New Yorkers can barely get the federal government to pay for one third of a three-stop new subway line that would help people make more than 350,000 trips a day with low-pollution transportation that would encourage a tightly-packed, environmentally friendly city. But the federal government paid for more than 80 percent of the Interstate highway system that now traps Southern Californians in their cars for much of the day.

How is that system working out? The New York Times has an article this morning about a recent shooting spree on the roads around Los Angeles. Seven shootings since early March have left four people dead and several others injured. The article quotes a motorist, Juan Mendez, a wood floor installer: “Normally you’re just driving around in your lane hoping you don’t get hit by another car or that you’re not going to be late for work, and yet suddenly you could get shot,” he said. “But we have no option except to use the freeways.” Mr. Mendez spoke to the reporter as he was filling up his gas tank. Gas in Los Angeles is averaging $2.54 a gallon &#8212 that’s compared to $2.36 a gallon in New York and $2.21 nationally, according to GasBuddy.com. Add to the fear of getting shot the rising price of gasoline, and driving seems a more and more unbearable, if not hellish, exercize.

Thanks to massive, federally financed highway spending that began under President Eisenhower and continues to this day, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has developed a land use pattern that requires lots of driving by lots of people, every day. These trips are almost always made in single-occupancy vehicles, the least efficient way for moving anybody anywhere. The Census Bureau reports that 3% of Los Angeles-area commuters spend more than 90 minutes traveling to and from work each day. Leaving aside additional driving for errands or to reach leisure activities, that’s 90 minutes by one’s self, avoiding radio commercials and fighting traffic. Could that be what is causing people to go beserk and start shooting at cars?

New York actually has longer average commute times and a greater percentage of people whose commutes take 90 minutes or more. But in New York, the commute can be a far more relaxing affair. You sit on the train, read the paper, talk on the phone without having to concentrate on the road. Commuters who take the same train, bus, or ferry every day start to recognize one another and form tacit or outright friendly relationships. Sometimes you see businessmen in suits playing cards on the train, which is impossible when one is isolated in a three-ton metal cage. New Yorker’s commutes may be more economically productive as well. Surely a lot of transactions are brokered over the cheap beer poured in the bar cars that ply the rails between Grand Central Terminal and New Haven.

&copy Michael Gibson/Paramount Pictures

Most important, though, is that there are many ways to get around the city. Every day, New Yorkers grapple with the age old subway-or-cab question. Others debate the subway-or-bus question or the PATH-or-ferry question. Others choose to walk, because the land use pattern here makes walking, a most sociable mode of travel, worthwhile. More and more people here are bicycling or taking motorcycles or scooters, like Ben Barry, a character in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a 2003 movie in which a Manhattan advertising executive woos a writer for a women’s magazine in between weaving through stalled traffic on his motorcycle. But who needs a motor? A bike ride to work can be an exhilirating way to start the day.

Do our multiple modes of transportation make New Yorkers happier people? That is up for debate. But what is certain is that they keeps us from being tied down to one mode that could become unpleasant quickly if, say, gas prices keep rising, or you could get shot.

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One Response to Dystopia-by-the-Sea

  1. aaron says:

    Riding a bike is the only form of commuting that has ever made me feel anything close to happiness. I don’t think I’ve ever been more depressed or alienated than when I lived and worked for a short time in LA. In the morning I’d walk out of my living box, get into my box on wheels, drive to my work box, get back in the car to go to the lunch box, etc…. It sucked.

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