subject: America's love affair fades as the car becomes burden of suburbia posted: Sun, 06 Jul 2008 12:20:12 +0100
[About time, loud applause. America's unhealthy fascination with
mobility is not a dream, it is a hallucination, a delusion and a
psychosis. Its like a small child who continually flexes his
muscles, just to remind himself that he actually has some. It's a
wanton, childish display of their own insecurity. The bad news is,
that insecurity was actually warranted, as the freedom was never
there, what goes up must come down, the few generations that got to
enjoy burning all that oil have taken that freedom from generations
to follow. Unmitigated, short-term selfishness. And now they pay,
and jolly good. Lessons for other countries of course, Australia
springs to mind .. - Stu]
America's love affair fades as the car becomes burden of suburbia
The nation of road movies, freeway freedom and dreams of endless
horizons is waking up to the reality of soaring fuel prices. Paul
Harris in Riverside, California, reports that people are leaving
their gas guzzlers in the garage
The Observer, Sunday July 6, 2008
It is known as the Inland Empire: a vast stretch of land tucked in
the high desert valleys east of Los Angeles. Once home to fruit trees
and Indians, it is now a concrete sprawl of jammed freeways, endless
suburbs and shopping malls.
But here, in the heartland of the four-wheel drive, a revolution is
under way. What was once unthinkable is becoming a shocking reality:
America's all-consuming love affair with the car is fading.
Surging petrol prices have worked where environmental arguments have
failed. Many Americans have long been told to cut back on car use.
Now, facing $4-a-gallon fuel, they have no choice.
Take Adam Garcia, a security guard who works near the railway station
in Riverside. Like many Inland Empire residents, he commutes a huge
distance: 100 miles a day. He used to think nothing of it. But now,
faced with petrol costs that have tripled, he is taking action. He
has even altered the engine of his car to boost its mileage. 'I have
to. Everyone does. I can't afford to drive as much as I did,' he
Recent figures showed the steepest monthly drop in miles driven by
Americans since 1942. At the same time car sales are collapsing, led
by huge SUVs.
General Motors, once the very image of American industrial might, is
in deep trouble. Cities are now investing in mass transit, hoping to
tempt people back into town centres from far-flung commuter belts
where they are now stranded by high petrol prices.
Jonathan Baty used to be a pioneer. The lighting designer has cycled
to work every day since 1993. It's a nine-mile round trip through the
heartland of a car-based culture once famously termed 'Autopia'. But
now Baty has company on his daily rides as others choose two wheels
rather than four to navigate southern California's streets. 'We have
seen a whole emergence of a bike culture in this area. There is a
crescendo of interest,' said Baty, who does volunteer work for a
cycling group, Bicycle Commuter Coalition of the Inland Empire.
In Riverside, bus travel is up 12 per cent on a year ago, rising to
40 per cent on commuter routes. Use of the town's railway link is up
eight per cent. A local car pooling system is up 40 per cent. It is
the same in the rest of the US. In South Florida a light rail system
has reported a 28 per cent jump in passengers. In Philadelphia one
has shown an 11 per cent rise. Even nationwide scooter sales have
shot up. At the same time car sales are hitting 15-year record lows.
Last week major American car-makers reported a devastating 18 per
cent drop in car sales.
The numbers point to a more fundamental shift. In America car sales
carry a symbolic value that transcends the wheeler-dealering of the
showroom. This is a nation of fabled road trips and Route 66. 'There
is an American dream of mobility and freedom and wealth. The car is
part of all that,' said Professor Michael Dear, an urban studies
expert at the University of Southern California.
In the 1950s the confident nation that helped win the Second World
War was expressed in classic car designs of huge fins and open tops.
By the 1990s it had become the Hummer, a huge bulking car born from
the military. Now there is to be another shift. For, hidden within
the car sales figures, is a more complex story than a simple fall.
Sales of big cars are plummeting while smaller vehicles, especially
fuel-efficient hybrids, are replacing them.
GM has now closed SUV production at four plants. Its Hummer brand is
up for sale, or might even be closed. GM is ploughing huge resources
into its 2010 launch of the Chevy Volt, a hybrid car that may get up
to 150 miles a gallon. It needs to. GM's share price recently hit a
54-year low, prompting one top investment bank to warn that the firm
could go bankrupt.
The Volt, and cars like it, could become symbols of a new more
conservation-minded car age. As Americans enjoyed the 4 July holiday
weekend, increasing numbers of them were staying at home rather than
hitting the road. Newspapers were full of tips for 'stay-cations',
not weekend breaks away. Customs once scorned, such as car pooling
and cutting out trips to the mall, are now commonplace. The fact is,
the vast majority of Americans cannot give up their cars altogether.
Too many cities lack any reliable public transport.
Adam Garcia is one of those caught. He does two jobs and his daily
road trip by car is a necessity. 'We don't have much of a choice. I
have to drive,' he said. Sacrifices come elsewhere, in giving up
trips to the cinema and to see friends.
But America's changing relationship with the car is just part of the
story of how the most powerful nation is changing in the face of the
oil price rise. America has been built on an oil-based economy, from
its office workers in the suburbs to its farmers in the fields.
Since the 1950s and the building of the pioneering car-orientated
suburb of Levittown in Long Island, the American city has been
designed for the convenience of the car as much as its human
inhabitants. People live miles away from jobs, shops or
entertainment. If you take away cars, the entire suburban way of life
collapses. To some, that development is long overdue.
'Suburbia has been unsustainable since its creation,' said Chris
Fauchere, a Denver-based film-maker who is producing a new
documentary on the issue called The Great Squeeze. 'It was created
around cheap oil. People thought it would flow easily from the earth
Fauchere's film, due out later this year, aims to tackle the profound
changes caused by a world where oil is becoming scarcer. He does not
think that it is going to be easy for America to make the adjustment.
'It is going to be tough. It is like a chain reaction through the
economy. But if you look at history, it is only crisis that starts
change,' he said.
The suburbs are already being hit. As cars become more expensive, the
justification for suburbs seems to disappear. Some commentators have
even suggested that suburbs - once the archetype of an ideal American
life - will become the new slums.
In the face of expensive fuel and crashing property prices, the one-
time embodiment of a certain American dream will become crime-ridden,
dotted by empty lots and home to the poor and unemployed. That is
already happening as crime and gang violence has risen in many
suburban areas and tens of thousands of homes have been reposessed
because of the mortgage crisis.
In effect, suburbs will become the new inner cities, even as once-
abandoned American downtowns are undergoing a remarkable renaissance.
Even malls, the ultimate symbol of American life since the war, are
undergoing a crisis as consumers start to stay away.
But there are even deeper changes going on. The car, the freeway
system and cheap air travel made America smaller. Everywhere was
easily accessible. That, too, is ending. Higher fuel prices have
dealt a terrible blow to America's airlines. They are slashing
flights, raising costs and abandoning routes. Some small cities are
now losing their air connections.
In effect, America is becoming larger again. That will lead to a more
localised economy. To many environmentalists that is a blessing, not
a curse. They point out that cheap fuel for industrial transport has
meant the average packaged salad has travelled 1,500 miles before it
gets to a supermarket shelf.
'Distance is now an enemy,' said Professor Bill McKibben, author of
the 1989 climate-change classic The End of Nature. 'There's no
question that the days of thoughtless driving are done.'
The worst hit parts of the US are not yet the suburbs or the freeways
of southern California, but the small towns that dot the Great
Plains, Appalachia and the rural Deep South. Even more than the
Inland Empire, people in these isolated and poor areas are reliant on
cheap petrol and much less able to afford the new prices at the pump.
Stories abound of agricultural workers unable to afford to get to the
fields and of rural businesses going bust.
Even farmers are not immune. They might not need a car to get to
their fields but their fertilisers use oil-based products whose
prices have gone through the roof. A handful have started using
horses again for some tasks, saving petrol on farm vehicles.
The American dream of the last half century is thus changing. The car
and its culture is now under a pressure unimaginable even a few years
ago. 'The frontier of endless mobility that we've known our entire
lives is closing,' said McKibben.
America's excess has had many imitators. Recently a delegation of
Chinese government officials and architects visited an Arizona suburb
near Phoenix. Approving notes were taken as they surveyed the
luxurious car-driven suburban lifestyle on display. This was just one
of the many delegations that regularly come from the Far East or
Even as America is sobering up from its excess of cheap oil, other
parts of the world are seeking to join the party. They, too, want
homes far from dirty city centres, huge open roads and fast cars. It
is still a beguiling vision of freedom, mobility and bountiful
McKibben spent last week on a visit to Beijing. He was worried about
what he saw. Even as America's obsession with the car lifestyle is
ending, others are embracing it. 'The Chinese have spent the Bush
years starting to build their own version of America. A key question
for the planet is whether they still have time to build a version of
Europe instead - global warming will probably hinge on the answer to
that question,' he said.
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck's classic novel follows 14 passengers and a dog as
they set out from the Oklahoma dust bowl for California in a decrepit
sedan. 'The ancient Hudson, with bent and scarred radiator screen ...
with hub caps gone and caps of red dust in their places - this was
the new hearth, the living centre of the family; half passenger car
and half truck, high-sided and clumsy.'
On The Road
Written in April 1951, Jack Kerouac's autobiographical account of a
road trip across the US and Mexico with Neal Cassady is the
definitive account of American wanderlust.
Rebel Without a Cause
James Dean's fate is sealed when he accepts the challenge to a
Chickie Race from the high-school gang of Buzz Gunderson. The game
ends in tragedy for Buzz, when his car goes over the cliff. Dean was
later to die when he crashed his Porsche Spyder.