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Rumble Seat

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Everyone else in my party was asleep, but the two cups of oily espresso I had with dinner wouldn't release me. And there was something else, disquieting and out of phase with the night, that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The ceiling of the apartment closed in on me. So I pulled on my overcoat and wound my scarf around my neck in the fashion of dapper Italian men and crept down the marble steps to the streets of Venice.

It was Carnavale. Even at 3 a.m., the calli bustled with masked phantasms--white-faced figures in frock coats, breeches and powdered wigs, two-footed leopards and walking clock towers. In every square, tattered bands of costumed teenagers danced to music that seemed to seep from the pavement. The African street peddlers continued to keep a vigil over their knock-off designer purses and string beads.

Venice is spectacularly dark at night, the kind of stark, dazzling darkness that makes you walk slowly with your hands in front of you, trying to hear your way. Many of the buildings are unlit and unoccupied--the palazzi typically belong to absentee owners. At night the city is a maze of inky canals, stone bridges, obscure walkways and narrow fondameti. The few bare bulbs of public lighting seem like buoys in a stumbling sea. Away from the revelers, the city was covered in a velveteen quiet, the blanking, hydraulic static caused by the slur of the water against stone foundations. As I stood on the Ponte dell'Accademia bridge, I could hear only the occasional throttling of diesel-engined vaporetti, the water buses that shuttle along the Canal Grande.

No cars.

This seems like an obvious thing, yet to understand Venice has no cars is not quite the same as to experience the eerie vacancy where cars usually dwell in an urban landscape. No busy streets, no street lights, no dull rush of automotive background noise, no horns--and no mopeds, the buzzy bane of European cities.

I am frequently amazed at the sacrifices the peoples of the world will make just so they can have automobiles in their lives. In the walled city of Verona, for instance, the tightly wound, cobbled streets of the old city are wide open to cars, which clot in the intersections and form Gordian gridlock. In South America, the most stricken and impoverished villagers will mortgage their very children to have a fuming, derelict Fiat.

In Bangkok, the city that worked very well for centuries on pedal power now seizes up like an overheated crankshaft with tens of thousands of cars, buses and mopeds, a citywide traffic jam starting at 5 a.m. and stinking and grinding until well after midnight. Is there a more efficient transportation method? Practically any way of getting around would be more efficient.

Yet all the world's roads end at the Tronchetto, the vast parking area outside of Venice where visitors unburden themselves of their cars. In Venice you can cross the street without looking.

I wouldn't want to position Venice as an urban model to follow. On a busy day, the Canal Grande rocks and sways with hundreds of boats, many manpowered--the gondolas are more than a tourist attraction; they are a crucial element in the infrastructure--and many more powered by reeking diesel engines. Humanity in motion is frequently chaotic. In Venice, that chaos is seasoned with the risk of getting wet.

This city is an improbable exception to the rule the automobile has over the rest of the world--from the dusty waddis of the Levant to the glittering canyons of Houston. People adore cars, and as far as I know have never let go of them once they have gotten a firm grip, no matter the costs or consequences. Why do Long Islanders drive into New York City, when they know the grief and expense they face? Why do thousands of us inflict the commute into Research Triangle Park on ourselves? It's not for lack of options. In 10 years, we could have a mass transportation system in the Triangle. Easy. There is no mystery. We don't want mass transit.

The well-intentioned utopians who call for a better transportation system need to wrestle this fact to the ground. Whatever alternative they propose to replace the monstrous road-and-car paradigm we currently live with, it will have to be based on personal mobility, not mass mobility.

(One option: a system called SkyTran, an overhead maglev rail system that can be built over existing transportation corridors. SkyTran is based on a series of stations where commuters would pick up vehicles as they would chairs from a ski lift. They would then merge onto the rail, to be propelled at high speed until they reach the station of their destination, where they would leave the module. These modules, interestingly enough, are called gondolas.)

In a technological society, the lack of personal transportation amounts to a lack of freedom--political, economic, social--and people have been known to pay a heavy price for freedom, or the simulacrum of same.

Standing on a cold bridge in the dark, watching the skies lighten behind the domed cathedrals, I experienced something rare, something almost lost: a truly silent city, a phenomenon all but extinct for more than a century. No cars, no horns, no distant hiss of traffic.

No wonder I couldn't sleep.

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