Our Roads Have Become Ugly, Lifeless Things

Day 43

I dislike driving. Threading a contoured bullet of climate-controlled luxury through garlands of traffic signals has become our méthode préférée of traveling between places. In exchange for our health and sanity — driving is the riskiest activity most of us engage in — we enjoy speed and comfort of movement.

Speed is never guaranteed, especially in those rosy hours before and after the working day, when we repeatedly engage in the apoplexy-inducing ritual of sitting in traffic. Our metallic beasts, as much built for the open road as a mustang is for an open field, purr impatiently beneath our anxious feet, the limp tachometer silently reminding us that we should be going much faster, if it weren’t for all these slow-witted dinglecherries driving like their cataract-riddled grandmothers, goddamnit.

Thank heaven for satellite radio, heated seats, and lane assist, you think, through gritted teeth. Once robot cars get here, things will be better.

I shake my head ruefully at our yearning desire for self-driving cars. At my own desire for them. Why? Because it’s a yearning for the past, when transportation was simpler.

We think, by and large, that things are better now than they ever were before, because that is the natural order of things. Maybe it is an American belief, progeny of Manifest Destiny, that we believe things must always be better tomorrow. I don’t know. I’ve always had a romantic soft spot for the “good old days.” You know, back when people died of tuberculosis, dysentery, and routine beheadings.

Maybe this isn’t exclusively an American belief. I see it in popular culture, though it’s been waning for a while now. We see our future as a dark and dysfunctional place. I digress.

My laughter at my own desire — at our collective desire — for self-driving cars owes to the fact that we yearn for something we had before, albeit in a different form.

Over a century ago, we had trolleys. After doffing one’s bowler to the tram driver, one would hop on, take a seat, enjoy the scenery, and hop off. We didn’t have infrastructure in place that encouraged or even allowed for the kind of mass individual transport that we depend upon today (and that regularly drives us bananas).

In my mind, our understanding of transportation and its proper role in the urban fabric — indeed, in the fabric of our lives — was perfected (or at least best understood) in the early 20th century. We depended upon our feet, bicycles, and — depending on the city — a good network of trams to get us around with minimal fuss. Oh, and horses.

Cars came along and gunked up the woiks. We recklessly sacrificed the beauty of our cities, the multipurpose use of our streets, and our health for speed and independence.

I am saddened by the majority of our built environment. It has been built, for the better part of a century, around the car and its demands. Instead of connecting buildings, roadways are largely dead spaces between them, reserved for the singular use of the car. They are festooned like garish Christmas trees with all manner of “road tinsel”: parking meters, lane striping, speed limit signs, traffic lights, and so forth.

Our roads have become ugly, lifeless things.

While I was not alive a century ago, I glean much from the photos and literature of the time. I have an ache for the mentality of back then, when people took a pride — now lost — in the way things looked. We have become utilitarian and efficient to a fault. Beauty for its own sake is almost never the reason to build something; it is a line item at the end of a long bill.

Whenever I see a twinkle of the old beauty in something new, I stop in my tracks and think, There. There is proof that others see it too, that there must be old beauty in this new world.

Or is it new beauty in this old world?

Flatiron Building, New York, circa 1908. The streets are alive, and an integral part of the urban fabric.

Originally written for my daily writing practice on April 27, 2017

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