Paul Dorn: Bike Summer 'Zine Article
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Class and Traffic
by Paul Dorn

Originally published in the Bike Summer 1999 Zine
URL: http://www.runmuki.com/paul/writing/classandtraffic.html

As with many features of life in the US, transportation is rife with class contradictions. National transportation policy, especially since WWII, has effectively been controlled by GM, Exxon, and their associates (not coincidentally the biggest cabal of capitalist villains on the planet). These corporate interests have used their considerable political influence to ensure that highways get funded and transit systems don't, creating an extensive system of subsidies to encourage driving and discourage alternatives. The automobile-centered US transportation system has been created to maximize profits, not to enhance personal mobility.

The prioritization of automobiles by government transportation planners has had numerous detrimental effects, with the most damaging impacts borne by poor and working class people. Among the numerous detrimental impacts of an automobile-centered transportation system:

1) Housing Costs: In most urban areas in the US, 40-60 percent of the land area is consumed for the movement and storage of automobiles (roads, garages, parking lots.) Remaining space is therefore more costly for housing, offices, factories, schools, hospitals, and other facilities truly useful to people. Imagine the impact on housing costs in San Francisco if all the city's parking lots were developed into residential buildings. The ground floors of most residential structures provide housing not for people, but rather shelter for cars (garages). The cost of building "off-street" parking--such as the three-car garages now a frequent feature of newly constructed suburban homes--raises the expense of all housing.

In addition, city governments have often demolished residential neighborhoods to expand road facilities (think of Geary through the Western Addition), depleting available housing and driving up rents. These road projects also diminish a city's property tax base, resulting in either reduced services or increased property taxes, again raising the cost of housing. The considerable social resources devoted to road maintenance and construction diverts money away from affordable housing development, among other things. The high cost of housing greatly impacts the proletariat.

2) Healthcare Costs: Each year approximately 43,000 people are killed and an additional one million people are hospitalized as a result of automobile accidents. The survivors of car crashes often require emergency room care, expensive pharmaceutical treatments, and extensive rehabilitation. In addition, automobile-related air pollution exacerbates asthma, bronchitis, allergies, and other respiratory ailments. Auto-derived toxins found in stormwater runoff from roads and parking lots contaminates drinking water and food crops. Automobile-related stress (noise, hazards, etc.) and fatigue from driving also impact public health. Supply and demand economics dictate that this increased need for healthcare due to an auto-centered transportation system raises the price for health services and insurance. The greater expense of healthcare is a greater hardship for poor and working class people, who often can barely afford any medical treatment.

3) Income Levels: For about 95 percent of its existence, the typical automobile is parked, meaning a huge amount of social wealth is tied up in rusting automotive metal. Vast amounts of capital are consumed creating roads and streets, which are designed to accommodate peak demand during two hours at the beginning and end of each workday. Additional wealth is wasted on parking facilities at suburban office parks that often sit empty on weekends. The incredible amount of social wealth consumed to support auto-dependency means fewer resources are available for more productive investment. This means higher borrowing costs for money, inhibiting investment, hurting the productivity of the economy, and holding down wage levels.

Payments for car loans, auto insurance, fuel, fees, and so on are often the largest household expense after housing. The considerable expense of owning and maintaining a private automobile contributes to the abysmally low savings rate of Americans--already the lowest in the world--again raising the cost of credit and hurting productive investment. Employers also consider the expense of providing "free" employee parking--which actually costs a great deal for maintenance, lighting, security, insurances, etc.--as part of total compensation, meaning workers' wages are held down regardless of how they get to their job.

4) Quality of Life: Blight-creating automobile facilities--gas stations, body shops, junk yards, highways--are usually located in poor and working class neighborhoods. The powers-that-be build refineries in working-class Richmond, not well-to-do Orinda. They build freeways through the Mission District, not affluent Seacliff in San Francisco. They can find $1.1 billion to rebuild the 4.5 mile Cypress Freeway so middle-class commuters from Castro Valley can save a few minutes traveling into San Francisco; yet these same politicians can't find a mere $1 million to maintain late-night service on AC Transit. They build costly BART extensions so middle-class suburbanites can easily get to SFO for their business and pleasure trips, but somehow can't electrify CalTrain and extend it downtown to serve working class people every day. Transportation priorities clearly reflect a class and racial bias.

Additionally, poor and working class people depend on public space, such as parks and streets, for recreation and community activities. We generally can't afford the dues at exclusive country clubs or private resorts. However, the quality of public space is diminished by an auto-centered transportation system. Streets once functioned much like parks: providing light, air and recreation and community space to all neighborhoods. Streets were places for community life: demonstrations, rallies, children's play, fairs, festivals, etc. Now, streets are widely viewed principally as utilitarian corridors for automobile traffic, effectively a publicly subsidized facility to enable private profits for GM, Exxon and cohorts.

Additional Reading:
Cars and Class, Bianca Mugyeni and Yves Engler, counterpunch.org


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