Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Even Starbux

No, it was not a nightmare. I was walking along Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey. This is what a world looks like when people can imagine no life not totally ruled by the automobile. There are no sidewalks. This is not a limited access highway, but Jersey barriers separate northbound from southbound lanes and a pedestrian would literally risk life and limb to cross the road. To get to the other side, there is no choice but to get in the car and drive who-knows-how-far to the next overpass to reverse direction and then drive back.

On a short morning stroll to see what was around, what should I find but a Starbucks. A couple of doors down from the "Romantic Depot" porn shop and next to the plumbing supply warehouse was a recent incarnation of the once-thought-to-be-hip Seattle coffee cafe. Other than the sign outside and a hint of slightly nicer than average fixtures inside, there was nothing to differentiate this coffee outlet from a Dunkin Donuts or a McDonalds.

We have a Starbucks back home in Sharon, Massachusetts. It has become the focal point of our little town center. Friends rendezvous there and bicyclists begin and end rides there. Would-be high school hipsters hang out there. Business people meet there. Naturally, I would prefer some kind of funky locally-owned cafe, but for our struggling town center, a Starbucks is pretty cool.

Now, after about seven years, we get the news that the bean counters at headquarters are closing our Starbucks. There are two newer outlets nearby down on Route 1 (Our version of Route 17) that apparently get more business because automobile access is much better that will remain open.

Maybe I'm prone to romantic notions (In addition to those catered to by the likes of places like the Romantic Depot.), but I liked to think of Starbucks as the kind of place that would help build a community, a place for people who cared about their hometowns, a place for people to discuss the important issues of the day and form warm personal relationships. In my heart, I knew better. Starbucks is just another mega-corporation selling an illusion and focusing on the bottom line. If that means drive-up windows in Paramus, so be it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Damned if you do...

A front-page article in today's Wall Street Journal tells us that Americans are driving less for the first time in about forever. That's the good news. Because the federal gas tax is a fixed price per gallon (18.4 cents a gallon) and not a percentage, as we drive less, money flowing into the Highway Trust Fund decreases. This means we have less money to repair our existing roads and bridges, to build new ones and to invest in public transit.

Naturally, as with everything in America, the Highway Trust Fund is running at a huge deficit. Any money spent from the fund on sensible public transportation would further decrease resources available for more public transportation, so this system has a built-in disincentive to conserve.

No politician without self-destruction fantasies would propose or endorse an increase in the gas tax. Indeed, John McCain got behind the push for a gas tax holiday. At least Barack Obama had enough sense and courage to point out the folly of that idea.

Watch as out wizards in Washington look for new sources of funding for our highways. They will raise taxes on other things so even more of our dwindling wealth goes into propping up the Happy Motoring lifestyle.

Not long after 9/11 when all those cute magnetic decals were appearing on cars I saw a wonderful political cartoon in the paper. An SUV owner was pumping gas. A magnetic ribbon on the vehicle said "Support Our Troops." Another on the gas pump said "Fund Our Enemies."

The gas tax should reflect the true cost of driving and be structured in a way that encourages conservation and transportation innovation. We have to stop sending more and more of our wealth to those who hate us. We must not further drain the life blood from America to prop up a lifestyle that has no future.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pathetic Irony

I was watching the opening stage of the Tour de France bicycle race on the cable sports network "Versus" today. One of the ads was for "Auto Zone" car parts stores. It shows a young teenager riding down a dusty road on his bicycle. He comes upon an old junk car by the side of the road that has a cardboard sign stating "If you can fix her, she's yours." He spends the rest of the summer riding his bike back and forth to the Auto Zone store to gets parts for this shitbox. Finally, at the end of the ad he has the junker running and he states, "At least now when I have to go to Auto Zone, it won't be on my bicycle!"

This commercial makes me so sad for two reasons. First, who the heck at this channel matches up commercials with the programming? I mean, come on, people are tuning in specifically to watch the greatest bicycle race in the world (You can be pretty darn sure not many of us will stick around to watch "Tap Out" cage fighting and PBR bull riding!) and they play an ad with the punch line: "At least I won't be on a bike." I wonder if anyone at Versus or Auto Zone saw the ironic disconnect in that.

Obviously, the second reason this makes me sad is the way they perpetuate the typical American attitude that only kids and losers get stuck riding bicycles. It's better to cruise around in a broken-down, worn-out, junky gas hog than it is to ride a bike. Hello! Gas is at four bucks a gallon and heading up. People are dying in Iraq. We're getting ready to drill in National Wildlife Refuges. We're all getting fat, sick and lazy. Can you idiots on Madison Avenue wake up, please?

Friday, July 4, 2008

This Could Get Nasty

I was riding my bicycle on a bunch of work-related errands yesterday. I was in a small shopping plaza, riding down the strip of stores along the edge of the fire lane out front. A guy in a dirty Mercedes SUV zoomed up and drove right behind me getting closer and closer. He was approaching so rapidly and closely that I felt compelled to put out my left hand to signal my intention to pull to the sidewalk in from of the stores. As he passed within just a few feet of me he yelled something at me about "Why didn't you tell me what you were doing?" I yelled back "That's what the hand signal was for!" Now this was a quiet little parking lot on a bright sunny morning. There was plenty of room for him to drive around me or simply slow down. As he pulled over to park (illegally in the fire lane) I heard him squabbling with a woman in the car and saying something about "I'll wrap that damn bicycle around his neck." This guy was clearly just fundamentally annoyed that a bicycle should in any way disrupt his happy motoring.

This is the sort of thing that would have upset me when I was younger, but now I just find it amazing. Every now and then I encounter behavior that is irrational and bewildering. It would be amusing if it wasn't so troubling. This episode got me to thinking. I fear that, as times get harder, we will see more and more selfish and anti-social behavior as people squabble over the scraps.

Just yesterday, I heard a story about people stealing manhole covers (Below-the-street utility worker access hole covers, if you prefer.) for their value as scrap metal. Can you imagine, opening a hole in the road that could lead to serious damage and even death for a couple of bucks? Stories about thieves stripping copper pipes from basements and copper roofs from churches are common. In some places, motorists are puncturing the gas tanks of their neighbor's cars to let the fuel drain into cans.

As more people start feeling angry, confused, cheated, fearful or neglected as they witness their American dreams crumbling around them, I worry that we will see more and more bad behavior.

Let's stick together people! We're all in this together.