Monthly Archives: December 2009

Traffic Control

The testosterone poisoned ding-dong whistling past in the new Z car was about to plumb, literally, the mysteries of Cutler Street. I paused, turned and held my breath as dipshit headed toward the dip.

The lead-up to the imminent demonstration of dumbassery came on a recent evening as I rode with a commercial driver up Cox Avenue, a quiet residential street much like Cutler. Where the city had years ago placed “speed” humps to slow traffic, his battered, stalwart Corolla shrugged off the concussion. Automobile engineers calculating for this sort of punishment.

“They are called speed bumps, right?” he said with a sneer and a laugh.

“You wouldn’t be doing that if it was one of those dips,” I remarked.

He turned, his mirth dashed for a moment. “They’re the worst.”

The very next day, the freakish coincidence was announced by six city trucks converging at the intersection of McCulloch and Cutler. At the northwest corner there was this semi-permanent puddle, a depression formed by the intersection of gutter, camber of the roads and the immediate topography. This non-draining concavity was a defacto bird bath in hot, rainy times providing an ongoing party in the life cycle of neighborhood birds — the insects who became their supper.

I approached one of the workers who seemed to exhibit leadership qualities. “This is about the puddle, right?” I guessed.

“Yep,” said the grizzled veteran of Public Utilities. We discussed what would have to happen to allow the puddle to drain. Damned if the crew wasn’t going to create what I’d referenced just the night before. Within a day, the former, pronounced crown of Cutler Street to the north end of the intersection had been modified. The upper McCullough street gutter now stretched across Cutler, a sloped, paved trench maybe 20 feet wide and a foot or so deep. It didn’t take a degree in civil engineering to predict the results.

Most drive sensibly slow, their automobiles displaying a gentle, rocking motion. The higher the speed, the more memorable, BUH-BAM, the basic education on kinetics and vehicle dynamics. I imagined the sense inside a vehicle, a disconcerting millisecond of one’s guts in free fall followed by an instantaneous, violent reversal of force via a grinding, expensive chin shot. Observing who slowed and who didn’t became sort of a game. The higher the speeds, the more violent the results. The dip was soon scarred with undercarriage gouges. One afternoon I dragged a still-steaming muffler into the gutter.

Mr. Z was by far the fastest attempt yet. After he’d hammered it I made a quick estimate of how much money the resultant debris skittering up Cutler represented. The cussing I usually imagine hearing from inside became maniacal laughter. This was 90 proof synchronicity, straight from the bottle. The Z accelerated toward his second test, created by the prison job and the demolition and removal of the west end of Montford Avenue aka Highway “13,” the storied “longest, shortest” (think about that) NC state highway that formerly led to the old main gate of Central. Owing to justifiable concerns about inattentive, distracted, careless drivers heading west on Montfort plunging 30 feet to the Norfolk Southern rail line below, contractor Balfour and Beatty, the city and state, spurred by the Boylan Heights neighborhood association, commenced an evolving project that at times has taken on the feel of a Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty) piece. The current line-up consists of a row of pine trees, a chain link fence and a primary, ill conceived but robust concrete barrier the makers clumsily attempted to camouflage via “Moderne” elements of the original 1936 “Munford Avenue” bridge. The brains behind the operation dictated an additional safety feature: a white painted wooden structure and reflective arrow mounted to the concrete barricade advising drivers heading west on Montford of the only path now possible, a left turn.

In the zeal to help prevent a crash into the barrier from the Montford side, no one apparently bothered checking the Cutler Street approach. The orientation of the barricade/arrow at a nearly perfect 45o angle to the 900 angle of the ell is possessed of the potential to create some – um – confusion. While the arrow indicates the only direction possible for those driving west on Montford, a left turn, it also indicates an impossible left hand turn at the top of Cutler. Well, you can take a left – straight into an unhealthy dose of concrete. Only a right is possible, a potential problem for a speeding driver. The photos clearly display the trick of the eye awaiting Captain Ding Dong.
This was the full monte, a trifecta. I poised to dial 911, At least he signaled (for a left) before the squall of tires sounded.

The cure for the above is too simple to warrant explanation. As for the dip, all joking aside, vis-à-vis Raleigh catching the traffic calming bug, the addition of stripes and a sign to this unplanned feature could become a prototype.

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Petroarchy

Amid the economic meltdown and limited clarifications of how mainstream economics really works, here comes President Obama with a shocking proposal — to eliminate many federal subsidies to Big Oil. After the shouting dies down, this announcement could serve to focus and clarify the dialog about private versus public transportation in the United States. I hope it will elevate the topic above the impenetrable, gluey morass of politics to the realm of finances and economics wherein lie the true disparities.

Historically, much debate on transportation has been predicated on incomplete and false information. The resultant hysterical, political duality poisoned the debate and created a salubrious environment for the oil and the car biz who along with their sycophants in congress are responsible for a transportation sector sold as much on sex and egos (watch some television auto ads) as moving people. Were the curious to take the time to uncover and familiarize themselves with the facts, the correct information would go far to dissipate much of the decades-long argument.

Among the banquet of the oil business’s concealed externalities, the appetizer would have to be infrastructure costs, a matter that ignites most of the shouting. The most persistent and frequently cited myth of our autophilic world is that user fees, tolls and gasoline taxes cover the cost of roads. The facts show* that user fees cover only half the costs of infrastructure, about $75 billion annually (in 1998 dollars), leaving somewhere between $36 and $112 billion to be secured from you, Joe Taxpayer — whether you drive or not.

Besides state and federal allowances, credits, deferrals, under taxations, write offs for oil extraction, production, research and development; numerous social, environmental and health liabilities, subsidized parking, revenue lost via travel delays la-de-dah. the most unconscionable and immediate costs are those associated with protection for the cheap crude oil the industry dotes on, much of it situated in inhospitable regions where the Pentagon seems to reside more or less permanently at a cost somewhere between $55 to $100 billion per year. This ignores the impossible to factor loss of military and civilian lives, all the more egregious in light of substantial (but costlier) reserves closer to home. People pay with their lives to prop up the profits EXXON, Mobil, Shell et al. make off the cheaper overseas stuff.

The paradoxes and inconsistencies to those who support free markets should be obvious. The externalities that make the oil/car hydra seem like a deal costs US taxpayers between $600 billion and $1 trillion or so per year, largess were it extended to flesh and blood persons rather than the corporate paper and money sort would have howls of “socialism” ringing from every corner. Socialism is socialism and that is precisely what exists. Were the price of fuel not so heavily subsidized by the costs buried deep and invisible in your income tax bill, you would be paying somewhere between 5 and 15 dollars a gallon, a fiscal reality the average driver caught a taste of during Wall Street’s commodity craze last year — or on a trip to Europe. Suddenly, overnight, people began riding bicycles and public transportation, moves that continue to grow even though the price of a gallon of gasoline has declined.

Granted, the auto-led low-density development sprawl model created a demographic and a (formerly) robust economy, a powerful nation built on subsidized oil. That changes nothing in the clear, icy world of economic ideology. What is, is. The glaring truth behind the shouting and pose is that this system has evolved into some sort of privatized, through-the-looking-glass version of the Soviet Union, just as far removed from a “free market,” just as synthetic and subject to catastrophic failure. Were the US to overnight completely abandon the heavily subsidized trap the people stupidly allowed themselves to be led into, the rise in the price of gasoline would paralyze those parts of the nation with no alternatives and likely foment some limited, localized civil unrest. 5 bucks a gallon has starkly different meanings in New York City or North Dakota.

Authentic free market types should work toward reducing corporate socialism, a proposal I do not oppose, but we live in the world we live in and it isn’t going to go away — completely. But, heck, a trillion plus a year is mad money, the equivalent to our annual defense budget including entitlements or ten years of improved heath care. Let’s try some “fair markets,” then we can talk about free.

Although 180 million or so drive cars, the rest don’t, yet are paying for those who do. How about let’s shunt a tiny percentage of big oil’s breaks to mass transit. Who’ll miss a couple of hundred billion? Isn’t it only fair that we non-drivers get some of the gravy train?  The price of oil rise will rise accordingly and the shift in the market will probably foment a partial shift to public transportation. The United States will be cleaner, safer and less subject to the whims of foreign potentates. Once the citizens wise up to this faux “free market” (aka globalization) shell game, then we can maybe explore moving a skooch closer to the real thing.

It’s time to acknowledge the myth of the free market and the pointlessness of any arguments for or against. As with religion, there are no means to settle a dispute when there exists no body of proof. In the case of religion the only evidence of God(s) are the words of humans. Similarly, with Free Markets there is no purpose discussing the successes or failures of something that exists solely in the visions of deluded idealists and economists. There they are destined to remain for as long as nations and people, natural and other, grope for the sorts of temporary advantages evidenced by fuel subsidies and the many other examples of government largess.

* The Real Price of Gasoline, report no.3. International Center for Technology Assessment, November, 1998.

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