Saturday, April 9, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective. (Part Three.)

This is the third in a series of posts on Back To The Future as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

Getting Around Hill Valley - 1985

In 1955, Hill Valley is still compact enough (including a well-defined and thriving downtown) that cars aren't strictly necessary. Mass car ownership has only been underway for about ten years--not long enough to force the wholesale rearrangement of the built environment we live with today.

By 1985, though, the town has sprawled enough to present a by-now familiar plot problem for any movie involving teenagers: namely, how do we give someone enough access to his setting to make a story possible?

In most movies, we wave this problem away by assuming that the teenager has his own car, or at least access to one, at all critical story points. When we want to show that a teenaged character is a loser or otherwise some kind of underdog, we show him driving a, you know, really old beat-up car which is supposed to suck terribly. (In Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead," released the same year as BTTF, being stuck driving the family station wagon to the local ski hill is apparently enough of an existential humiliation to justify multiple suicide attempts.) In fact, I can't think of a single movie where teenagers have to take the bus everywhere.

I think this explains a lot more about the world than we care to admit. When you're a kid, forming your first impression of how the world works, you're watching movies and TV shows full of people you're supposed to identify with. But they invariably have far more mobility and autonomy than you do. What's missing is the boredom. They seem to be always able to go where the action is, and get there before it's over. They don't have to spend two hours and three transfers taking transit to their friends' houses, and they don't have to duck out of the school dance halfway through Stairway To Heaven because the last bus is at 12:45. So you spend your first four years as a non-child wondering why your life sucks, and no one can quite explain why.

By the time you're sixteen, you've figured it out: North America is designed for the exclusive enjoyment of people with the health and wealth required to own and operate a vehicle. No wonder, when hard times hit, people are more likely to give up their homes and live in their cars than vice versa.

In this respect, Back To The Future faces the teenage mobility quandary more honestly than most films. Access to the family car is make-or-break for Marty's personal life, and when that car gets totalled he's up the proverbial creek, his upcoming hot date with Jennifer presumably replaced by an evening at home with a box of Kleenex.

Faced with the same shit sandwich as every real-life suburban teenager physically stranded in his elders' version of the American Dream, Marty's next-best option is... suicidally dangerous skateboard stunts in rush-hour traffic!

Maybe, like his grandfather suggests, he's just an idiot. (After all, he did need to be told that Riverside Drive in his hometown must be located next to the river!) But I think it's more basic than that. I don't know a single teenager who, faced with marooning in some Bungaloid Acres subdivision, wouldn't gladly sell his left kidney to Satan for an alternative--any alternative.

So it's significant that the top of Marty's big wish list is that shiny new Toyota 4x4. The definitive sign, once he's returned to 1985, that he's changed history is that he now owns one.

I once heard a critic chalk this up to that old 1980's materialism (dreadfully passé and dated, to hear him say it--yeah, like we're all a bunch of burlap-wearing monks now.)

But I think it really resonates with teenagers. It's like, "Well, I changed the past... my dad is no longer a coward and a failure, my mom is no longer an alcoholic and the meathead who tormented them both is now a neutered little lapdog. That's nice but the important thing is that I now have full access to the world around me!"

In any case, even before he goes back, Marty has it comparatively easy. According to the road sign in 1955, the site of his future home is a mere 2 miles from Hill Valley proper. He can walk there in about 45 minutes if he has to. Most suburban kids in 2010 (or in 1985 for that matter) should be so lucky.

But technological progress will make things worse by 2015.

"Where we're going, we don't need roads!"

2015 Hill Valley is a kitchy techno-utopian future right out of Popular Mechanics. The most noticeable change is the profusion of flying cars. Finally--oh, God, finally!--traffic jams are a thing of the past. Goldie Wilson III flat-out tells us so on his animated jumbotron ad.

And yet five minutes later, we learn that the skyway out to the future McFly home in Hilldale is jammed with rush-hour traffic!

It's actually so bad that it's dark by the time they get there.

So there it is, the lesson that some of the smartest people on the planet have spent a hundred years and billions of dollars failing to learn: No matter how advanced your technology and infrastructure, it still somehow takes 45 minutes to get across town. The only thing that changes is how big "town" becomes, how much it costs to build and maintain that system, and (presumably) how crummy and inaccessible the world becomes when you don't have a flying car.

To be continued...

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