Life in the rearview

Life in the rearview

Understanding past calamities can help us keep our eyes on the road ahead

By Jennifer Hadley 06/25/2009

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One year ago my first Wheels column appeared in PW. In many ways it seems like just yesterday, but when I reflect on all that has happened in the past year as it pertains to transportation, it seems like a lifetime ago. When I landed this gig, I certainly had no idea that so many monumental transportation changes, milestones and decisions would come to pass in our nation, state and communities. And it’s probably a good thing I never saw what was coming, because the past year has been riddled with more potholes in the automotive and transportation industries than I might have dared to go over.

In looking through my own little rearview mirror of the journey I’ve been on, I have to say it’s been a crazy ride.

A year ago we were facing the highest gas prices I’d ever seen, averaging $4.59 a gallon. By late summer, prices were plunging at unprecedented rates. Six months later — just in time for the holidays — gas prices were below $2 per gallon. Today, a year later, we’re back into the $3 per gallon range. So we’re better off than we were a year ago, which I consider progress.

Last July we enforced a hands-free cell phone law, one that I wasn’t convinced I’d find merit in but have come to see as probably good for the long haul. In fact, now I get irritated when I see people blatantly breaking this law, and those folks seem more prone to cut me off on the freeway.

In September more than two dozen of our friends and neighbors were tragically killed in the worst Metrolink crash in history. Yet in November we decided that we were willing to pay additional taxes to reduce traffic and congestion by expanding our rail systems and improving our road conditions by passing Measure R. We also let the nation know that California was ready to lead the way in developing the nation’s first bullet train connecting major metropolitan areas, even if the project would take an eternity to build. Still, these decisions demonstrate that Californians, despite our own personal financial struggles, are still willing to think of the future and provide funding for projects that we believe will benefit us down the road. That’s progressive.

By January, the hands-free ban was expanded to include a ban on texting while driving, a law I still struggle to obey.
That same month, we bore witness to the heroic efforts of Chesley “Sulley” Sullenberger, who managed to save the lives of all passengers on US Airways Flight 1549, which he successfully landed in the Hudson River. It was a red letter day in the otherwise bittersweet past 12 months for the transportation sector.

But then came one of the most monumental meltdowns in the history of our nation’s transportation industry. Despite giving billions of dollars to help salvage our nation’s iconic automakers, our efforts were moot. Chrysler was sold to Italian automaker Fiat and GM finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. These landmark events, even with all of the hurt they’re sure to inflict on our economy, still came as a relief to me; kind of like ripping off a Band-Aid.

So, have I learned anything over the last year through writing this column? Sure. I’ve learned that accidents will continue to happen and that sometimes there is nothing we can do about that. But I relearned that seatbelts will continue to prevent injury. I’ve learned that we can wash our cars without wasting water. I’ve learned that taking the Metro train (not the bus) is more often than not a pleasant experience. And I’ve learned that even giant corporations are subject to failure.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that although we’ve come a long way from covered wagons, we still have miles to go toward efficient, effective transit systems. But even with all of the potholes we’ve bottomed out in, it still seems that progress is possible. And that helps keep my focus on the road ahead.

Contact Jennifer Hadley at jmhadley624@yahoo.com.

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