Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Washington Examiner editorial says cars grant freedom, longer lives

September 26, 2011 - 03:00 PM
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Hail the transit king. (Photo: flickr/brookswashere)

How to make sense of the Washington Examiner? The newspaper has established its right-wing values rather clearly throughout recent years, and a bizarre editorial on Car Free Day last week reinforced the notion that the Examiner's editorial forces tilt in the direction of the car.

Its title: "Automobiles gave Americans mobility, prosperity and greater freedom." Hooray, cars? What the editorial amounts to, in essence, is a defense of the car and driving life. Fair enough ... but the timing is obnoxious and the points rather strange. The newspaper reportedly has a circulation of 100,000 to 300,000 in the D.C. metro area, and enough people read this stuff that I can't help but discuss some of the points thrown around.

Consider one of the editorial board's first conclusions. They essentially say that cars are okay because we live longer now compared to 100 years ago. Are cars making us immortal? No, of course not. That would be silly for the newspaper to argue that. But our longer lifespans of 2011 (an average of 78.37 years, paper says, compared to around 50 back in 1908) ostensibly prove that cars don't hurt human health: "So much for the killer exhaust fumes," the editorial notes with satisfaction.  But despite the pain of driving commutes, the central car problem is how a rapidly growing society of drivers affects the environment, not how it's hurting the individual human driver. Hardly anyone would make the claim that the automobile itself is shortening human life (not counting the genuine danger of traffic accidents, drunk driving, and other problems of the road). The editorial, in multiple instances, seems to suggest that there's some grand argument to this effect. Furthermore, no one's living longer thanks to sitting at the wheel — it's due to nutrition, medical innovation, and other society advancements that have happened concurrently with the advent of the car.

"Fair-minded" people, the piece continues, should be able to see the virtue of the car thanks to their "knowledge of history."

Now I consider myself to have some "knowledge of history" and The Examiner's editorial board does make accurate, very real and true points about how the car helped expand the American landscape, how it offered opportunity and power, the idea of road trips and travel and more throughout the 1900s. It's real history that we have thanks to the Ford Model T and all subsequent cars. I like that story of expansion and growth and generally acknowledge it many weeks in my dispatches of transit history. But how does that transportation revolution of the 20th century dovetail into the following paragraph?

Sadly, it's precisely that individual mobility that makes Big Green environmentalists obsess about forcing "drivers out of their cars and into public transit." But the more they try, the more Americans reject subways and buses and choose instead to drive to work, school and a zillion other destinations. That's why Ford should have called his Model T the "freedom machine" and why we should celebrate it today.

The more "Big Green environmentalists" suggest public transit, the more people reject buses and subways? What a strange and blanket statement to make — and one, I suspect, extraordinarily difficult to verify. These defensive arguments, from The Examiner and elsewhere, serve no greater point or recognition about how transportation is evolving into the new century.

What, exactly, does The Examiner feel it needs to defend against?

All I can see, really, is enthusiasm, whether for pedestrian issues, streetcars, biking, or any other mode of travel. After all, many forces in the District tilt in decidedly non-motorist direction. Our city now has bike lanes. We have Zipcar. We have, of course, the Metrorail and Metrobus system. We have the Capital Bikeshare system lauded by our public officials, now a year old, and with more than a million rides clocked. More people than ever are taking these alternative forms of transportation — nearly 60% of D.C. residents commuted to work without relying on a car in 2010, according to the American Community Survey. And yes, just over 40% drove a car.

Cars will be a part of American transportation for the foreseeable future, I would say, but yes, people in dense urban areas will hopefully not have to rely on them as much, in part because their convenience will drop, partly because of the cost of fossil fuels, and partly due to the environmental impact. Over the next 30 to 40 to 50 years, multiple transit experts speak of the growing problem of traffic congestion, of parking. Shouldn't there be alternatives to ease those conditions? To suggest doing so is no attack on the freedom that cars did indeed grant agrarian farmers and all those folks a century ago. Those are separate issues, and frankly, this future still includes cars. Most of the emphasis on public transit, biking, and alternative travel takes place within an urban setting of dense business and housing, and people who don't live in cities will still rely on cars for a long time, I imagine, as will many near urban centers. I own and drive a car myself despite taking the Metro to work.

But more frustrating than the editorial's muddled reasoning is its timing. The Examiner is publishing this sweet little patriotic editorial on September 21, right before international Car Free Day, at around 8 p.m. at night, just 24 hours before Capital Bikeshare celebrated its first birthday at Yards Park. Car Free Day "may be the most politically correct day on the calendar," the paper notes unhappily, so it's time to stand up for the cars. Why not defend the car then, right?

The biggest problem I have with the editorial's timing is that it reinforces the notion that our vehicles are fighting it out in some epic transportation war, one that I'm afraid has always been more rhetorical than literal. To dig in with celebratory car pride right then is little more than reactionary trolling. A Capital Bikeshare celebration on Thursday night does not signal some apocalyptic end for the car. I doubt that many there are inherently hostile to drivers and suspect that many do, in fact, drive on many different occasions themselves.

Because really, our modern urban transportation is not this either/or proposition, and no one needs to be defensive or exclusive about any one mode of transit. In our 21st-century cities, we can and have and must increasingly rely on hybrid forms of transit, with emphasis on not only driving but walking and public transportation and sometimes biking or car-sharing memberships or even just taking the cab. The Examiner says we should have called the Ford Model T the "freedom machine" but in the process, the writers deny the idea that we should have freedom of transportation choices in our urban settings. Look out any window to see that cars aren't threatened — the subsidized roads are everywhere. Cars are celebrated in every vision of a city that we know to imagine. Yet read this editorial, and you'd imagine that the automobile is the modern underdog.

But yeah, sure. All hail the "freedom machine." The Examiner coined a winner right there, dreamed up, no doubt, amid clouds of exhaust fumes.

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