Honestly, I was just kidding. A few weeks back, I used the headline "Mayor's Dave's Fanatical Anti-Car Crusade" (7/25/08) for an update on Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's idea for building a green neighborhood on Madison's northeast side, including "car-light" design features.
I thought it obvious that, with $4-a-gallon gasoline and likely global environmental catastrophe, the mayor's desire to incorporate ideas of the sort he saw during a recent visit to Madison's sister city of Freiburg, Germany, is abundantly sensible and more than a little exciting.
But the knee-jerk reaction from local conservatives was exactly in keeping with my facetious headline. So far as I know, the only positive reaction the mayor's idea has gotten is the fine letter from Norman Leer - no, not Norman Lear - on page 4 of this week's paper. And even this is a response to negative conservative reaction.
"So Mayor Dave wants to build a 'car-light' neighborhood," exclaimed columnist Rick Berg in Isthmus (8/8/08). "How ridiculous!" He snickered that Europe, unlike the U.S., has very dense population centers, and that the mayor merely needed to "check it out on a map" to see that this idea would not work here.
The next time Cieslewicz visits Germany, Berg urged, he should "leave the wacky ideas over there."
Wacky ideas? Building a neighborhood that maximizes passive solar in how it's platted, links up with hoped-for commuter rail and de-emphasizes auto reliance? That's wacky, but acting as though oil is an infinitely renewable resource is not?
Further, contrary to Berg's assumptions, Freiburg and Madison are actually quite similar. (Hmmm, maybe that's why they're sister cities!) Both are university towns with just over 200,000 residents. But one has hugely popular car-light neighborhoods, and the other does not.
Freiburgians somehow manage to survive. Trams - which Cieslewicz admits in a communiqué to Isthmus is "another word for the dreaded streetcar" - provide clean, reliable transportation. "Pedestrians are everywhere," he relates. "I didn't see a single vacant storefront." Cars can still be used; "it's just that the entire neighborhood isn't designed around them."
The sad truth is that cities all over the world are embracing innovative approaches that conservatives here would shoot down in a nanosecond.
Streetcars downtown? The mayor's gone mad! Stop him before he wastes our tax dollars again. Commuter rail? How ridiculous! People here like high gas prices, traffic jams, and trouble finding parking. They'd never trade these for fast and efficient mass transit!
Berg's rant appeared in the same issue as a letter to the editor from Clareen Erickson of Waunakee, who opined that Madison's mayor "wants to force 'car-light' neighborhoods down our throats."
First of all, why should a person in Waunakee flip out over a green neighborhood in Madison? Doesn't Waunakee have everything urban life has to offer, including some restaurants and a bowling alley, so people there never need venture outside its borders?
And how exactly is creating a neighborhood that's less dependent on fossil fuel an act of brute force? Don't like it, don't move there.
Presumably, some people care more about the planet than Exxon-Mobil's profits ($11.7 billion in the second quarter of 2008 alone). They'd like streets where children could play without dodging cars. They'd get a charge out of selling energy back to the power company on a sunny day.
But if any such people are in Madison, they're being awfully quiet.
Cieslewicz suggests it's irresponsible for cities to keep designing neighborhoods as though high gas prices and global warming (for which American consumption is disproportionately to blame) did not exist. He likens it to automakers who remained committed to gas-guzzling SUVs despite clear signs that the market was changing.
So when Madison is planning a new neighborhood that will occupy 2,800 acres and house 20,000 to 30,000 people, he asks, "does it make sense to base that plan on the old paradigm of cheap gas or the new paradigm of expensive energy? What would be better for our economy and our environment in the long run?"
To the conservatives who have dominated reaction to the mayor's plan, the answer is emphatically the former.
In search of more wrongheaded reaction, I called local radio squawker Vicki McKenna. She proved to be less obnoxious and more reasonable than I expected.
If the green neighborhood concept were undertaken as a private initiative, McKenna would not object: "What do I care if people want to blow their money on a development no one will want?"
But she thinks city involvement means subsidization. The mayor, she says, is "asking the rest of us to support a choice by a very small number of people that will cost the rest of us millions of dollars." (Um, doesn't any new neighborhood - even car-dependent subdivisions without sidewalks - entail some public investment?)
McKenna also believes the mayor's green neighborhood scheme is meant to grease the skids for commuter rail. What's wrong with that?
"I don't want to live like that," says McKenna, as though this idea were akin to drinking raw eggs for breakfast. "No one's going to take a train to work."
Indeed, she says, even the phrase "car-light" conveys "a hostility to personal mobility. Why? You can't force people to make the choices you prefer them to make. Most people prefer a car." And trying to make them instead use "an antiquated system of transportation" like trains is not only wrong but "offensive." Folks who do this to car lovers "think we're choosing incorrectly."
McKenna might be right. Maybe people in Madison only care about what's most convenient for them. They want to drive everywhere. They aren't interested in reducing auto or energy use. You can put them on a commuter train when you pry their car keys from their cold, dead fingers.
Maybe that's why, when someone like Cieslewicz proposes a visionary neighborhood that could be a national model, drawing visitors and acclaim from far and wide, most people here keep their mouths shut and eyes averted as conservatives rip him to shreds. Maybe he's getting the reaction he deserves, for trying to force unwelcome ideas down people's throats.