Transportation systems that rely on private cars and trucks are the enemies of community. By their nature they invade and fragment. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes the process in central cities:
Physical transportation now claims about one-third of the land mass of cities. If national statistics are translated to the community level, every neighbourhood has two or three people killed each year by cars and dozens more who suffer serious injury.
Perhaps more than any of its predecessors, the Clinton administration is filled with people who understand the enormous social, economic and environmental costs of our transportation systems. Whether they will aggressively confront the country with this reality is unclear, especially after their bruising setback over the elegantly designed but quite modest BTU tax. One of their priority issues is to reduce vehicular generated pollution. Although interested in this type of fuel that powers the vehicle, they have to date evidenced less interest in the burdens imposed by the vehicle itself.
Americans love cars and hate welfare. Bill Clinton needs to speak to that dichotomy from the bully pulpit and explain that our private vehicles are by far the nation's biggest welfare cheats. The highway trust fund is a unique, self-perpetuating paving and construction fund financed by a dedicated tax. Yet even the tens of billions of dollars each year that swell the highway trust fund cover only about half the cost of roads and a tiny fraction of the overall medical, social, environmental, police, and fire costs generated by vehicular use. By some estimates the subsidy to cars and trucks is well over $300 billion a year, thirty times more than the federal government gives in aid to cities. If Americans had to pay he true costs of personal vehicles, they would not be able to afford them.
If physical transportation is the enemy of a sound economy and strong cohesive territorial communities, electronic transportation can be their friend.
The Clinton administration is aggressively promoting a national high-speed telecommunications infrastructure. Yet to date the role of the federal government appears limited to accelerating the construction process, not designing the infrastructure so that it revitalises communities.
The Clinton proposal, for example, excludes at least in its first phase the quintessential community-based information institution - the public library. More than 60 percent of all Americans visit a library at least once a year. The public library represents co-operation and community in the age of competition and globalism. An information policy that puts community first would place America's 15,000 public libraries at the head of the connection line.
Who will own the new information infrastructure? Who will be able to access it and on what terms? Mitch Kapor, head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worries that the future information system could look more like the present cable television set-up than the present telephone or Internet systems. His nightmare is that "we could have tremendous bandwidth into the home and individuals and groups not have any access to it but continue to be passive recipients of whatever the people who control access to that medium want to do with it."