Back in the protest years, I saw Ray Bradbury speak at Costa Mesa's Estancia High School, and he said that the most meaningful statement we young'uns could make would be to burn our driver's licenses, that driving was anti-civilization and anti-human.
Snot that I was, I asked him how he'd gotten there that day. He said a friend drove him. That seemed like surrogated hypocrisy to me then, but what's a person to do when he lives in Southern California? They tore up the original Red Line in the 1950s, casting it asunder with a biblical finality, selling the rail cars off to South America or dumping them in the ocean. Few people today (and I'm not one of them) remember what it was like to ride a convenient, cheap and fun form of mass transit from LA all the way to the Balboa Pavilion.
It wasn't just the scheming of the gasoline, automobile and tire companies that did the Red Line in. Back then, automobiles meant freedom and progress, and everyone wanted one of their own. But the guy today who loses a sixth of his day to commuting might think otherwise. I know many people with three- to four-hour daily commutes. One study maintains that Americans cumulatively lose eight billion hours per year stuck in traffic. Those hours could have been spent finding a cure for whiplash, or at least reading Infinite Jest all the way through.
And every year, traffic gets worse. Researchers have found that the time saved by "highway improvements" such as those perpetually snarling OC traffic never equals the time lost to drivers by the delays the construction causes. The money we voted in over the years for mass transit usually winds up spent on highways, and the toll roads largely just serve to open new areas to development, meaning still more traffic.
Ride a bike, and you're in constant peril of a car clipping you. Ride our mass transit—meaning busses—and you still get the auto's clotted traffic. And the transit system is stuck in an endless cycle: underfunded because people don't use it, and underused because it is underfunded and feeble.
Most of the world's great cities also have great mass transit, a large part of what makes those burgs great. Better late than never, our Orange County Transportation Authority is getting to the heavy petting stage with the CenterLine, a light-rail line intended to link Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Irvine. The 18-mile route has been whittled down from an originally proposed to be 28 miles. At that rate, we'll be lucky if the tracks are any longer than the train is when it is finished in 2011, which probably means 2019 in 'crat-speak.
In the meantime, we are so car-conditioned that even before I'd made it home from my wreck, I was admiring a new T-bird I saw on the road. It didn't look as good as in the commercials though, as those never show sleek cars stuck in traffic, the driver fuming behind the wheel. The ads would probably be even less appealing if they ever once showed a bit more reality, of a driver hobbling out of his crumpled vehicle and stepping in a glop of gum and a world of hurt.