Cars, trains and chariots: When will we finally get transportation right?

Human psyches are hardwired to fly, it seems – whether the “flying” consists of speeding straight ahead in our cars on eight-lane freeways or soaring through the air in silver-winged jet planes at 500 miles per hour. In ancient times, we sped from place to place in horse-drawn carriages and chariots.

In neither age have we gotten it quite right, however. Transportation was, and still is, a mixed bag. Eric Morris, a doctoral student in the UCLA department of urban planning, writes in an Internet article that horse pollution was so bad in ancient Rome, Julius Caesar had to ban horse-drawn carts between dawn and dusk in an effort to curb ”noise, gridlock, accidents and other unpleasant byproducts of the urban equine.”

Such problems continued well into the 19th century, when both the human and horse populations soared, not just in Rome, but across Europe and then America.

Disposal efforts on the part of street cleaners, especially in New York City, went into overwhelm. Filth, dirt and disease remained a continuous problem. To make matters worse, owners did not always take good care of their poor beasts, either, said Morris. These animals often dropped dead in the streets of hunger, disease and exhaustion.

So, naturally, when a cadre of inventors developed the “horseless carriage,”-- the automobile,-- people were elated. In those days, there were both electric and gasoline powered vehicles running about.

By the early 1930’s, many cities had built clean, electric train systems to help people get around quickly and efficiently. Los Angeles was an outstanding example, according to Russell Mokhiber. Mokhiber, the editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, a newsweekly based in Washington, D.C. and founder of Single Payer Action, has chronicled what happened to Los Angeles’s clean-energy trains in a remarkable book entitled ”Corporate Crime and Violence Big Business Power and the Abuse of Public Trust.”

Published in 1988 by the Sierra Club, Mokhiber’s book tells of the corporate machinations behind Agent Orange, Overseas Dumping, Three Mile Island, and the Love Canal. But his chapter, “GM Rips Out the Tracks,” is one particularly worth heeding today, when emissions from gasoline powered cars are contributing heavily to global warming.

Mokhiber’s article serves in the valuable genre of “lest we forget”reporting. He tells how deliberate profit -driven decisions on the parts of auto manufacturers, oil and tire companies pulled the teeth on clean energy. Before 1932, “a citizen of Los Angeles could breathe clean air. Today that’s not possible… During the 1930’s the Los Angeles air was clean all 365 days of the years. Today millions of cars and buses with internal combustion engines clog hundreds of miles of superhighways. In the ‘30s 3,000 quiet pollution free electric trains transported 80 million people annually throughout the sprawling metropolis.”

Those trains no longer exist. What happened? Well, even though General Motors was the largest auto manufacturer in the country, executives still weren’t certain if their product would become the transportation method of choice for a nation in the middle of a depression, writes Mokhiber. The electric railway system posed a threat to the automobile industry’s dream of selling a car to every family in America. Without efficient rail systems, city –dwellers would have to find alternative means of transportation, such as cars and buses, both manufactured by GM of course.

GM went to work promoting buses as a replacement to streetcars. They created a holding company, United Cities Motor Transit. It existed to buy out electric street car companies, and to sell the properties back to local companies which agreed to buy only GM bus replacements. The tracks were paved over.

The people of Los Angeles had no say in the matter, according to the author. And that was just the beginning. GM moved into other cities across the U.S. using a number of different tactics to get their way. Mokibher goes into great detail, explaining how the oil and tire companies joined in on the action, giving us what we have today: Crowded freeways, an abysmal lack of good public transportation in most cities, and a proliferation of cancer and respiratory ills.

Of course we have a ripped ozone layer and terrifyingly capricious weather, as well

Transportation has indeed been a mixed bag – but getting us where we want to go at the expense of the planet has been paramount in a society devoted to “a mysticism of progress,” says Fr. Thomas Berry, in “The Great Work.”

Fr. Berry reminds us that “The Earth is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” But those overworked starving horses were objectified, not see as a part of the Holy One’s creation. Rather they were merely things be used and discarded. People have not largely mattered, either, in the scheme of things. Those Los Angeles residents weren’t consulted or given choices whether they wanted to continue to have healthy air, and the choice to ride on clean-energy-propelled public transportation.

Two Greek myths come to mind: Icarus, the proud young man, begs his father to build him a pair of wings from wax and feathers so he can fly. His father obliges. Icarus, being daring and heedless of consquences, flies too close to the sun. The wax melts. He plunges to his death.

In the second myth, Phaeton begs his mother to assure him that his father is really the sun god, Helios. When he goes to his father, Helios promises to give his son anything he wants to prove his divine paternity. Phaeton asks to drive his father’s chariot, the sun, for a day. Helios is hesitant. The chariot is fiery hot and the horses breathe out flames. Phaeton insists. Helios anoints Phaeton’s head with magic oil to keep the chariot from burning him. But Phaeton is unable to control the horses.

The chariot flies too high, so that the earth gets cold. Then it gets too low and the vegetation dries and burns. Eventually Zeus intervenes by striking the runaway chariot with a lightening bolt to stop it. Helios is grief stricken. He refuses to drive his chariot for days. Finally the other Greek gods persuade him to bring the world back out of darkness. Helios blames Zeus for killing his son, but Zeus tells him there is no other way.

What kind of lightening bolts will it take for our world to wake up to the realization that we must reinvent ourselves, as Fr. Berry says, become a communion of subjects, and put aside our “mysticism of progress?”

When will we finally get our modes of transportation right and move into clean energy? Will the third time be the charm?