TCS Daily

In The Midst Of Terror, Look What Kept America Moving

By Brock Yates - October 2, 2001 12:00 AM

For all its nasty qualities -- its noise, its muscling for space in cities, its dangers, its (rapidly diminishing) air pollution, its consumption of fossil fuels, etc. -- the four-wheeled vehicle in all its forms remains the engine of freedom in the United States. As the barbaric assaults on the United States of Sept. 11 demonstrated, the unfettered mobility offered by this infernal machine cannot be duplicated by any another mechanical device.

In the midst of the madness, ambulances, fire trucks, utility vehicles, taxis and police cars continued to operate, poking through the smoke, fire and rubble with crab-like determination. Many long-distance travelers, denied airplane rides, sought rental cars to make their way home. Others went to dealerships and used-car lots to purchase vehicles for a one-way journey home.

This runs counter to the conventional wisdom of those for whom "sprawl" has become a favored pejorative in this politically correct world. Social engineers, environmentalists and urban planners have long envisioned pristine, Walden-like landscapes surrounding concentrations of commerce and industry of exactly the kind that absorbed the devastation on Sept. 11.

Those planners and ideologues have hated sprawl because it demands the use of motor vehicles as the primary transportation device. They revile the automobile, in its various incarnations, as a mechanical predator, a sort of four-wheeled Ebola virus capable of destroying entire civilizations. Yet, following the disasters in New York City and Washington, it was this same internally-combusted nightmare that continued to operate effectively. The New York subways stopped dead. All civilian air transportation was shut down (and will remain crippled for months to come). Amtrak absorbed some of the overflowing travelers, but there were major glitches -- including the collision of the California Zephyr with a Union Pacific freight train near Wendover, Utah, and substantial delays. The financially enfeebled system now seeks $3.5 billion in subsides to upgrade services.

The terrorist assault underscored the reality that mass transit, the ultimate fantasy of those who seek a well-regulated, neatly controlled society, is no panacea for a nation as large and fragmented as the United States.

That was true even before Sept. 11; it will remain true long after some normalcy returns. For there is no logic to commutation patterns in most large cities, with workers rushing off toward all points of the compass during morning and evening rush hours. Only a small percentage of them, for example, drive in and out of the center of the Los Angeles megalopolis each day. Tens of thousands head into the San Fernando Valley to the north and Orange County to the south. Major freeways like the San Diego, the Long Beach, the Santa Monica and the Hollywood are clogged in both directions, serving as daily proof that a grid of light rail and buses enlarged a hundred-fold beyond the present system would still not suffice.

Even so, in August, before the national awakening, California Gov. Gray Davis pronounced at the opening of a six-mile stretch of the Foothill Freeway that this would be the last mile of four-lane built in the state. Presumably he chooses gridlock (and the result in a pollution) over free movement of people and commerce in a state that ranks near the bottom in freeway-miles-per-capita. While road construction is essentially halted, Los Angeles tops the list of major American cities in terms of hours lost by drivers per year (56 each). The additional toll such congestion exacts in urban centers such as LA is estimated at $78 billion in lost time and burned fuel each year. But among the solutions of altered work schedules, "smart" roads and cars, "smart" growth patterns, more mass transit, etc., additional freeways are never offered as an alternative.

The standard argument doing so is that they will simply encourage more traffic in what is called "induced demand." Unmentioned is that a reverse phenomenon of lessened demand has arisen even as billions of additional dollars have gone into mass transit.

Since 1970, vehicle miles traveled in the United States has increased 131%, even though road mileage increased a mere 6%. Proponents of mass transit claim ridership is rising, yet only 4% of commuters use it today compared with 6.3% in 1980. To return to even that modest level would cost uncounted billions and possibly result in more debacles like Amtrak's Acela high-speed train that has been cursed with low ridership and mechanical gremlins since its introduction nearly a year ago.

Why do people like cars, trucks and vans? Because the wheeled vehicle is the most versatile transportation device ever created. It is infinitely adjustable to terrain and weather conditions. Controlled by human intelligence, it can alter routes and speeds to meet all demands. It has operated on the moon and, with floatation gear, on water. If all highways were plowed up, wheeled vehicles could be designed to traverse all but the most hostile environments. While all aircraft besides helicopters are limited by airport availability and trains are mindless prisoners of steel rails, wheeled vehicles of one kind or another can reach almost any destination on earth.

Still, they are hated and denounced like no other machine known to man. Its critics continue to demand it be harnessed and its use diminished.

A wise America, instead, will remember Sept 11. It will give the free market reign to produce cleaner, more efficient vehicles over time, and back efforts to increase the capability of these motor vehicles to move quickly and easily throughout the nation.

One must never forget that even the demented, wholly evil Adolf Hitler recognized the crucial need for rapid vehicular transport as he instituted construction of the German autobahns in the mid 1930s. The Eisenhower administration followed that model, building the Interstate system as a component of national defense.

The world has changed radically since those massive construction projects of the 1930s and 1950s. But the shock waves from Sept. 11 showed that America's freedom and prosperity depend upon its people keeping on the move. And there is no other vehicle that can do that for America like the automobile.

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