Is This Bum Trip Really Necessary?
Chapter 10 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles
Tying up a city like Paris probably does more good than harm to those who make, fuel, or sell automobiles. Pierre Poilane, the baker, got caught in his delivery truck during the demonstration. He burned gas for an hour and a half instead of five minutes. He wore and tore not only his nerves but his crankshaft, clutch lining, spark plugs, fuel pump, camshaft, distributor head, fan belt. That megajam probably took five days of life off the life of his little Citroën truck; it will bring him five days sooner to his Citroën dealer to replace it.
Biking is a much better way than bike-ins to bring down the horsepower structure. Let's take a few figures out of the air, it's the only place I can get them because MIT has not yet done a computer study for me. It seems there are 61 million cyclists in the United States. That's hard to check, I got it from the New York Times. I don't know where they got it, cyclists pay no registration fees, I don't know whether or not they are on the census. Still, I think we can assume that 10 million of them live in suburbs and cities and that they usually use cars. But what if, individually, like humans, not ants, they decided to bike instead of drive tomorrow? Let's say each does 10 miles. I'm not stacking the deck in my favor with that assumption. In The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner quotes traffic studies that show 90 percent of all automobile trips to be 10 miles or less in length. He states that "the mean work-residence travel distance in U.S. metropolitan areas is about five miles for central-city dwellers and about six miles for those living in suburban areas." When our cyclist pedals 10 miles in his day instead of taking his car that gets 20 miles to a gallon, he saves half a gallon of gas. I'll keep the figures round. That's 5 million gallons of gas a day that someone is not selling. How much a gallon? That depends no one's state. Thirty cents? Sold... the offer will never be repeated. That makes $1,500,000 less a day for the oil business and the highway business grubstaked by gasoline taxes. Since our 10 million cyclists ride for business and pleasure 300 days a year (another number I use mainly because it's round), this is going to cost Esso and the highway commissioner $450,000,000 a year.
As a gas-saver, the bicycle is in a class by itself. If oilmen knew its potentialities, they would go around stealing bikes instead of worrying about their depletion allowances. Professor Rice, who did all my homework for me in that article he wrote for Technology Review, has estimated the cyclist's fuel consumption. I will spare the reader the details---I spared myself most of them---but what he has done, basically, is to convert the car's gasoline consumption and the cyclist's calorie intake into the same measure, the British thermal unit used to express energy. He concludes that a cyclist can get over 1,000 passenger-miles per gallon, an estimate based on the 1,800 extra calories of food that a cyclist must burn (whether in steak, ice cream, or pastry, he does not say) to do 72 miles in a 6-hour day. He compares this with the automobile that gets 40 passenger-miles per gallon (figuring 20 miles to a gallon and 2 persons to a car). Like me, he loads the dice against himself so that the other side can't yell "foul" while it bites, gouges, and groin-kicks. He assumes a 40-pound bike, which is a very weighty assumption. In my own experience, I put out the same effort to do 60 miles a day on a Peugeot touring bike, 90 on a semiracer, and 120 on a Peugeot racer with all the trimmings. I don't want to get into an academic argument with Professor Rice, but I think one could double this figure; 2,000 miles a gallon for a cyclist on a racer or its equivalent. Doubling might even be conservative: with a friend of mine, I once did 62 miles in 3 hours and 45 minutes, each taking a turn up front against the wind. That's no great feat of cycling, even for two riders with a combined age of ninety-eight, but it's a pretty efficient use of British thermal units.
I hope Professor Rice agrees with me, I agree with everything he says. He can really make the numbers talk. He has estimated that pipelines, inland waterways, and railroad freight used 5.5 billion gallons of petroleum in 1965 to provide 1,250 billion ton-miles of transportation. They consumed only 7 percent of America's transportation energy to account for 60 percent of all transportation, passenger or freight. It is such cold statistics that should make us aware of the labyrinth into which we have blundered. We are told we have to burn gasoline to keep our living standard flying high. Do we live better when trucks haul our freight instead of trains? The biggest con game of all is worked on the underdeveloped countries. We tell them to get into the act, to follow our lead upward on the consumption graphs. We have the effrontery to say to the Bengalis that they will stop sleeping on the sidewalks of Calcutta some day only if we can continue to drive to work, jet to play, and stuff ourselves over the brim.
Our fairy tale of figures hasn't ended. Let's get back to the cyclist who stops driving 10 miles a day. That means he is putting 3,000 miles less a year on his car (we'll let him sleep late on Sundays), call it a third less than normal use. Or our 10 million newly converted cyclists are adding a third to the lives of the cars they own. They will buy a third fewer cars, that's 3,300,000 cars that won't be made or sold at $2,500 a car (as good a buy as gas at 30 cents a gallon, I'm not cooking the figures), and GM, VW, and BMW are going to be $8,250,000,000 poorer. That's only the start. We're not only going to put the breadwinner on two wheels, we'll do the same for his wife and his teen-agers. Of those 10 million, how many are two-car families? Half? Why not, it's another easy figure, 5 million cars at $2,500 and bang goes another $12,500,000,000.
This is the kind of money that talks. It talks all the more loudly because, in the oil business, the car business, and the highway business, a lot of people are not out just to make a living, they've got to make a killing. They are not going to sit back and accept the kind of return on their money that a savings bank gives. They will fight like hell at first, the way they fought safety glass and safety belts, but what can they do? Amend the Constitution to prohibit the carrying of concealed trouser clips? Decree that no one can ride a bicycle unless preceded by an automobile blowing its horn? Subsidize in-house research by housebroken researchers to prove man was never destined to go more than five miles an hour on fewer than four wheels? Oh, there are some that will, but not the smart ones. They'll put their money elsewhere, they'll get out in time, they always do, perhaps they have already. Be careful, the moneymakers are the taste-makers. Once they place their bets, they fix the race so they won't lose. Is anybody investing in sidewalk cafés, neighborhood bakeries, homemade ice-cream parlors? Who's got a corner on bicycle wrenches? Where are the blueprints for the calfdozers that can clear a trail just wide enough for two bikes to pass through tract housing? What does your broker say?
This does not mean the end of the automobile. It has its place wherever it can stop and go without getting in anyone's way. Henry Ford built his high-slung Model T for rural America, it really hummed on unpaved country roads. I once rode a sturdy GM wagon over Death Pass in Costa Rica on a leg of the Pan-American Highway that had just opened but was still unpaved, like most roads in Central America. Life flowed down that dirt road, it brought farmers within five hours of their market---five hours instead of three days. The car is fine for rural people, they have always had individual transport. They have always needed it; the city dweller never did. Just because Sancho Panza had a burro, not every Madrileño felt obliged to run one. People in the country have the right to run automobiles; that might even be a way to get more people into the country and out of the cities and suburbs.
Then there is the useful car. I would not dream of depriving Pierre Duval of his little Deux-Chevaux truck that lets him work in a furniture factory at Lanvollon, seven miles from Lanloup, and come home for lunch with leftover wood to run my kitchen stove. Until things are straightened out to the point where Pierre and others like him can earn their living closer to home, they have just as much right as the boss to drive to work. He does not congest that road. If I did not know Pierre, I would not even know it existed. The local Michelin map shows it as a faint white trace and he is one of the few drivers on it. No one could run a bus line on such a route. Pierre needs his little truck.
Cities are a different matter. In big cities that have been around a long time, places like New York or London or Paris, there is hardly any transit problem at all once cars are eliminated. Subways exist, population densities are easily large enough to make bus and trolley line worthwhile. As for automobiles, call them what they are: wheelchairs for invalids. Electric cars can be permitted to the helpless and the aged. Such cars will be a sign of mercy, not a symbol of strength, they will carry red crosses fore and aft. Can anyone imagine he-men pulling wires to be classified as wheelchair cases or women clawing to be ranked among the over sixty-fives with the right to exercise an electric-car option? Top speed of the electric car: fifteen miles per hour, same as a bike and well above the average of inner-city traffic today. This is a wise limit as only the unfit will be operating cars (not as at present...). The R&D of half a century of automotive engineering will not be lost. These cars will be equipped with shock-absorbing bumpers (to protect what they hit as well as what they contain), Grand Prix brakes and radial tires to make sure the car stops faster than it goes. Nearly all our present headaches about batteries will go away if the electric car imitates the speed and acceleration of a bicycle, not a Porsche.
As for the young of all ages, they will be able to move around on their city by bicycle. At their feet, they will have seven-league boots giving them the city speed of the automobile and the flexibility of the pedestrian. They will not be bothered by packages; a bicycle can carry almost anything (one of the few good things to be said about a minibike is that the more you load it, the more stable it becomes). Their ability to go anywhere and stop anywhere will rework the face of the city. The little fellow will come back, he will not need an acre of parking lot outside his shop. Small businesses, small workshops, small farms no doubt will be the main source of jobs for those now employed by the automobile industry and all its accessories. After all, those are the places the car factories raided to get their labor in the first place.
Some ex-factory hands may stay in the transportation business, they can open bike shops. Here is a true craft industry. It does not require power tools or capital, just a few sets of wrenches and a pair of skilled hands. Bikes need maintaining, there is always something that requires a bit of fiddling, a chance to go down to a bike shop and talk. The right kind of bike mechanics are like shoemakers, they work with their hands in a quiet place while ideas float through their minds. Their conversation is good, so is their work. Some in Europe not only repair bicycles but make them as well. Little fellows buy various parts the way the big fellows do, then they assemble them in a different way and put their own brand on the frame. Supermarkets also sell bikes but I would hate to ask a check-out clerk to change a gear ratio or take up the play in a chainwheel bearing.
The changeover will be gradual, it will come about as our stock of automobiles dwindles. One great advantage of the cars we build is that they become junk in less than ten years. It is extremely easy to replace them with another system of transportation. During the changeover, our cities and suburbs will still be with us. They cannot be junked as quickly, nor should they be. We will need some way to cover distances on the scale of automobile living. Again, the bike is the answer, it is the taxi to the station or bus stop, where it can be left all day long. Parked bikes take up no room at all. I have counted as many as twenty-two on the ground and hanging from the roof of a small shed outside the town hall of the 12th arrondissement in Paris. They take up less sidewalk space than a subway entrance, they are the equivalent of over a block of parked cars. Keeping an eye on such bike parking lots, perhaps offering services like fixing flats or replacing brake cables, would be a worthwhile occupation for the kind of people fortunate enough to be unfit for the jobs that we are now generating.
Or the commuter can take his bike with him. The old Ninth Avenue El in New York had the right idea. In 1900, it ran bicycle cars with seats on one side and wheel slots on the other. I'm not saying that we should rebuild the Ninth Avenue El, but there is no reason why modern transit systems cannot run the same sort of cars.
Copenhagen has a railroad that serves the city and nearby towns. The doors on the cars are wide enough to let mothers come with baby carriages and park them inside. Passengers can take bicycles aboard, too, there is plenty of open floor space near the doors and away from the seats.
Such cars could be adopted by subways. Maybe they have, for all I know. My son wrote me from New York that he had a flat on his bike way uptown near the Cloisters. He wrecked the tube trying to fix it and he had to take the bike with him in the subway. But not everybody can do that. Carrying present-day bicycles, particularly the forty-pound models sold to Professor Rice and others in the United States, up and down subway stairs could be a heart-stopper. I suggest that we borrow some of that research that got us into space and use it to get us onto cheap lightweight bicycles. A spin-off from the moon landings... the bicycle that you can carry under one arm and forget which arm. It's not all that hard, modern racing bikes come in at around eighteen pounds or so. Let NASA go to work on a fifteen-pound minibike. While they're at it, they might try to get some racing technology into everyday cycling: frames, pedals, cranks that stay rigid so that your feet drive the wheels instead of bending the bicycle; tires as light as a racer's tubular that do not blow out every couple of days at eight dollars a blow. There is something wrong with the present-day bicycle industry that reserves its lightest and most efficient mounts for supermen while ordinary people must push around a bicycle's excess weight as well as their own.
Such a minibike could be carried on subways, buses, trains, planes. I am all for it, I do not hold with well-intentioned fellow travelers who are trying to weatherproof the bicycle. You start with a windshield, you add a body, pretty soon the thing weighs so much you need a motor to drive it, you're back with the Model T and we all know where that will get us. I think the answer to to weatherproof the rider. Again, NASA comes to my rescue. I have seen a ten-ounce jacket advertised, rainproof and windproof, that works like a down-to-earth space suit. It is made of nylon bonded to an aluminized skin, one side is warm and one side is cool. Judging from the ad, it is more practical than fashionable, but wait until Cardin gets around to this new medium.
We are not going to achieve the millennium toting bikes in the subway. That is only another intermediate solution; it will keep the subway busy until we find another use for it, like storing wine or growing mushrooms. Cities like New York or Paris or London have a resource that they once used to the fullest and now neglect: water transport. The bateaux-mouches hauled fourteen million passengers a year in Paris until the Métro drove them out of business around 1905 or so. They are back only as a tourist attraction, but they still prove that the best way to go through a city is to sail through it. New York, too, had a thriving water transit system for commuters. Before the Brooklyn Bridge was opened, ferries were a pleasant way to come to work in downtown Manhattan from pleasant Brooklyn Heights. Even today, a bike and a rider can move within the city on the Staten Island Ferry, the last of the fleet. But why not run boats along the East and Hudson Rivers? They could stop every mile or so and passengers could use their minibikes to go crosstown or to intermediate points. All Manhattan could be covered by a riverboat service, while some stops could serve as junctions for cross-river lines from New Jersey or Brooklyn. Unlike bridges and tunnels, boats offer an almost unlimited number of possible routes for a city laid out like New York.
They have other advantages; they run without frightening children or running over dogs, they're pretty to look at, their big decks are ideal for easy loading and unloading, and they're fast. Hydrofoils, the newest version of the riverboat, skim along at thirty-five miles an hour, hardly making any noise or wake. They are already in use on rivers and coastal seas. I first saw one nearly ten years ago hauling sightseers through Moscow. Waterways are speedways. Some of the Hudson River sidewheelers used to run at twenty miles an hour and I'll bet that the old Alexander Hamilton, now a museum piece on the East River, could still beat you uptown during the rush hour. On top of all that, riverboats give work to the kind of people Mark Twain wrote about... and they give birth to the kind of books that Mark Twain wrote.
I have not forgotten cities without rivers. Most of them already have artificial rivers, their urban expressways, lanes and lanes of stuffed concrete. Once we start driving cars to extinction, we can use their old habitats (just as they use old railroad lines or canal beds). On a six-lane expressway, we have three lanes on each side at our disposal. Four lanes could be used for two trolley tracks in each direction (express and local) and a bike path, leaving the fifth and sixth free for vestigial truck and automobile traffic at first and for growing vegetables later. On a twelve-lane expressway, there would be that much more space for vegetables, apple orchards, strawberry patches, chicken coops, or rabbit hutches. Instead of poisoning Los Angeles, the expressways could feed it. Exit the trucks, enter the truck gardens. And on your right, trolley cars, not Toonervilles, but high-speed porpoises gliding through the cities and the suburbs, the locals coming out at the exits to drop passengers with minibikes, the expresses leapfrogging crossroads on the cloverleafs. Trolleys are not too heavy for roads engineered to accommodate that public benefactor, the forty-ton highway truck. All the work has been done, we only need to put down the tracks, a mile probably won't run into six figures. Urban trolleys won't pollute when they accelerate, they don't jackknife when they stop, even if they are towing one or two extra cars. As in Boston or Bonn, they can be turned into subway trains when they enter the heart of the city.
The trolley car is the little brother of the electric interurban that was running from town to town at seventy miles an hour two generations ago. It would be a shame to let all of our brand-new interstate express highways go to waste. We could start with an interurban track on one lane and go on from here. The railroads won't holler about unfair competition, they got out of the passenger-hauling business long ago in the United States. Even a four-track interurban would not need all the real estate now filled by the motorways. The land could be planted with trees. In no time at all, the electric interurbans would be whizzing through woods the way the Mistral does between Fontainebleau and Melun on its way into Paris. Our highways are an asset once we get the concrete off them, they can reforest the prairies, they can bring chlorophyll into the cities. Grass grows between the ties of abandoned rail lines, it could do a good job of cracking and breaking concrete when we are thru with thruways. But let us give credit where credit is due. The expressways take engines of death off our streets and trails. It would be a shame to throw them away as we have thrown away our railroads and our canals.
The trouble with trolley cars, interurbans, and bicycles is that they exist. No one can go to Washington and come back with a few hundred megabucks to R&D them "something else is needed, anything else as long as it's new,. While I do not think that we should go back to the horse (except for providing safe bar-to-bar transportation for drinkers as it does in Brittany), we must be wary of change for change's sake, the now-classic solution looking for a problem.
The Skybus developed in Pittsburgh is a good case. According to a report by Dr. Joseph Hanlon in the New Scientist, it is an electric, rubber-tired vehicle that can be hooked into trains of as many as ten buses to run automatically on an elevated concrete guideway. Its proponents wanted to build a sixty-mile network of Skybus lines in the Pittsburgh area and the first site they proposed was the roadbed of a high-speed trolley line in wealthy South Hills. The Westinghouse Air Brake Company was asked to survey the situation and came up with a report that really hit the fan. I quote Dr. Hanlon:
Wabco noted that modern trams [trolleys], similar to those used in Europe but not in the US, had all of the performance capabilities of the Skybus: speed, quietness, climbing ability, rush hour capacity, etc. Further, the report showed that by upgrading the South Hills tramline and running trams on improved trackage of several disused rail lines, the entire 60-mile network could be built for less than the cost of the 11-mile South Hills Skybus. Wabco also noted that in the South Hills, the trams could make more frequent stops and have a running time only slightly less than Skybus, which means that most people could reach downtown Pittsburgh more rapidly, by the less expensive system. Finally, Wabco noted, the tramline, too, could be automated at a later date if needed. Thus, one has the difficulty that a traditional wheel on steel rail system is far more appropriate for Pittsburgh than Skybus.
One also has the difficulty that the traditional wheel on steel rail, first used to run carts in coal mines two hundred years ago, can steer a vehicle as effectively as any computerized remote-control-automatic guidance system for rubber-tired vehicles... but we know who makes rubber-tired vehicles.
To explain partially what went wrong in Pittsburgh---and, in my opinion, what is going wrong in a lot more places---Hanlon quotes D. J. Herbert Hollomon, the Provost of MIT:
There are two ways in which new ways of doing things come into being. One is by what is called a push mechanism. You spend a lot of money on new technology and then try to push it into the society and hope, because it is novel or different, that someone will buy the product. It is very seldom that such a system works. It has been very difficult to push nuclear power, for example.
And it would have been a hell of a lot more difficult if the consumer had Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, Hiroshima and Nagasaki added to his electricity bill. But back to Hanlon and Hollomon:
Unfortunately, Hollomon noted: "most of the efforts having to do with urban transportation have been push mechanisms." A pull mechanism results when an expanding market itself demands innovation. "When we first developed the railroad industry in the United States, there was virtually no support by the federal government of the technology involved, and yet there was a period of enormous inventiveness, of enormous developments in the technology of braking and control systems and of motive power, as a result of the expanding market for rail transit. More often than not, necessity is the mother of invention. When one invents without necessity, he is wasting his time," Hollomon concluded.
There is the necessity, nay, the crying need, to make a living and a killing. It crops out in another New Scientist article by Hanlon, in which he describes new PRT (Personal Rapid Transit Systems). Building a PRT runs to $18 million a mile, as expensive as ordinary transit, and not everyone likes the idea of having it outside his window. What it amounts to, really, is an updated rubber-tired Third Avenue El, automated so that small cars can run all night long without added labor costs and, consequently, the company is strikeproof as long as the computer programmers are kept happy. I have seen the thing described as a horizontal automatic elevator, which should augur no good for women traveling alone. There were no law-and-order problems on the unautomated Third Avenue El with a husky guard between every two cars to work the gates and work over hotheads. Unmanned transit would be sheer provocation in the country that has invented airline hijacking.
At the time of the Transpo '72 conference in Washington, two PRT systems were under construction in the United States, one at Morgantown West Virginia and the other at the Dallas Fort Worth Regional Airport, Hollomon commented. Most of the commercial interest in PRT has been expressed by the aerospace companies; Boeing is building the Morgantown system and Vought Aeronautics the Dallas installation. This industry desperately needs new markets for its technology...."
When the aerospace industry looks desperately for new markets, we should start counting the silverware. Ask the airlines trying to fill their 747s or the ones that will soon be the proud owners of a Concorde or two: onwards and upwards to receivership. At the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, the industry has succeeded in creating the congestion that it is trying to clear up. The problem is not how to get around an airport that requires a twelve-mile transit system but how to get around without such an airport.
As for Morgantown, the New Scientist says that a 3.2-mile system has been planned there to connect the three campuses of West Virginia University. "About 1100 students and faculty members transfer from one campus to another for classes by car (and 17 buses) five times a day. They all crowd into a two-lane road the must allow 70 minutes for a 1 1/2 mile trip. The PRT should cut transfer time to less than 20 minutes."
Walking would cut it to thirty, biking to ten. I am ready to admit that the campuses in the West Virginia hills are in a class by themselves. The New Scientist says the site was selected "because it tests a number of important features: it has steep grades and sharp curves and must operate in a wide variety of weather including ice and snow." Bikes can negotiate sharp curves, they can climb hills as long as the road is laid out in graceful bends that offer a view of campus hills, valleys, and coeds. Yes, but there's the weather, all that ice and snow. It costs $18 million a mile to lay out a PRT? Would it cost $18,000 a mile to roof a bike path, even with an infrared heating system for cold days?
This isn't my idea. Someone beat me to it long ago with the arcades on Rue de Rivoli in Paris and in the city of Berne, with the roofed galleries in Milan. In any weather, people can walk, stop, shop, and buy, businessmen love arcades. So let's build more, let's get the desperate void out of the wide avenues of Harlem, let's have all-weather girl-watching on the Champs-Elysées. We can win territory back from widened streets, we can roof them out from the building line, protection first for pedestrians and, further out, for cyclists. If we insist on spending money, we could sunroof streets, we could do a lot for a lot less than $18 million a mile. We won't call them streets, we'll call them RaceWalks for pedestrians who want to travel at three miles an hour and cyclists at ten. Goodyear carries people at 1.5 miles an hour on a conveyor belt that it calls a SpeedWalk.
It's not only aerospace that is infiltrating transit. Ford is one of the companies that are building the driverless rubber-tired vehicles that are called People Movers, apparently to differentiate them from what the automobile industry has been building for seventy years. In the New Scientist, Hanlon explains that "the motor manufacturers are also interested because they hope to apply traditional rubber-tired technology and to study the systems as precursors to a future guided private motor car system." Read those lines closely, then read between them. You will be able to drive your own dual-mode car into the city, then onto a rapid transit system. Once upon a time, the rube came to New York and someone sold him the Brooklyn Bridge, nowadays Ford is trying to get him to buy the Independent Subway. But when he gets title to it, the subway car will really be his. Does anyone remember the last year a subway made money?
I do not know how General Motors now feels about the matter. In February 1970, Fortune remarked that "General Motors shied away from developing dual-mode because the potential damages in case of an accident would be so great that special legislation limiting liability would be needed." Poor GM... can you imagine a guided Corvair going out of control in the Lincoln Tunnel and totaling the New Jersey Turnpike?
Similar efforts are being made to solve urban transit outside the United States. In West Germany, according to David marks in my precious New Scientist, Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (at least one of those names sounds familiar) have come up with a system that works like a roller coaster and "consists of small plastic cabins, each with two or three comfortable seats and a spacious luggage area, which automatically follow a fixed track straight to the destination preselected by the passenger without any stops, crossings or changes."
Another German system, based on containerizing people, has been devised by the Research and Development Institute of Friedrich Krupp (now there's a name that is familiar) in Essen. Writes Marks: "Krup engineers envisage all public transport vehicles made up entirely of closely packed standardized one- or two-seat containers... Once again the passenger need do no more than preselect his destination on entering the cabin. When his train or bus arrives, a completely automatic three-stage process begins. First, cabins due to alight are slid out of the vehicle, while those wishing to get in slide forward onto the platform. Next, a general sideways movement [forgive me, Marks, but this reads like a time-and-motion study of the tango] takes place, during which the alighting cabins move off to the next stage of their journey, the cabins still on the train roll forward to fill the gaps left, and the containers on the platform are slid to the rear of the carriage. Finally, the waiting cabins are rolled forward into the train, and the journey can continue." The man who invented that system knew all there is to know about close-order drill.
The more I read about cabins, containers, PRT's, the more I keep recalling the afternoon when a friend of mine, a freshman medical student at Columbia, showed me the room where the cadavers were kept. They hung on hooks from an overhead monorail, waiting to be rolled out for dissection, chilled and still, smooth as wax. Change the hooks into slings and you have another transit system, the CorpseWay, offering instant removal to the morgue in the event of death en route. Or there are the monorails that the butchers down at the wholesale market on West 14th Street in Manhattan use for sliding sides of beef in and out of trucks. Just one push and half a steer flies over the sidewalk on the MeatWay. Go down there any weekday morning around five o'clock, the butchers will be glad to demonstrate their PRT for you.
I know all this sounds as puerile as I was the day the freshman med student took me through the big freezer at Columbia. Yet it is no more sophomoric than a number of ideas that are getting serious consideration. I ran across a story in the International Herald Tribune about a proposal by Hyman Bress, the Canadian violinist, to put a big vacuum tube into the Atlantic four hundred feet down and send passenger rockets through it, running between the United States and Europe in less than an hour. His plan has a number of strong points: the passenger would see only slightly less than from a center row seat in a 747, there would be no atmospheric pollution and, I cannot help but suspect, people flying as often as concert musicians would be spared those little pangs they get at takeoffs and landings when they think how hard they are bucking probability. Reporting on the Bress tube, the Herald Tribune states that "technologists of the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA, the U.S. Navy, West Germany's Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohn and the U.S. Concrete Pipe Co. agree that, on paper at least, his ideas are sound." The same old Friends of the Environment that we've been meeting all the while, along with some concrete pipe dreamers.
I have filed the Bress plan away with some other ideas for hauling people the way Tom Sawyer whitewashed fences. I have seen moving pavements which, according to their promoters, are limited to only about a mile in range at ten miles per hour because "most people will stand on such a system for six minutes." I have a drawing that shows six lanes of trucks and cars running high above the street and through buildings, the kind of buildings where everyone knows when a neighbor drops an ashtray... or a match into an ashtray. I do not want to mention the names of all the donors to this museum of horrors, I am not too sure what I was writing myself a few years back. I shall confer anonymity upon two fellows who did a systems analysis of city transit and concluded that no conventional subway train could ever average more than thirty-three miles per hour. Shops, they said, cannot be more than a mile apart and passengers cannot stand too much acceleration or braking.
Those poor systems analysts, they never took the E express to Queens, they never changed to a local on their own two feet. They must have grown up in trainless America; they never road the Tokyo-Osaka line where a bullet train runs every twenty minutes with a local in between. They never wandered around Switzerland on trains that make two-minute connections, plenty of time for riders in one-passenger shoeshod containers to cross the platform.
I once went from Tokyo to Fujiyama, using a suburban train, an express, an interurban, a funicular, and an aerial ropeway. I didn't wait more than ten minutes throughout the journey. On another occasion, I grabbed a bullet local out of Tokyo, changed to a branch line and watched in disbelief as trains streamed down that single track, sidestepping each other at every station. On the way out, I rode with three Japanese who, as soon as they saw I was an American, plied me with whiskey and their box lunches. On the way back, I sat next to a schoolgirl who asked me to help her with the pronunciation of a Bizet libretto in French. After she got off, I watched a crowd of golfers and their president who made a speech before he awarded tournament winners their prizes. That was between Yokohama and Tokyo; there is something to be said for travel if one does not do it like a basket case in a mailing tube.
In transportation in and around cities, we have painted ourselves into a corner with the automobile. Most new solutions consist of putting down another coat to land in another corner. Cars have given us ghastly cities, conveyor belts on guided baby carriages are ways to keep them ghastly. Instead of blundering along the same path, let's try a new one. Scrape away the recent veneer of our cities and you discover they are interlinked villages, the courtyards and quarters of Paris, communities that once were self-contained and yet capable of engaging in fruitful commerce with their neighbors, giving and taking rather than consuming. In New York, Chinatown is certainly such a community, Yorktown has the makings of one. The city would become a series of Chinatowns linked by clean transit or bicycles for those who prefer to go their own ways. I don't believe in unique uniform solutions, the history of the automobile need not be repeated. We must adapt our transit systems to our way of life, not our way of life to our transit systems. When the premium is taken off what Lewis Mumford calls the magamachine, our cities will necessarily evolve. This time, the animus for such an evolution must come from the bottom, not from the top.
Our suburbs are different. Many never were communities, they were originally built as pleasant places to live and they still are, at least in the quality of their housing compared to what big cities can offer. Let people keep their houses, let occupations spring up among them. Total planning isn't needed, just some intelligent zoning and tax breaks for the right people instead of the wrong ones. Once suburbia comes out of its fortresses and doffs its gas masks, small stores and workshops would spring up naturally within easy cycling distance, instead of a shopping center in Outer Mongolia.
What is easy cycling distance? That depends on whom you ask. Someone in Paris told me recently he was too old and fat to bike to work, he lives a mile and a half from his office and he's fifty-two. Madame Perrette, a retired nurse who sometimes pinch-hits for my concierge, is certainly older, she reminds me of a grandmother of mine---she rides around Paris with a speedometer on her bike and she tells me that she clocked three thousand miles in eight months.
At Lanloup, as far as I can determine, the oldest of the cyclists on the road is Mme. Léonie Medus. I saw her one Wednesday bucking the north wind on Route National 786 on her way back from market at Plouha three miles away. She is eighty. Or there is Mme. Anaïs Ferlicot, widow of a boatswain who spent his life at sea on a French cablelayer. Madame Anaïs lives a mile and a half outside Lanloup and the nearest shop. She cycles into the village to do some of her buying, she rides two miles to the bigger town of Plehedel for the rest of it. Or she can buy from the grocer and the fisherman's wife who come around the country with their little trucks, selling from the back ends. Here, with a rational use of the internal combustion engine and an instant-starting bicycle, we find an answer to transportation in a community with somewhat the same distances as an American suburb.
Her wheels don't cost Madame Anaïs very much. She is thinking of getting a new bicycle after eight years' use of the old one. A new one would cost her 280 francs, the dealer has offered her 140 francs for the old one. That's $2.80 a year in depreciation. After eight years, she blew out a rear tire and she had to get a new one. I helped her change it and she gave me a fresh head of lettuce for my services. I suppose that the lettuce must be counted in the running costs of the bicycle.
I met a Breton who does better. At seventy-nine, François Marie Richard lives a mile and a half outside the town of Ploezal. He has seen the world, he has been to New York on the France---not this one, the one before, a coal-burner, he stoked her over the ocean from 1911 to 1913. He is an oak of a man, he still rides a Victorine into town. Victorine is not a horse, it's a bicycle that he has had for seventeen years. He ran Victorine's predecessor for thirty-four years.
These old people work their gardens, they raise a few chickens, they fatten up a few rabbits, they are busy from dawn to dusk. Their houses have never changed except for the addition of refrigerators and bottled-gas stoves. Their water comes from outside wells, they heat with wood and coal. Old age is beautiful in the Breton countryside, these cycling people can live in homes, not nursing homes.
Unlike many parts of France, where farmers live in villages and go out to work in their fields, the Bretons build their houses on their land. The villages themselves appear small, they are dwarfed by their churches. Inhabitants are scattered all around the periphery on good single-lane roads that enable women to use bicycles the way American housewives use cars, thereby getting not only transportation but exercise and the beauty treatment of fresh air and clean rain.
Not only do the Breton cyclists live, they live well and enjoy it. About the time I was finishing this chapter, I headed out of Lanloup one morning on the steep hill behind the church. I took it easily on my eight-speed. Two ladies were walking up their one-speeds. I got off and talked to them. One was seventy-two, she had gone back to the bicycle after giving her Velosolex to her niece. The other, who would admit only that she was old enough to be my mother, was riding a bike that weighed in somewhere between a Mack truck and a Sherman tank. It was easy to see why, it had been originally motorized, now the lady was pedaling it. I asked her what had happened to the motor. Did it wear out?
"No," she said, "I just took it off one day because I wanted to see more."
Chapter 11, Flying Blind
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