Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why Are We Unlike The Rest of The World

LA Times columnist David Lazarus, in yesterdays edition, started off with this broad statement:
It's hard to appreciate how truly pitiful our public transportation system is until you spend some time with a system that works.
And then goes on to gush over how the transportation in Japan is far superior to what we have in the states. I have also heard for people who long for a train system similar to Europe's. Lazarus and others speak somewhat fondly of the ease of use and the simplicity of the linkages found in these systems. So, what is keeping us from creating the same atmosphere on this continent?

For the most part, I think that we all find only one or two things that we like about those cultures, that we would be willing to emulate. Some like the active street scenes with the restaurants and shops on the ground floor and residential above. Some like the narrow streets and hidden nooks and crannies. Others like the grand public spaces and the wide plazas and boulevards. There are those who enjoy hopping on the train and running to another city for the evening(and returning before morning). And those who desire to walk to the local green grocer for the fresh harvested produce from which to prepare the evening meal. These are all pieces to the whole picture. But we American don't want the whole picture, just selected parts of it.

Americans, from the Revolution, have tried to differentiate themselves from the Europeans in almost every way possible. Driving on the right and not the left, English measures and not metric(dosen't that sound odd), horse racing counter-clockwise and not clockwise just to name a few. We have tried to become unlike them, even though before we got here, we were them. We charted our own course and took it on with rugged individualism.

Except that that rugged individual still needed some kind of support network. Very few explorers went off into the wilderness alone, they traveled in groups. Often in groups of twenty or more. The frontier farmers didn't establish their farms alone, the usually did it similar to the way the Amish do it still, as a group effort. The westward push across the Great Plains were in wagon trains and even the great "mountain men" had to have somewhere to get supplies.

Now we look back at Europe or other places that we have come from, sometimes longingly, sometimes not, and wish that we had some small part of what they have. Be it their rail system or their local street scene, some of us just wish that we had it. It reminds me of the local Chamber's trips to similar "successful " cities for "ideas". This buffet of ideas will work only if all the pieces complement each other, otherwise you may just end up with a toxic cocktail.

Lazarus at one point says that we will need to make our cities less comfortable in order to force our population into mass transit. Are these Japanese or European cities so uncomfortable that we will stop visiting in such great numbers? Are they so uncomfortable that their own inhabitants are fleeing in droves? I think not. So, why do we visit there (repeatedly) and long for what they have, yet fail to bring it about in our own country. Even our own "world class" cities cannot pull it off with the same panache as they do. I don' t think that we want their comfort level, because we are Americans and we deserve more.

And maybe we are just deluding ourselves.

No comments: