Monday, May 23, 2022 |
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When I was growing up, in 1950, the mark of success for the average
American was having a nice car and a TV.
In that year, my parents bought a ranch home in Levittown, Long Island, because it had a carport and a black and white TV built in the wall under the stairs.
Through the intervening years our measure of success has stayed pretty much intact. For most Americans getting into a luxury hybrid Sports Utility Vehicle and having a 72-inch plasma HDTV is what it’s all about.
We have little knowledge of how our technology has shaped our behavior and social structures. Marshall McCluhan was a pioneer in understanding this symbiotic relationship between man and his tools.
In 1964, he wrote “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. This book was revolutionary in its perception of how our senses and limbs are extensions of ourselves, that mingle with our artificial technological extensions. McCluhan deemed all these extensions of ourselves as media just as we see newspapers, radio and TV as media. He examined their interrelationships.
McCluhan also studied how technological extensions “amputate” a sensory or physical capability we previously enjoyed. In other words, a technological extension has the effect of enhancing us in some ways as it degrades or modifies us in others.
We praise the advantages of high-speed personal travel options of the automobile, but do not really want to be reminded of the pollution, or about the loneliness, or the time wasted sitting in traffic. The “amputations” resulting from the use of automobiles have made us less healthy and more anonymous.
If we praise extensions and ignore the amputations, McCluhan writes, we do so at our own risk.
The automobile, which is an extension of the foot, “amputates” the need for the walking culture of the town or city. This in turn has been the springboard for spreading the environment of the automobile – the suburbs. The suburbs are the natural home of the car just as the anthill is to the home to the ant.
Yet the automobile is not all it’s cracked up to be.
OK, so it’s marketed to be sexy, rebellious and a sign of prestige. Its exteriors are sleeker and it interiors more comfortable: Climate control, eight cup holders, nine speakers with a subwoofer, a Bluetooth, a DVD entertainment system, Global Positioning System navigation, heated front seats and steering wheel to match., making it a cush den on wheels.
But at the hub of the problem is the life you lead while in the car, acting as an exoskeleton of sorts.
It’s separated from the real world. It‘s focused on following the painted line to the vanishing point of
the blacktop. Everywhere you drive in suburbia looks the same. Part of the reason for this is the scale in which businesses advertise, a series of massive graphics necessary to catch your eye as you pass through at cruising speed.
There is a rotation of the same national franchises every 10 or 20 minutes that appeal to a shopping itch, your stomach or your car’s gas tank.
Notice how much more of the details of the landscape are experienced on bike, or better, on foot. Notice how much bigger and deeper the landscape is when you are not in the car. When you’re in the car you never really see what is going on.
The home of the “da monstah truck.” On my first visit to Kaua’i, in the early ‘70s, I was struck by the fascination with jacked-up pickups, tricked-out, big tired and roll-barred. At first I thought it was just a fad, but have come to realize that, like Jawaiian reggae, it is a homegrown phenomena. I guess monster trucks supplement workhorse as a status symbol. Those from the monster truck school of thought describe how that way of life further enables getting to remote hiking, hunting, fishing, surfing and campsites.
Whereas supporters of the 4WD big truck tell me how important their trucks are for hauling the big boat, horse trailer, a load of gravel or couple of ATVs.
But by and large, for every mile off-road or with a big load, these trucks drive 10 miles on the blacktop with nothing more than the driver on board. It gets down to a love affair with the machine.
According to the Web site www.swivel.com, Hawai’i has more trucks per person than California.
The site also states Hawai’i has more cars per person than Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas.
Only the huge cold northwestern states like Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming have significantly more cars per person than tiny Hawai’i.
What’s the attraction?
Compared with Mainland, there is nowhere to drive in Hawai’i. There is no two- day trek to a distant wilderness or a drive to a far off exciting urban center. Here on Kaua’i every road is a dead end. Maybe that’s why some are excited by the Superferry. Finally they’ll be able to drive somewhere.
It’s no coincidence that a small isolated place with a love affair with the car is going to have a traffic problem. It is one of the biggest complaints about life on Kaua‘i. If you are going to love the car, you are going to have suburbs and sprawl and traffic. Get over it or get out of your vehicle.
These islands are small. I find when I’m driving a lot, Kaua’i seems even smaller and, if there is traffic, nastier. When I stay away from driving for a few days, the island seems to relax and expand. Under those circumstances, outside of rush hour, an occasional journey from Hanapepe to Kapa’a seems a big trip to an exotic locale. When I don’t drive much I’m finding more things to do in my neighborhood, more work and more people further get to know.
Of course, many have to commute to work, and so have to be in their cars everyday in heavy traffic. My suggestion is to find work close to home, or better yet, in your home. Even with a pay cut it may be worth the change. If you don’t own your car outright, eliminating a car payment that could eliminate the need for that second job or overtime.
Once nearby work is available, the necessity of driving will be reduced.
Get out of the “autoburb” hive now.
The suburbs are not designed for the accommodation of people to one another, but for the accommodations needed by vehicles. I know, I’ve laid out suburban developments. You start out with a site boundary and some idea of lot sizes (related to target buyers) and then you lay out the roads and cul-de-sacs to get a car to every lot in the subdivision.
There may be some secondary design criteria— like water views, gold course frontage, or park amenities. But not every unit gets one of those.
However, every unit gets automobile access from the interstate ramp all the way into its own two-car garage.
Suburban commercial site development is designed backwards from the parking lot accommodations needed for every square foot of built commercial space. The job of the suburban landscape architect boils down to optimizing parking lot design while satisfying the local planning commission desire for a bit of green window-dressing.
At one time, American economic strength was centered within the productivity of the auto industry itself. That has changed. We’d rather buy vehicles made in Europe or Asia. Yes, America still has a formidable high-tech and military industry, but, as James Kunstler and others have pointed out, for the last 30 years American society has become an economy centered on building more suburbs and filling them up with foreign cars, plasma TV’s and the like. I call this living accommodation “autoburbia.
“These autoburbs only work when the cars work. With the impending collapse of the housing industry, the dollar and the inevitably increasing cost of fuel, this is about to change. It has already progressed quite far in third world countries that cannot afford crude oil at $80 a barrel. When crude oil reaches $100 a barrel we’ll be paying $5 a gallon. When it’s $200 a barrel we’ll pay $10 a gallon. Some have said we are as close to $200 a barrel.
We should all be working as quickly as possible to get out of our cars and the places that require their use. The further you are down that road, the smoother the transition will be. George Bush has said, “The American Lifestyle is nonnegotiable.”
If that’s the case, there will be some hell to pay.
• Juan Wilson is a resident of Hanapepe and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island. Juan is an architect-planner and the editor of www.IslandBreath.org
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