These past two days, I should be doing what other 22 or 23-year old people should be doing, which is to celebrate their achievements in receiving a college diploma and attend the graduation ceremony. I find it quite odd to formally celebrate graduation, because it has a self-congratulatory aspect to it. The other problem was that it was very hot and humid during both days of the ceremonies that I had attended, and being huddled together with other fellow graduates, certainly did not make us feel any better. It was like classroom time all over again. This time consisting of a physical rather than merely a mental torture (which is not to say that some classes were not enjoyable).
But what was even more aggravating was to be stuck in traffic at 7am on Monday morning, and once more (though less intense) on the way back from downtown Philadelphia to the northeast suburbs around 3pm in the afternoon. We had not anticipated that there would be a significant traffic jam at 7am, but one could guess that it would have to happen, because most workers were trickling in at 9am in the downtown office. They anticipated the long delays, and decided to “beat the crowd” by heading out at 7am, while realizing that if everyone takes off at 7am, they might get to work on time, but they will surely also be stuck in the traffic for an hour or more, when it really takes only 20 minutes during smooth traffic.
Beating the crowd is a really terrific idea, but it only makes sense if you actually know what the crowd thinks, and not simply assume that you can beat the crowd. (So take off at 6am, when other people take off at 7am.) As a socialist, I am naturally skeptical to rank-ordering and elbowing out other people, but in the reality of personal life, such as in transportation where personal space is often limited, and anyplace where we find scarcity, one has to think in terms of competition and conflict.
Cars are often presented as an ideal. Since the days of mass consumerism and advertisements, the American Dream has included the car as a necessary feature of American life. Thousands of jobs from mechanics, assembly-line workers, to salespeople are reliant on the car industry. We all need to buy cars to be independent, to be individuals, to do our own thing, to not be constrained. Cars have allowed the creation of suburbs, because people can toggle into the city for jobs, and come back to live in the suburbs, where they can have their own lawn, backyard and big house.
But how much independence and individuality is there really if it becomes a national culture, and everyone thinks this way? It is stifling conformity to own a car, and not owning it makes one not be part of that culture. Also there is not much independence if you are stuck in traffic jam with all the other suckers, believing that you are “free”. (It is aggravating to be in a traffic jam: the Beijing people have a good understanding of it, after being stuck in a traffic jam for a whole week.)
So what’s the solution? Public transportation. Yes, I am spoiled by Philadelphia’s public transportation system. I really do enjoy reading my books on the 20 or 50 bus (40 minute ride) and the Market-Frankford Line subway (25 minute ride), while being ensured that it would take me one and a half hours to commute one way, and being at ease that a professional driver and operator operate the vehicle (rather than me having to concentrate during the stop-and-go rush hour traffic). In a big city, there really is no incentive to have a car, and it is quite burdensome to purchase, maintain and fuel the car, while finding parking in expensive and crowded areas. City traffic is a genuine nightmare, because the roads are so narrow, the red traffic light phases are long, the distance between traffic lights is short, the drivers are enormously reckless, and the cars are so many.
Public transportation is only part of the story. In order to make public transportation a service that is constantly used, urban planning has to ensure that cities grow more compact. The city has to become the key place to live. Most city-dwellers agree that most of the buildings they like to access can be reached by bike, bus, train or by foot, while driving a car in the city is a nightmare, as I just described. As long as we encourage the suburban lifestyle we can not be surprised that cars will continue to remain the national fixture.