Next time you’re stuck in gridlock, keep in mind that many American cities had fantastic public rail systems until Big Auto bought up all the tracks and scrapped them to make way for cars. The Observer reminds us that “it did not have to be like this.”
I could not tell if the look on the woman’s face was disdain or pity. But either way she did not understand that I wanted to rent a small car, not a big one. ‘Are you sure you don’t want an upgrade, honey?’ she said, eyeing me suspiciously ‘The car you’ve booked is really small.’
She offered a bigger car at the same price, perhaps thinking I was angling for a deal. No, I told her, I genuinely don’t like driving big cars. I can’t see the point and they are hell to park. Give me something small and boxy, please. In the end she let me have my way but I think she was genuinely offended.
That was in Texas. But it’s happened at rental car counters all over America. The concept that you actually prefer a little car to a tank-like SUV seems difficult to grasp. Invariably I get offered a bigger vehicle for the same price. When I turn down the deal I am usually spoken to in a tone of voice that suggests I must be an escaped village idiot. Or very poor.
It is just one example of Americans’ fanatic relationship with their cars. As political observations go that is hardly astute or original. A bit like a visitor to England making the wide-eyed discovery that the natives’ have a remarkable fondness for tea. But what is less well known is that America’s obsession with the car, which goes so deep it is reflected in virtually every facet of socio-economic life, did not happen by accident. Much of it was by deliberate design.
Or to put it another way: it did not have to be like this.
Urban planners of the 1930s-1950s (like New York’s Robert Moses) were so fanatically set upon making America safe for automobiles that they led the way in crippling the country’s public transportation systems.