Humbug Square - Ask not for whom the car tolls

GRTA's transportation vision is in rearview mirror

I drove up to Cedartown last week because someone told me that Wal-Mart had drained the west Georgia city's downtown of business. Aha, I thought: just the thing to cap my research into the monolithic retailer that weakens small American towns and strengthens big foreign countries. Like China.

China, in turn, is throwing its American dollars right back in our faces by trying to snap up such American corporations as Maytag and Unocal, an oil company.

Cedartown is about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, but about a 90-minute drive in the rain, west out I-20 and north up U.S. 27. I'm a sucker for small towns, so I immediately felt at home in Cedartown. Yes, there are vacant storefronts up and down Main Street. But there also are signs of life.

My thermometer for any small town is to find out whether the old downtown movie theater is still in business. In Cedartown, the answer is yes. The West Cinema, built in 1941, is showing War of the Worlds. Quaint little places on Main Street offer lunch. Law offices are perched like vultures around two Polk County courthouses - one a classical, old Southern courthouse with columns built in 1936, the other a modern rectangle built in 1951.

I parked near the courthouses and strolled down Main Street. I noticed that the local newspaper had a storefront office, just like in the movies.

Inside the Cedartown Standard, Editor/Publisher Jim Penney, a middle-aged gentleman, was holding court with four young staff members who were busily pecking away at their keyboards. The Standard comes out twice a week. Thursday's edition reported a rash of dog bites.

I restrained myself from delivering my usual speech to young journalists, which goes like this: "Read my lips! Go-to-law-school!"

Penney took me back to his office. I asked him if Wal-Mart was to blame for the empty stores in downtown Cedartown.

"I suppose it's been detrimental," he said.

But the real problem, Penney said, was the car.

We ended up talking about something that political, business and media leaders have avoided talking about for years: the overwhelming damage that our love affair with the automobile has perpetrated on our culture, the way cars have become a runaway juggernaut that has changed the way we live and increased the likelihood that we'll end up sitting on the side of the road of a broken-down economy.

Cedartown is 151 years old. Many downtown buildings date back to the late 19th century. Up until the 1960s, downtown was the center of action for the surrounding community. "In the 1950s, nearly every family had one car and downtown could accommodate the vehicle traffic," Penney said. But in the '60s, teenagers started getting cars in addition to their parents. "Vehicle traffic began outgrowing the downtown shopping center. There was not enough parking." Sears was one of the first retailers to spot the trend. It opened standalone stores with parking lots away from city centers. It had a catalog store in Cedartown. In Atlanta, Sears opened a store with a big parking lot in Buckhead. Kmart followed suit. But Wal-Mart took it to the bank.

The trend was irreversible. "Everybody of driving age has a car if they can afford it," Penney said, then added with a big smile: "I'm single and I have three cars."

I told Penney about James Howard Kunstler's new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. Kunstler is a howling prophet who long ago recognized the dangers posed to America by cars and the unsustainable suburban lifestyle they helped spawn.

He believes we're at or nearing the peak of the world's oil supply and that once we reach it, we're headed into an era that will be profoundly different than what we've known for the last 50 years. Dwindling gas supplies and sharply higher prices will drive the final nail into the coffin of the suburbs, which are totally oil-dependent.

Kunstler is a doomsayer, but the doom is based on solid facts. Last week, I read a couple of interviews with Matthew Simmons, a Texas investment banker who was an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. Simmons, author of a new book, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, suggested recently that the price of oil could reach $100 a barrel this winter, up from $60.

Penney quickly grasped the implications and nodded. "That," he said, "could push us into a recession ... or a depression."

I had to chuckle when I got the latest news release from the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. It quoted a couple of car-happy transportation consultants as saying, "Atlanta is putting the right tools in place and is moving ahead of other cities in the country when it comes to addressing its congestion problems." The release identified "incident management, ramp metering, signal timing and access management as relatively low-cost and highly effective tools for reducing traffic congestion."

Alas, these things don't put us ahead of other cities. Denver has had a regional traffic signal coordination program for 15 years. And access management and ramp metering have been used in other cities and states for decades.

We instituted most of those "tools" prior to the 1996 Olympics. Traffic signals were supposedly timed for the Olympics, but the timer loops in the pavement broke and weren't fixed for years. The system never worked right.

If GRTA can get all these 20-year-old traffic tools working correctly, my hat is off to it. But it's not credible to pass such tinkering off as cutting-edge. The idea of Atlanta being at the forefront of fighting traffic congestion in the year 2005 is laughable. I mean, look around you.

We have a new traffic task force in our region that seems to have sprung up out of the wrong decade. GRTA is issuing press releases about traffic management tools from the 1980s. What these guys are not talking about are the very things that are driving Jim Kunstler crazy.

You know, these things: smog, suburban sprawl that's stretching out toward areas like Cedartown, global warming and climate change (hello, hurricanes in July!), the collapse of MARTA, the end of oil, and what happens when China buys up American oil companies like Unocal at a time of increasing global competition for energy supplies.

The solution of our brilliant governor? Build wider roads, make sure they handle more traffic, and for God's sake, don't do anything to help MARTA.

Have we lost our freaking minds?

Some leaders in Georgia are now even talking about killing the proposed commuter rail line between Atlanta and Lovejoy. Commuter rail works like a charm in the communities with the good sense to have it. I guess that's reason enough to stop it here.

Listen: I still can't ride a train from Atlanta to Athens like I could as a UGA freshman 40 years ago. This is progress?

Our leaders - business, government, media - are stupefied by magical thinking. They dwell in a fantasy land of optimism where we can fix 50 years of bad decisions about cars and land use with a traffic signal on a freeway ramp. They think endless pools of oil wait for us to stick our magic straws in the sand and merrily slurp it into our Lexuses and we'll never have to change anything, ever, about our glorious way of life.

They look to the past, not the future. They're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. When it sinks, I may hoof it to Cedartown.

I told Jim Penney about Kunstler's theory that Americans eventually will go back to small-town living and eat locally grown crops after the trucking industry collapses. A smile crossed Penney's face. That would make a hell of a story for the Cedartown Standard.

Stay tuned next week, when Senior Editor Doug Monroe writes a column about Wal-Mart, the welfare queen from Arkansas. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.??