptable for car companies to produce. We have the technology. We have had it for almost 100 years. We must simply use it. And by the way: we, the citizens, are the government. So it’s up to us.

Mojan: Thank you! Glad you like them. I appreciate that coming from a fellow travel photographer. :)

Sholeh

Comment on May 16th, 2006.

Maybe my compulsive “turning-off-the-lights-when-I-leave-the-room” is having an impact…

heh, but seriously, I hear yah. Believe me. I was so impressed when I went to Cali and saw all of the windmills. We’re so complacent.

greg

Comment on May 16th, 2006.

So, did you take my advice and send back the ibook and buy this instead?
http://store.apple.com/1-800-MY-APPLE/WebObjects/AppleStore.woa/wo/0.RSLID?mco=A4791B5D&nclm=MacBook

Daniel

Comment on May 17th, 2006.

Wow. Amen. I feel largely the same way. I ride my bike as much as I can (to the grocery, movies, etc.) and I seriously lement not being able to bike to work.

nas

Comment on May 17th, 2006.

preach, georgie. i’m a texan, born and bred, and i absolutely could not agree with you more. i’ve only been back in texas for a few days, and while i’m enjoying the lovely weather, i was just voicing the same laments to my mom today. it’s like i’m wasting my life and the earth driving around in 90 degree weather. i hate suburbia and i miss the subway. *sigh*

george

Comment on May 17th, 2006.

Sholeh: YES. That is having an impact. If everyone did that we’d be doing much better. Speaking of windmills, can you believe the proposal in New England was quashed by rich waterfront landowners? Appalling. I personally think windmills are beautiful. Especially given the knowledge of what they’re producing. Also: have you heard about the people complaining that windmills kill birds in California? Yes, they do. I’m sorry. But develop something that keeps the birds away, don’t campaign to have the windmills removed! Pick a side of the fence, people, seriously. You can’t be a quasi-environmentalist. Oh my god, the birds! Let’s burn coal instead! Come ON.

Greg: It was a gift. Bought on eBay. There’s no returning it. Besides, I’m grateful to have it.

Daniel: Good for you. Brothers in biking!

Nas: Solidarity, sister. Down with suburbia! If we could somehow convince people who aren’t farmers to move back into cities, and provide boundaries for said establishments, and build UP instead of OUT…but now I’m dreaming. Of course, there’s no magic bullet. The steel and concrete of cities still has to come from the earth. The energy to power a megalopolis still has to be derived from the environment. I guess all we can do is continue to grow in as responsible a way as possible. If history shows us anything, though, the future holds overpopulation, famine, disease, Koyaanisqatsi. What shall we do? We will overshoot the population limit of the earth and then backtrack to some form of balance? Or will we wipe ourselves out?

doctor vince

Comment on May 21st, 2006.

“Koyaanisqatsi” – yes, you remember much my friend.

Life out of balance. That movie is 20 years old now, and yet it speaks to the very same concerns we have today.

The unfortunate truth is that it will probably take some catastrophe, or a revolution. The existing power structure (oligarchy) is too entrenched. I’m not sure which would be worse.

ez

Comment on March 13th, 2009.

“A freakish tornado that ripped a $250 million path through Atlanta last March could be a sign of storms to come, if modern land use and climate change combine to produce man-made extreme weather events.”

http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/03/urbanstorm.html

Great… If the heat given off by the sprawl can exacerbate already bad weather events, then we are really screwed.

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