Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V055-03_GudruncopyFor the past couple of years my local public radio station has adopted a new fundraising mantra—asking me to donate my car to the station in return for a “possible tax write-off” and the good feeling of helping them remain on the air and their executives pumping up their salaries. They do this a couple of times every hour: “gimme your car, gimme your car.” They keep saying it is a “clunker” that I really don’t need any more, even though it is a perfectly functional and still very stylish ’93 BMW 325i that looks much like the current model. I’ll be damned if I will give it to them unless they are going to turn it into public transit that runs close enough for me to use and takes me where I need or want to go. No chance of that. And no chance that they are going to get my car.

I am a supporter of public broadcasting, but this hectoring me for my car frankly pisses me off. Moreover, I wonder what it is they want to do with my car. I suspect that it would end up down in Mexico and probably live on for another fifteen years as a taxi, like those 1950s American cars one encounters in Havana or Istanbul. Heck, not long ago, in the salubrious, car-preserving climate of San Diego, I saw the doppelganger of my 1955 Chevy that decades ago turned to a pile of rust from the salted roads back in Upstate New York winters; this one looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor. Now my public radio station wants me to turn over “Gudrun.” That’s the name I gave “her” when I bought “her”; named after of teacher friend of mine who lives in Hamburg (but also because “she” runs good). No way.

Ironically, on October 14, 1986 I broadcasted the first of some seventy or so Public Radio commentaries on KPBS-FM. I had asked Karen Kish, the then producer of an afternoon magazine-style program called San Diego On Air, why they did not have a segment that dealt with cities and urban life. “Go write one, come back, and we’ll see how you sound,” she said. Titled “The One-Horsepower Solution,” it was an essay about the automobile, as compared to the horse, the first of about sixty essays I wrote and broadcast on the station back in the days when it didn’t covet my car. A lot of miles have been driven since then, and a lot of gasoline gone off into carbon emissions, and a lot of increase in cost, most of it recently, has been added to a barrel of crude. The essay is reprised below as the first part of some pieces re-examining the automobile, its pros and cons, and its alternatives.

Here it is:

Enduring a breakdown (of the mechanical sort, that is) on the freeway is frustrating enough experience; but sometimes one most also suffer the gleeful barbs of passing motorists whose own vehicles are, at least momentarily, in good working order. At a recent such misfortune I heard one passing motorist shout, with some Doppler effect, a remark I had not heard in years put to drivers of disabled automobiles: “get a horse!” Rather than getting me angry, it got me to thinking. It has often been remarked that Americans have a love-hate. relationship with the automobile. There are several ways in which that observation might be interpreted; but one candidate is that people love their own cars and hate everyone else’s, for it’s all those other cars that make using ours more difficult to enjoy. There’s no need to recite the wealth of statistical data that announce that most every city, and particularly those like San Diego, are in for more crowded streets and freeways, scarcer parking space, and are heading in the direction of that dreaded new phenomenon, “gridlock.” There is ample experiential evidence for all those who must daily venture into the land of the commuter.

The automobile has been the bane of urban planners since it came within the economic reach of the average American. It is acceptable in planning circles to become resigned to the popularity of the automobile, but still rather heretical to credit it with any improvement in the quality of urban life. Yet it was as a welcome alternative over its immediate, comparable predecessor–the horse and carriage (not mechanized mass transit)–that the automobile was first received in the early years of this century.

Consider the original pollution problem: in 1875 London had to remove 1,000 tons of manure from its streets every day. New York City had a population of over 120,000 horses at the turn of the century, which produced a daily 130 ton hill of manure. Manure-laden streets, in addition to olfactory offense, bred billions of flies that carried some 30 different diseases, some quite serious. Further, they attracted large numbers of birds, which cancelled out the advantage of their insect diet with their own considerable droppings. For a time the manure, which made good fertilizer, was carted to nearby farms; but, as nearby farms were rapidly pushed further out it soon became unprofitable to do so, and manure was often dumped into river Horse urine, which couldn’t be collected, added to the pollution, and made streets treacherous to horses and humans alike, often resulting in injuries. At the turn of the century as many as 15,000 horse corpses had to be dragged off the streets of New York and Chicago every year. Statistics on horse and carriage accidents were also not insignificant. It is reported that in the late 19th century, Paris was averaging700 deaths and 5,000 injuries each year from capsized coaches and runaway horses.

The autophobe has plenty of data to counter these statistics. The annual carnage on America’s present-day streets and highways dwarfs Paris’ turn of the century accident rate. Pollution from automobiles may ultimately have more ominous impacts than the horse. And dead horses are at least biodegradable. But on a horsepower for horsepower basis the horse may be the worse polluter.

Much of the progress of urban life has been purchased from the lesser of evils. But one of the measures by which we have gauged this progress has been by the freedom and ease of geographic mobility—closely related to social mobility—that our cities and societies afford us. The car beats the horse and carriage by more than a mile on this account.

Humankind has long exhibited a powerful propensity to free itself from the bounds of time and space; but there have always been costs to be paid. For a time, as I watched the characters on TV’s “Star Trek” beam themselves all over the universe, I thought that the ultimate answer might be “teleportation,” where you step into a pod in one place, reduced to atomic particles, then beamed to the destination pod, where your particles are re-assembled.
Then I saw the remake of the movie,
 The Fly.

(UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.12.2009)
© 1986, James A. Clapp. Aired KPBS-FM, Public Radio, October 14, 1986