The Coastal Post - April, 1997

Sexy Cars, Greasy Sluts, Magic Carpets

BY STEPHEN SIMAC

I was sitting in front of Smiley's bar when a friend came up looking glum. "Man, I just got a ticket for no insurance for $500 bucks. I'm fucked. I may have to just kill myself." I hesitated to give anyone advice on suicide after the last time, so I just bought him a drink. The new insurance law passed by California legislators last summer when into effect on January 1. Because as many as 40% of California drivers were estimated to be driving without coverage, stiff fines for driving a motor vehicle without insurance are given. This uses the police as a cattle prod for uninsured motorists to pony up into the insurance companies coffers. My friend had just been goaded, and sure enough, he began paying his $40 bucks a month to AAAllState. The judge was lenient and his suicidal tendencies were reduced to driving with a few drinks under his belt. Happy ending.

Little deaths and car wrecks

Our dominant transportation system, glass and metal motor vehicles on roadways is inherently dangerous, with human errors and faulty engineering increasing the random probability of collisions. The cost of those collisions in medical bills and property damage is enormous, so there are rational, communitarian reasons for ensuring that all motorists are insured. But why do these communitarian laws always come down hardest on the poor, who can least afford it, yet still need to drive just to stay afloat because of the dominance of the automobile?

One study showed that simply by pooling a 12 to 15 cents a gallon insurance tax at the pump, no-fault coverage could be provided for all motorists. I'm not sure if that would cover pedestrians and bicyclists run over by cars, but anyway the concept is economical, practical and was not considered by the lawmakers.

This is not a rant about insurance companies, because along with almost every other player in our economy, they are just sucking on the porcine teats of the American transportation system. Few people realize this, but the whole system is propped up by income and property taxpayers, because the immense costs of providing for over a hundred million motorists are not covered by gas and vehicle taxes. Traffic tickets don't even cover the cost of the cop pulling you over, and that's one of the cheapest subsidized items on the menu. It's not just a metaphor that internal combustion engine pistons are modeled on cannons, because it's the big gun which blasted Baghdad that keep our oil supply flowing and artificially cheap.

A womb with a view

The American love affair with automobiles and lonely highways goes way beyond the simple need to move humans from point A to point B. It's tied into our freedom-loving, cowboy image, our huge, suburban distances, our disdain for mass transit or public transportation in favor of the individualized womb with a view. Even if you're stuck in gridlock traffic, at least you've got stereo, unless some drug addict smashed in your window to snatch the tape player. Isn't it ironic, and all that, the national source of pleasure, the vehicle of our getting paid, getting laid, getting there is often the greatest hassle to just being.

After 20 years of not owning a car, two years ago I decided to get with the 20th century before it ended. In my 20s I was politically active about alternative transportation, especially bicycles. With a few other bicyclists we successfully lobbied for bike lanes, routes, and paths, closed the center of the University of Florida in Gainesville to car traffic, and forced traffic engineers in Florida to include pedestrian and cyclists in their transportation plans. I served on state and local bicycle advisory committees, and felt like a prophet in the wilderness. I was gung-ho, self-righteous and hypocritical, because just like everyone else, I am addicted to the petroleum our economy is lubricated with.

Sex slaves and back seats

I was tired of hitch-hiking and I wasn't getting laid, so I bought an old Volvo, which promptly broke down. The predicament of owning an automobile was made clear to me once again as I lay under the jacked-up car to replace the "slave cylinder." I'm sure that was some Swedish idea of a joke, but I sold it and bought a Japanese car who's been much more loyal, if less stylish. I'm still a willing slave to the car, because she does so much for me and quite frankly because there are no other options which even come close in getting where we want to go, when we want to get there, even defining who we are and how we're perceived.

No, this is a rant on alternatives which could be available if we wanted them, because you can't nag people into giving up automobiles unless there are options which are at least as attractive. We have to dream those up, just as Henry Ford did in the last century. Do we really want to pull into the next millennium in vehicles which we already acknowledge pollute the air, water and soil, make any place near a road noisy and dirty, give us the fattest butts in the world, make us angry and ill-tempered and even though we're speeding, still pressed for time?

Skinny legs and all

I know Americans love their cars so much that they can't imagine any other lover. Walking. Bicycling. Skating and self-propelled conveyances have increased geometrically in popularity since I first started promoting them in the late '70s. Back then there were only a few true believers, yet it seemed so simple, just point out that if our forms transportation involved exercise and was pollution-free, instead of fat we'd be fit in a cleaner environment, but it wasn't simple. In the '90s more people drive to the gym to spin in place or go nowhere on treadmills rather than risk their lives on roads with more cars than ever. I can't blame them. I've never bicycled as much as I did before that sausage truck hit me in the '80s.

People basically want to be carried. Everyone wants a carriage, but billions of Chinese and Indians also want cars. Most experts agree that the carrying capacity of the planet will be exceeded if we all live like Americans whose "real world" rotates around a crankshaft. Talks about sustainability have to begin with the way we get around. Right now we have environmental lawyers driving four-wheel-drive Cherokees, and sustainability experts in Integras.

Future studies to screw the poor

They are pushing for laws which punish the poor for wanting to be wealthy and actually own a horseless buggy. Take a hard look at Smog Check II and the "cleaner" gasoline formulas which will gradually crush into scrap all older cars except those owned by collectors. The idea is to make the air cleaner by forcing the poorest people off the road. No priority is given to providing another way to get around. Meanwhile for those who can afford it, including many environmentalists, 12mpg sport utility vehicles are the current craze. I'm sure they will be happier when there are fewer poor people clogging up the freeways, but they are earning their karma.

It's probably not possible to come up with more luxurious visions than shiny, new cars with quiet, leather interiors, as sexy as powerful muscle cars substituting for phallic deficiencies, or as adventurous as SUV's and pickup trucks destroying fragile ecosystems, but there are certainly more practical, less polluting, cheaper, even time-saving methods of traveling which could be part of the "real world."

Marin County paid for a study 20 years ago, conducted by some future studies group, which recommended a ride-sharing program with official pullover sites which would match up riders and drivers with common destinations. Nothing was ever done about it, even though the idea was based on a successful program in Europe which gave community service hours to drivers who participated. With computerized identification for safety, it would reduce traffic congestion at one-tenth the cost of a mile of High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.

Instead of an expensive train to nowhere in the name of mass transit, for half the cost we could fund free, electric-powered mini-vans to ferry people up and down Highway 101 and along its feeder routes at more frequent intervals than the Golden Gate Transit provides now.

Surf racks on the ski lift

A ski resort in the Sierras constructed a sky tram from the nearest town, a dozen miles away down the mountain where most of their workers lived, to the complex. These high-speed sky trams were already being used to carry people up the slopes, and now save commuters and tourists time and money and the twisty drive up the mountain roads. For less than the one-time cost to repair Highway One after the slide, Caltrans and the National Park Service, which was charged with providing access to the GGNRA when it created the West Marin federal reserve, could string up a couple of these. With four million visitors a year to West Marin, besides resident commuters, a sky tram from Marin City to Stinson Beach National Seashore and the other from San Rafael to Pt. Reyes National Park would prevent globally significant amounts of carbon dioxide.

Even though the technical advisory committee ignored it, most of the pollution in the Bolinas Lagoon is coming from Highway One runoff. The original plan for Kent sandspit was to run a tram rail down its length and over to Bolinas. The sand is now called Seadrift Estates and it's built out ass to cheek with millionaire's mansions. To mitigate for their artificial lagoon dredging in the '60s and falling septic mounds, they built out in the '80s, they could fund a link from the Stinson Beach sky tram station to old Wharf Road. Since none of this is likely to happen before the lagoon channel fills in, they'll save by not needing a bridge.

Real world tours / magic carpet rides

All my life I've been told, "You've got to live in the real world." Dreaming is verboten, and especially about changing the folks' wagons. After 40 years of hearing about this "real world," I realized it wasn't the one I was from. It seems evident that we continually create the "real world," shape it in our dreams and our desires, then our little homunculus works to build it just like we want it even if we don't claim it. It's sticky to get between the masses and their desires, more cush to jump on the magic carpet of their dreams. We can all see that we're on a ride that's going to end with a jerk.