Suburb Socialism

Chapter I: Mass Transit

Y’all wanted a thread on how we must change the way we suburb, and comrades, I’m here to deliver that ecosocialist goodness you crave. Medium isn’t my style but if I’d blocked this out into tweets it would have been the length of one of Eric Garland’s game theory meltdowns, and nobody wants that. Even so, I’ve decided to spread this out into multiple parts: I’m gonna try to take this one issue at a time, exploring the challenges and the potential strengths of organizing out in the burbs.

(This will still probably be a bit of a hike, even broken up like that. Fair warning.)

The Challenge: Distance and Concrete

One of the biggest difficulties of the suburbs is the space. Our towns are pock-marked with endless oceans of parking lots, painted across the land in front of copy-and-pasted strip malls and corporate parks. Due to zoning laws, these are typically a mile or so removed from anywhere people might live, and rarely are there pedestrian-friendly paths to get there. And in-between these sad little asteroids of civilization, we have a patchwork of highways and back roads, each as inaccessible to foot traffic or bicycles as the surface of the moon. In short, suburbs are often constructed as if the implicit purpose was not only to bolster the automotive industry, but to isolate us.

So this boils down to: the space between towns makes getting together at all (much less for organizing with comrades) a massive pain in the ass at best (if not downright impossible), and what we fill that space with discourages interaction with your neighbors and encourages staying inside. Why leave the comfort of your bubble when there’s nothing nearby to leave it for? Its easy for that isolation to fester- and when it does, we become easy prey for hollow capitalist materialism and liberal hopelessness.

Now this next part is… niche, but its illustrative of the challenges we face. I want to explain just how desolate the suburbs actually are with a brief but deep dive into a single aspect of suburban living. Bear with me if you would and say a prayer for my soul.

Much Ado About Parking

Martinsson, Jacobson & Lundberg (2016)

Consider the following: its estimated that there are between 105,000,000 and 2,000,000,000 parking spaces in the US. Given that roughly 175,000,000 Americans live in the suburbs and certain ‘burbs have 30 parking spaces per resident, we can assume that the lion’s share of these things aren’t in the cities or out in the country- they’re in our back yard. And at a standard area of 16.72 meters squared (10'x18'), that means we’re looking at an area of somewhere between 1,755,600,000m² and 33,440,000,000m² just devoted to parking spaces. That’s roughly between the area of New York City (on the low end) to just shy of the total area of the State of Maryland. Devoted solely to PARKING SPACES.

On top of this, 68.552kg of CO2 is released and of 319.35kwh of electricity is expended to pave one single parking space, which means we’re looking at anywhere between 7,197,960,000 kg CO2 and 33,531,960,000 kwh on the low end, to 137,104,000,000 kg CO2 and 638,704,000,000 kwh to have paved all the parking spaces in America!

Its also the same electricity usage as running 134 billion PS3’s for a year! Wooooo~

Keep in mind the average CO2 emissions for your typical passenger car is roughly 4.6 tons per year. So to pave all these things, its like we’ve been running 1.5–29.8 million cars for an entire year.

And all of this is to say that the amount of space we devote to parking in the suburbs is fucking psychotic and can you tell I’ve finally lost the tattered shreds of my sanity after running the numbers on all this shit?

The Solution: A Massive Expansion of Mass Transit

We’re here for radical solutions, right? Great. The hard truth is that if we’re going to turn today’s suburbs into an engine of ecosocialist organizing (and honestly if we’re going to make any headway against climate change), one radical component is that we’re going to have to move away from personal car culture. And I struggle to think of a solution that would be more radical than this, considering how iconic the personal car has become in American life- to say nothing of how essential they’ve become out in the burbs, for the reasons listed above. But the hard truth is that we cannot continue paving over our land for parking spaces and still prevent a a climate/ecological apocalypse. We can’t choke our highways with ever-more cars and avoid disaster.

But people still have to get around! So we’re gonna need buses. Lots and lots of fucking buses. (And trains and light rails and trolleys and van pools and you get the picture.)

These numbers speak for themselves, don’t they?

The ecological reasoning behind an expansion of mass transit is a no-brainer. But as we can see above, we’ve got bus lines right now that aren’t filled to capacity. In fact, the linked study states that the average bus line is usually only 28% full- their environmental and social potential is still largely being left on the table. We have get more butts in seats on those buses and trains.

We can’t just push for mass transit and stop there; we have to push for free mass transit, at the very least free for low-income people/families, students, and the elderly. I recognize that the immediate political realities of different municipalities might mean that this starts out first as an extra bus here, a “free transit Saturdays” there, and so forth. This isn’t to sing the virtues of liberal incrementalism; we should always be proudly forthcoming about and relentlessly demand our ultimate socialist goals, whether we’re talking free mass transit or 100% green energy or prison abolition or whatever. But if we can secure some expansion of socialist transit, we should not prevent ourselves from banking these tangible goods simply because what we get isn’t our ultimate goal. Upon securing these gains we should be ready to return to agitating for our ideals the very next day.

And it falls to the suburbs to organize this because we have the benefits of both “enough residents close enough together to justify this expansion” and “enough physical space to update our roads and build necessary transit terminals”.

Abandoning Car Culture

Even if we were to win massive electoral victories up and down the ballot; even if we were to secure federal funding for national free mass transit; we still have to ensure that as the number of buses and trains rise, the number of personal cars on the road falls. And really I think the best way to do this is to reverse the process that made cars convenient; as we expand our van/bus/rail services, we’ve got to tear up parking lots and certain roads, and replace them with more ecologically/socially friendly installations.

Seoul Before…
…and after.

Again, at first this may take the form of getting your town council to tear up an abandoned parking lot and replace it with something better, but again, this is a tangible, concrete good and we cannot scoff at such victories. Passing a municipal ordinance for a regular “car-free Main Street Day” or something could boost business to local small businesses and show people how cool it is to get out and interact with your town on foot. Replacing a cracked old parking lot with a community garden, a pollinator-friendly meadow, an outdoor concert pavilion or an open-air market (and providing the necessary pedestrian/cyclist access routes over existing roads) would be a critical first step in showing the benefits of a greener, less car-centric suburbia. Some cities have torn up entire highways to provide such greenspaces to their citizens.

But however we go about it, we will have to make owning a car inconvenient as compared to taking a bus or catching a light rail (which must be in place before we start ripping up active parking or non-HOV lanes). I would discourage anyone from seeking a punitive route (i.e. fining people for parking here or there, for driving in HOV lanes, etc) because these misguided “solutions” will disproportionately impact the poor.

from Flickr’s Creative Commons, Az1568

One Degree of Separation

As we tackle our transit problem, we also have to keep in mind the issues that are directly adjacent to forging a 21st century mass transit system. For instance: in a lot of suburban areas, there is no Mixed Use zoning; businesses and residences cannot exist in the same place. Altering our local zoning ordinances could eliminate the need for any kind of transit requirement at all for certain destinations. This is a goal that could be accomplished within a 6-month timeframe, if an organizational structure were already in place for an interested municipality; 12 months if someone had to build the organizational framework from scratch. But it is entirely doable.

Gentrification is also directly related to our nation’s current transit nightmare; as poor and working class people get priced out of their original neighborhoods, pushed ever-farther from their place of work, their transit times get longer and longer. We can overcome this by working alongside tenant advocacy groups, and by pressuring our local and state governments to require sufficient numbers of affordable housing and rent-controlled apartments. We have to vigorously fight back against developers and real-estate moguls who are only looking to turn a quick buck off of throwing people out of their homes.

“bUt HoW wIlL wE pAy FoR iT?!1”

The same way the federal government pays for anything- they print the money or assign a credit and *poof!* work gets done. Its not like they have to mine up a billion dollars worth of gold bars each time they want to build a fighter jet or some shit, but nobody asks this sort of question when its military spending on the line.

ugh alright FINE lets talk savings.

Automotive accidents cost the nation about one TRILLION dollars in crash-site damage and lost productivity, in 2010 alone. By comparison, the national cost of all our mass transit lines was $65.05B in 2015. Considering that there were only 254 fatalities nationwide from mass transit in 2015, compared to the 37,461 deaths in motor vehicle accidents in 2016, we can clearly see that abandoning personal car culture in favor of mass transit would save us potentially hundreds of billions each year- even as we acknowledge that such an expansion would not end all MVAs (obviously), the savings would be immense.

That said, try not to fall too deep into the trap of arguing how to make mass transit a profit-generating machine. It doesn’t need to be. The “return on investment” we’re getting is a more connected society, people who’re less isolated from their peers, and a healthier environment. And if anyone keeps bugging you about funding just remind them that transit investment inherently earns back more than half of what it costs, and the kind of transit expansion we’re advocating for would also be a gargantuan jobs program, the scale of which hasn’t been seen since Eisenhower ordered the Interstate built in 1956.

In Conclusion

Summed up: We need public mass transit to take the place of cars; we need to tear up roads and parking spaces that are rendered unnecessary by this expansion, so that car ownership drops; and we’ll need to take the space that used to be parking/car roads and replace it with public green spaces.

Told yall this would be a bit of a hike. But we did it! And now we know a little more about what we’ll need to do to make the suburbs sustainable, both immediately and in the future. Tomorrow’s ecosocialist suburbs can’t look anything like today’s, but we’ll get to the really radical stuff after we explore a few more of these present-day issues.