Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Reclaiming the street for Real Americans

By Michael O'Hare

Some things are central to being a Real American, things that make us the best country; others are not. In the first category are driving alone anywhere I want; with light traffic, few stoplights, and no tolls, pedestrians, or bicycles; parking free when I get there; and two-dollar gasoline. The way things were for a few years in Southern California, back in the day.

Now that thats established, the bad news: ugly facts are undermining our core values:

(1) Roads are free and a basic human right, but even patriotic politicians like Sam Brownback cant figure out how to get them without (trigger alert, I know this is a family blog) taxes.

(2) Even if we pay for them, it seems we cant lane-mile our way back to the golden age; every beautiful new freeway or widening is immediately congested to the pre-existing crawl. And people are less and less willing to have neighborhoods bulldozed for highways.

What to do? Many cities are looking at ways to get some large undeserving classes of people out of cars, leaving room for us Real Americans on the road. Im thinking about the ungrateful hipsters who are refusing to be their kids chauffeurs for twenty years, leaving their cars behind in the Pleasantvilles where they grew up and flocking with bicycles to places like Boston and San Francisco and Brooklyn and Portland. Also poor people. A lot of these folks vote Democratic, by the way, so prima facie dont deserve the freedom to sit alone in traffic listening to the radio.

An obvious way to do this is (another trigger alert) public transit, and not just buses stuck in traffic with the cars. What we had all over every big city when we fought and won World War II, built Hoover Dam and the TVA, had free public universities people were proud of, and all that Commie stuff. One form is surface light rail, which doesnt require tunnels, and runs in the street. Because we trashed so much of this and lost our expertise over a half-century (especially how to build it), we are learning old lessons and reinventing wheels. Halfway down the story, we learn that:

Unlike in Europe, the United States lacks uniform standards for the basic features of a streetcar. That means customers might ask for longer, wider or faster vehicles or those that can handle different loads or ride on different suspensions. Youre essentially designing a new vehicle. [Its] very expensive to set up a manufacturing line and only build three or five of a particular product type, said Yraguen, the Oregon Iron Works president.

Way back in the 30s, the most successful streetcar in history, fairly described as the DC-3 of urban transport, was designed by a committee of street-railway company representatives and made by different companies all over the world. About 5,000 were built, and the PCC cars, as they are called, are still operating, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Maybe the federal government could create more value by coordination than by just sending checks?

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community (tag line: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts).