The Atlantic published a story this year about “Car Brain”, an insult used by online transit-advocacy communities to describe people who delusionally defend our car focused society despite more and more evidence that it’s bad for us. It’s a fascinating story because the writer essentially admits that they are part of the problem: despite knowing the data behind car related deaths, they still love road trips and speeding down a desert highway. It shows how plenty of people who oppose smoking in public seem to have no problem with car exhaust in public. People who think it’s your fault when your property gets stolen if it’s left out on the street seem to feel differently once that property is a motor vehicle. The article argues that all of this is hypocrisy.
While I enjoy cars in some respects (they’re largely preferable to walking long distances or sitting in the elements), I’ve never been very fond of them. They plague cities, filling them with traffic and parking lots. They make us feel more divided and alone. They possess serious dangers to people and to the planet. Ultimately I see them as a necessary evil: a tool that many people need, especially outside of urban population centers, but something that we should try to use less of when we can. I hold no bitterness towards drivers, despite having never had a license myself, and don’t know if I’d ever unironically call somebody “car brained”. But it got me thinking about how entrenched driving has become in our increasingly individualist society.
Another wonderful article on driving comes from the New Yorker this past May, with a bit more of a focus on how the problem can be solved. Adam Gopnik sums it up well: “The history of transportation will always be social history, writ large. Food tastes can change from decade to decade, even from year to year; the history of transportation tends to span half-century intervals, marking whole epochs in consciousness. How we move unites us.”
There’s enough great quotes here that I could simply kick back and let them make arguments on my behalf. A few standouts include “A huge amount of economic growth has been squandered, with the extra income that people are earning being spent sitting in traffic on ever-more polluted roads, instead of on actually living better lives” and “Architects and developers were constrained from building well, since the parking they had to supply dictated the form their buildings could take. The classic main street of little stores crowded one next to another became impossible to re-create; every store had to be surrounded by the moat of a parking lot… [it] swallowed up vast tracts of what ought to have been public and pedestrian space. The American town lost its heart, became strip-malled and overrun, because the street front had been consumed by places to put the cars that brought you there.”
The latter quote comes from a book by Henry Grabar titled Paved Paradise, focused entirely on the evils of parking. While I don’t intend to read a book about the history of parking, I do agree with his central argument: walkable communities have fallen by the wayside as we collectively decided that we must drive everywhere we go. I myself am beholden to this all the time. Government offices, doctors, and restaurants are reachable to me only if I’m driven or if I spend north of an hour transferring around bus routes. One could certainly call this hypocrisy, but I see it as a systematic problem. I adore walking to restaurants in my neighborhood, and have tried in vain to use other services in my community. Even in a large city with an above-average public transit system, I am all too often at the mercy of the highway.
This problem intersects with so many others, and I don’t claim to have a moral high ground or an expert background. There are many habits I could change that would better my health or society, and there are many things about urban planning and transportation policy that are well beyond my grasp. But I do know that I love walkable cities. I think people get nostalgic about college campuses because they miss the days that they could just live in a space instead of toiling away at stoplights. Your dorm room, local restaurants, your work study job, your classes, your clubs and social circles, all in a planned environment with accessible transit and short walkable distances. Believe it or not, you can also design entire cities this way! I’m not sure that world is possible in 21st century America, but I would love to see us try.
This is part of why I have a distaste for suburbs. Affluent families benefit from their proximity to cities, often commuting in to work or shop there. However their tax dollars do not fund those city’s schools and do not help those communities that often toil in poverty. Their commutes necessitate highways which can divide urban neighborhoods and create even more inequality. Their jobs often create more barren office zones like downtown Minneapolis, as opposed to lively centers of commerce. These people aren’t immoral for living how they live, I simply wish these communities were seen as extensions of the cities they benefit from. If we pooled our wealth more, and expected more connection from each other, we would probably be happier as a society.
I’m not alone. Many people feel this way and have been fighting for a changed perspective. Strong Towns is one organization fighting this fight, and they in particular talk a lot about “stroads”. It’s a portmanteau and an insult based on what they see as distinct definitions for streets and roads, that have gotten blended together overtime due to car-focused developments: streets are designed to be public spaces, roads are designed for transportation. Things like street parking blend the two together and in the process make them worse for both. In the modern American city, every street is full of cars and there’s never anywhere to park. The result is congestion and ineffective space. If you were to divide it up, with roads for driving and streets for walking, it’s possible less parking would be needed anyway. Communities would feel more welcoming and intertwined. Is this naive? Probably, at least in part. Our car culture exists for a lot of practical reasons that aren’t going anywhere, and if you removed large swaths of parking spaces it would simply serve as a great inconvenience to lots of people. This sort of city would require a complete reorganization, so that walking from your home to shops, jobs, and recreation is actually feasible.
My neighborhood is probably as close to this as one can get: there’s a farmer’s market, a baseball field, several good restaurants and parks, live music, and even friends and family all within a 10-15 minute walk from my front door and all within the downtown of a major metro area. It’s pretty remarkable, and I try to stay grateful for it, but I get in a car every day so I can go to work and we still order delivery more often than we go out to sit down in a local restaurant. I want to be better, but it’s hard. So I refuse to judge drivers for living in ways that are convenient and often necessary. If nothing else, we should at least take stock of ways we can improve our daily lives to better match our ideals, and I think for everybody that should mean trying to eat local every once and a while and trying to only drive when you need to. It doesn’t just benefit our communities and our planet, I think it benefits ourselves. If nothing else, it helps us appreciate the place we live as something more than just a web of pavement.