In Defense of Automobiles

I love a good road trip, and I believe that I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. I’d wager to guess that the majority of people from all over the world like to move about and see what they haven’t  seen yet, and experience things they haven’t yet come across. To want to get up and go is probably simple human nature.

But I’m also very environmentally conscious. I like my world green and clean. I recycle, plant only native shrubs, grasses, and trees, eat hand-gathered eggs, insulate my house properly, ride my bike to shopping, never litter, and pick up after my dogs.

Thus, many of my travels always come with twangs of guilt. Just last week, I once again took a road trip. This time, I retraced the old route of US Highway 77. Having been bypassed in many places by Interstate 35, it often proved a hard road to follow, but I lucked out and found both official and forgotten remnants along the way. I also discovered right-of-ways of long-abandoned railroad lines (mainly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad). That, of course, made me think about the environmental impact of all the ways I could travel – by plane, train, or the automobile.

The Southern Pacific Sunbeam and the Sam Houston Zephyr at Dallas Union Station.

The oldest kind of major traveling option are trains, but here in Texas, they are also the most neglected. It used to be that daily trains from Dallas to Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Shreveport, et. al., were common sights. Now, those routes have been torn up, to either be used as bike paths or to simply exist as forgotten berms on the side of the road. Today, only three long-distance trains serve Texas (the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer), and only one is in Oklahoma (Heartland Flyer). Hopefully, that will change soon, as talks are giving way to action in installing a high-speed rail line.

High-speed railroads are supposed to be THE answer to transportation problems like pollution and congestion. I’m all for them, because locomotives (whether at 60 mph or at 160 mph) use hybrid technology that use less diesel the faster they go, and carry more people per gallon than any other passenger carrier. So, yea for trains.

Planes offer a different experience, of course. They are far from efficient in their carbon footprint, but their speed makes up for their lack of environmental friendliness. I hate flying, though.

Remains of a gas station along US 77

Then, there’s the scourge of the earth – the personal car. When taking into account the gas used per miles driven, and the number of each needed to equal the capacity of one airplane or one train, then environmentally speaking, the car is a MAJOR loser. And I hear about it all the time, too: automobiles are major polluters, co-commuting and less driving will save the earth, etc.

And that’s all true. But I tell you what, cars have also been VERY beneficial in many ways. While I can’t dispute their negative environmental impact, I can say that of all the long-distance traveling options, cars are by far the most democratic. When I was driving along and around US 77, I saw many small mom & pop store, cafes, gas stations, and auto part stores (many still in operation) that crowd the sides of the roads. Airplanes don’t allow for that kind of infrastructure at all, of course, and train stations have limited space to accommodate small businesses. Cars are also quite affordable. Yes, I know they cost money (insurance, payments, taxes, repairs) but these costs can be stretched out over a period of time, whereas plane and train ticket costs cannot. Further, their affordability comes from their accessibility – cars can take you practically anywhere, whereas trains and planes bring you only to certain pre-designated spots. Besides, cars can be used (or not) as needs arise, meaning one can have a “beater car” and still get by.

Taking bikes rock, but driving rocks, too.

It’s not that I don’t favor alternate modes of transport… I definitely do! I take the train as much as I can. I voted for a commuter rail line that by June of this year will come through my town. I also walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to run errands. But, I have to admit – I LOVE my car, too. I love that I can drive around the Red River Valley and discover places I’ve never been to; that I can pick a place on a map and be able to visit it; that I can eat, read, and even sleep inside my car (which I’ve done on occasion, after visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere).  The car has provided me with more freedom than any other mode of transportation. I think everyone should feel this kind of freedom, too. Cars should become more affordable, more efficient, smaller, and more reliable. It may not be the “in” thing to say among my fellow tree-hugging friends, but I’ll say it, anyway: cars are cool.

I wouldn't mind road tripping in this.

Musing while on Amtrak

I took the Texas Eagle from Dallas to Chicago the other week, and had a great time doing so. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the clickity-clack of the rails, and waking up to see the mighty Mississippi River sparkling under the morning sun.

I’ve been to Chicago many times before. I’ve flown and driven, but nothing beats entering this grand city on the train. While it’s not the most scenic route – I saw plenty of hobo camps and abandoned car parts (and a whole car or two!) – I got a real sense of the city just by looking at its industrial and residential landscapes roll by. Chicago’s a compact city, with high urban density and a fantastic public infrastructure. It’s what a city SHOULD be like.

Fabulous downtown Chicago

And then, sigh, the Eagle and I glided back down through the Dallas. Dallas is the very opposite of Chicago in terms of its architecture and infrastructure – it’s a sprawling, meandering urban conglomeration with housing that looks like warehouses and vast stretches of empty, abused, and misused land. Watching the weed-strewn lots and urban blight roll by, I became almost obsessed with the questions that have bogged my mind for a long time: why does Dallas planning not seem to have any rhyme or reason? Why are the suburbs competing with, rather than enhancing, the city?

In terms of development, Dallas is about 50 years younger than Chicago – not so far apart at all. But they’re worlds apart when you look at how their growth has been managed. Chicago built up – Dallas built out. Chicago made room for trains and cars. Dallas forgot trains and relied too much on cars. Chicago didn’t allow its sports stadiums to leave the city. Dallas lets sports owners move to suburbs where public transportation is nonexistent. Chicago built around its river, which meanders through the heart of the city. Dallas turned its back on the Trinity River, and straightened it out so much that it has now become a lonely creek. Chicago has culture with world-class museums, art exhibits, and sculptures on public squares. Dallas neglects its cultural gem, Fair Park, in favor of shiny new developments that are devoid of life – like Victory Park.

Oh, and Chicago allows visitors to go up the Sears/Willis Tower. Dallas’ number one tourist attraction, Reunion Tower, has been closed for three years now, and no one has been able to go up to enjoy the view except customers of a restaurant now owned by celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck.

Fabulous downtown Dallas (why's the tower still closed, Wolfgang Puck?)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I think Dallas is awesome. Maybe that’s why I get so worked up over what I think Dallas COULD be.

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

While I was walking…

… through my hometown of Lewisville, Texas I was struck by my failure to bring the camera with me. Normally, I take my Canon everywhere I go, in the off-chance that I’ll find something interesting. And over the years, I’ve captured some incredible places and scenes that sent me deeper into their histories.

But it never even occurred to me to take the camera as I made my way through the Old Town area. As I passed by the old Huffines building, which was Lewisville’s first auto dealership, and stepped back in time as I entered the feed mill, which is the oldest, continuously-run business in Denton County, I wanted to kick myself for wasting a golden opportunity. Shoot,  I ride my bike around town quite a bit, and have not EVER taken photos to document my excursions.

I wonder if we all do that – we are so familiar with our every-day surroundings that we neglect them completely. We just tend to think that the old buildings will be there next year, too. And those people who remember what the neighborhood used to be like? They’ll be around next month, right?

Uh, no. People and buildings and history all crumble if we don’t take care of them. I don’t know if I’d call it an obligation to remind us to remember, but I will call it a necessity. And I’ve been very neglectful of these necessities.

So, while I get my camera out and ready to take a much-needed look at what’s right in front of me, I’ll post at least one photo of Lewisville that I found in my collection:

Inside this building which now houses a restaurant, Raymond Hamilton, who was once a member of the Barrow Gang, staged his last bank robbery.

Published in: on July 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,