BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

America's traffic, cars, and roads ... and some things both mysterious and not ...

This is the second of the books that got on my radar from the “Move Together” 2015 National Shared Mobility Summit (the other being here – with more details on that event). There was a session I attended featuring the authors of two new books on city/transportation issues, and both sounded interesting enough for me to reach out to the publishers for review copies. The one currently being considered is Samuel I. Schwartz's Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars.

This is a book which, by all rights, ought to be very dry, and possibly tiresome. It's not. Heck, it's downright entertaining, and I'm tempted to attribute this to Mr. Schwartz's good humor (I seem to recall that he was "owning the stage" at the conference), but I'm wondering if this has something to do with the “with” credit (which is on the title page, but not the dust jacket or spine) of publishing-industry veteran William Rosen. In any case, between them, they have produced a book that's a great read, with (I'm guessing) wide appeal, in a subject area that one would not expect. I know it's unusual for me to praise a book before getting into the particulars, but I felt that this was, perhaps, the most notable element here – it's the text equivalent of hanging out with your favorite uncle who's had a fascinating life and is full of great stories.

I did have one gripe with this, however … I really, really wished at numerous points that the book had been illustrated – preferably with a lot of photographs of the places being discussed. I wanted to see the collapsed section of the West Side Highway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Williamsburg Bridge, and many other things mentioned here, along with maps, plans, etc. There are a few images here (less than a dozen, I believe), but the book would have been greatly improved if there were ten times that many.

The author is a first-wave babyboomer, and grew up in the shadow of Brooklyn's famed Ebbets Field … before his beloved (Trolley) Dodgers up and moved to Los Angeles. His development was in the streets of Brooklyn in at time where you still could play stick ball without getting killed by traffic, and a lot of that sensibility informs this book … especially the sense of how things have evolved over the years with the rise of the automobile. Oh, and he's also widely credited as being the person who came up with the term “gridlock” … in a 1980 New York Transportation Department memo looking for ways to avoid that particular traffic manifestation.

Early on he defines the book's focus: it “tells the story of a transformation in the common travel decisions made daily and weekly in the industrial world generally, and the United States specifically … getting ourselves to work, to shopping, to social encounters, and to entertainment – how we've done so historically, and how we're going to be doing so in the future.”. And, one of the key concepts he frames as: “Vehicles come and go. Buildings go up and come down. Roads last forever.”

Except, of course, when they don't. “On Saturday morning, December15, 1973, the forty-year-old West Side Highway … collapsed under the weight of a truck carrying more than thirty tons of asphalt. … A day later, the road was closed indefinitely ...” – leaving eighty thousand cars a day to find an alternate route. This is the first point when “things get weird” here:
The predicted traffic disaster never appeared. Somehow, those eighty thousand cars went somewhere, but to this day we have no idea where. Or how, two years later, twenty-five thousand more people were getting into Manhattan's Central Business District.
He refers to this as “the counterintuitive phenomenon known as disappearing traffic”, and notes that “lane closures not only cause traffic to decrease on the road's remaining lanes, but only half the decrease reappears anywhere else”.

That sort of reality is a mystery to all involved … but there are “less mysterious” things at work here too … in many cases there were serious prejudices built into the available information – cables whose useful lifespan was being represented at 10% of the actual figure, while beams which were “cracked and perforated” by corrosion not even being considered in projections (this is what failed in the WSH collapse). This came up in the context of the Williamsburg Bridge, an 1909 construction that carried 350,000 people a day. Much like the mysterious disappearing traffic, there was a reality here that was surprising – narrower lanes were safer than wider lanes – and fixing the existing bridge (with narrow lanes) rather than tearing it down and replacing it with a “state of the art” bridge (which would have also required bulldozing “two of the most vibrant and prosperous neighborhoods in the entire country”, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn) is something the author had to fight strongly for.

Another unexpected change he notes is that of the driving habits of the Millennials:
... in 2009, Millennials drove 23 percent fewer miles on average than their same-age predecessors did in 2001. That is, their average mileage – VMT, or vehicle miles traveled – plummeted from 10,300 miles a year to 7.900 … In every five-year period from 1945 to 2004, Americans had driven more miles than they did the half-decade before … but by 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles than in 2004 … if all eighty million Millennials retain their current driving habits for the next twenty-five years … per capita VMT … will fall off the table.
This was a total surprise … even as these trends started to manifest, federal Transportation Department officials were predicting a doubling of VMT over 20 years … and, like in the case of bridge traffic, there were “experts” who flat-out rejected the possibility of the long-term patterns no longer being valid.

The author also argues that American “car culture” didn't happen by accident, but was created by government programs that encouraged suburban sprawl – “houses whose cost per square foot was so much lower than that of the available housing stock in densely populated urban centers”
Which is exactly what happened with the GI Bill's requirement that government-guaranteed home loans only go to new construction, or the Eisenhower administration's decision to build forty thousand miles of heavily subsidized highways. The relative advantage of car-dependent suburban living didn't come from impersonal forces of the market in action, but from a sequence of decisions made by fallible human beings, decisions that could very easily have gone in an entirely different direction. … Fifty years of sprawl in America then does, in fact, look a lot like a fifty-year mistake – one that didn't need to happen.
Of course, this all followed the conspiracy that was a central plot point in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – buying streetcar lines simply to shut them down in favor of car transport.
For more than a decade beginning in 1936, two shell companies – National City Lines and Pacific City Lines, owned by General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and other huge companies with what you might call a strong bias in favor of gasoline-powered transportation – bought more than a hundred electric train and trolley systems in at least forty-five American cities ...
Notably, the same did not happen in Europe and other parts of the world, with trolley and similar transit options being a key part of the cities' transportation mix on through the present. Schwartz looks at both various European examples, and the rather remarkable recent history of public transit in Bogotá, Columbia where the city has narrowed streets (by expanding sidewalks) and has even banned cars on particular days.

Street Smart goes into a lot more stuff than I've been able to touch on here … including looking at various transit systems in U.S. cities, self-driving cars (and other futurist concepts), and more historical details (as well as the author's “war stories” from his days in the NYC DOT) … but I think you get the idea. Again, for a subject that could be expected to be fairly dry, it's coverage here is breezy and engaging – quite a bonus to the information that's presented. This is quite new (just out a couple of months at this writing), so should be easy enough to find at bookstores (when you can find bookstores), and the on-line big boys have it more than a third off of cover price. If you're interested in the whole matrix of cars and cities and transportation (and Brooklyn sport teams), you'll find this quite an agreeable read.

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Tags: book review
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