POSTED: 30 SEPTEMBER 2007 - 8:00pm HST

TGI #14: Home of the Monster Truck

image above: Navistar International's MXT pickup. The largest monsta truck in production.

[Editor's Note: Normally these columns are scheduled to appear every other Sunday in the Kauai Garden Island News.The final published version may vary from this text as TGI retains the right to correct and edit the material. The copyright to the published version is held by TGI owner Kauai Publishing. Some material in TGI columns may have appeared on already]

by Juan Wilson on 7 October 2007 Revision 2.3 071001

It’s the American Dream!
When I was growing up, in 1950, the mark of success for the average American was having a nice car and a television set. In that year, my parents bought a ranch home in Levittown, Long Island, because it had a carport and a B&W television built in the wall under the stairs.

Through the intervening years our measure of success has stayed pretty much intact. For most Americans getting into a new luxury SUV and having a 72” plasma HDTV is where it's at.

We have little knowledge of how our technology has shaped our behavior and social structures. Marshall McCluhan was a pioneer in understanding this symbiotic relationship between man and his tools. In 1964 he wrote “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”.

This book was revolutionary in its perception of how our senses and limbs are “extensions” of ourselves, that mingle with our artificial technological extensions. McCluhan deemed all these extensions of ourselves as “media” just as we see newspapers, radio and TV as media. He examined there interrelationships.

Moreover, McCluhan studied how technological extensions “amputate” a sensory or physical capability we previously enjoyed. McCluhan explained how a technological extension has the effect of enhancing us in some ways as it degrades or modifies us in other ways.

We praise the advantages of high speed personal travel options of the automobile, but do not really want to be reminded of the pollution, or about the loneliness, or the time wasted sitting in traffic. The “amputations” resulting from the use of automobiles have made us less healthy and more anonymous. If we praise the extensions, while ignoring the amputations.  We do so at our own peril.

The automobile, which is an extension of the foot, "amputates" the need for the walking culture of the town or city. This in turn has been the spring point for spreading the environment of the automobile - the suburbs. The suburbs are the natural home of the car just as the anthill is to the home to the ant.

The automobile is not all it's cracked up to be. Oh yeah, it’s marketed to be sexy, rebellious and a sign of prestige. They have made the exteriors sleeker, and the interiors more comfortable: climate control, eight cup holders, nine speakers with a subwoofer, a bluetooth wireless phone hookup, a DVD entertainment system, GPS navigation... and don’t forget heated front seats and steering wheel. A comfy den on wheels.

But the nub of the problem is the life you lead while in the car. It is an exoskeletal bug’s life. It’s separated from the real world. It is focused on following the painted line to the vanishing point of the blacktop. Everywhere you drive in suburbia looks the same. Part of that is the scaling, massing and graphics necessary to catch your attention as you pass through the environment at cruising speed. There is a rotation of the same national franchises every ten or twenty minutes that appeal to a shopping itch, your stomach or your car’s gas tank.

Notice how much more of the details of the landscape are experienced on bike, or better, on foot. Notice how much bigger and deeper the landscape is when you are not in the car. When you’re in the car you never really see what is going on.

Da home of the monsta truck!
On my first visit to Kauai, in the early 70’s, I was struck by the fascination with monsta trucks; the pickups that are jacked-up, tricked-out, big tired and roll-barred. At first I thought it was just a California fad, but have come to realize that, like Jawaiian reggae, it has become a home grown phenomena. It’s like Hawaii has succumbed to the American car culture myth with a passion. I guess monsta truck replaced the work horse as a status symbol. The monsta truck crew describe how important it is getting to remote hiking, hunting, fishing, surfing and camping sites.

Whereas the 4WD big truck aficionados tell me how important their trucks are for hauling the big boat, horse trailer, a load of gravel or couple of ATV’s. But by and large, for every mile off-road or with with a big load, these trucks drive ten miles on the blacktop with nothing more than the driver on board. It gets down to a love affair with the machine. The fact is Hawaii has more trucks per person than California.

As for cars, Hawaii has more cars per person than Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas. Only the huge cold northwestern states like Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming have significantly more cars per person than tiny Hawaii.

What’s the attraction? First of all, even if you wanted to, compared to the mainland, there is nowhere to drive in Hawaii. There is no two day trek to a distant wilderness or a drive to a far off exciting urban center. Here on Kauai every road is a dead end. Maybe that’s why some are excited by the Superferry. Finally they’ll be able to drive somewhere.

It is no coincidence that a small isolated place with a love affair with the car is going to have a traffic problem. It is one of the biggest complaints about life on Kauai. If you are going to love the car, you are going to have suburbs and sprawl and traffic. Get over it or get out of your vehicle.

These islands are small. I find when I’m driving a lot, Kauai seems even smaller and, if there is traffic, nastier. When I stay away from driving for a few days, the island seems to relax and expand. Under those circumstances, outside of rush hour, an occasional journey from Hanapepe to Kapaa seems a big trip to an exotic locale. When I don’t drive much I’m finding more things to do in my neighborhood, more work and more people to know better.

Of course, many have to commute to work, and so have to be in their cars everyday in heavy traffic. My suggestion is to find work close to home, or better yet, in your home. Even with a pay cut it may be worth the change. You may be even able to drop a car payment (and as a result, the second job or extra overtime). Once nearby work is available, the necessity of driving will recede.

Get out of the autoburb hive now!
The suburbs are not designed for the accommodation of people to one another, but for the accommodations needed by vehicles. I know, I’ve laid out suburban developments. You start out with a site boundary and some idea of lot sizes (related to target buyers) and then you lay out the roads and cul-de-sacs to get a car to every lot in the subdivision.

There may be some secondary design criteria, like water views, gold course frontage, or park amenities. But not every unit gets one of those. However, every unit gets automobile access from the interstate ramp all the way into its own two car garage. The auto rules. Suburban commercial site development is designed backwards from the parking lot accommodations needed for every square foot of built commercial space. The job of the suburban landscape architect boils down to optimizing parking lot design while satisfying the local planning commission desire for a bit of green window dressing.

At one time American economic strength was centered around the productivity of the auto industry itself. That has changed. We’d rather buy vehicles made in Europe or Asia. Yes, America still has a formidable high-tech and military industry, but, as James Kunstler and others have pointed out, for the last thirty years American society has become an economy centered on building more suburbs and filling them up with foreign cars, plasma TV’s and and the like. I call this living accommodation autoburbia.

These autoburbs only work if the cars work. With the impending collapse of the housing industry, the dollar and the inevitably increasing cost of fuel, this is about to change. It has already progressed quite far in third world countries that cannot afford crude oil at $80 a barrel. When crude oil reaches $100 a barrel we’ll be paying $5 a gallon. When it’s $200 a barrel we’ll pay $10 a gallon. Some have said we are as close to $200 a barrel as one sunken supertanker in the Straights of Hormuz being guarded by a few Iranian patrol boats.

We should all be working as quickly as possible to get out of our cars and the places that require their use. The farther you are down that road, the smoother the transition will be when there is a serious discontinuity of the American Dream. George Bush has said, “The American Lifestyle is nonnegotiable”. In that case there will be some hell to pay.

The Garden Island News Column Menu Listing of all "Island Breath" articles submitted to TGI
22 September 2007 - 8:00am HST

TGI Article #13: Gov. Lingle in a corner What can we expect from the Superferry's Unified Command