Driven to Distraction in America

A couple of weeks ago I left the transit-rich confines of New York
City and headed down South to visit family. I made it all the way to
Meridian, Mississippi without getting in a car (I rode the subway to
Penn Station and took Amtrak from there), but once I got off the train
in Meridian, I did what everyone else in America does: I put my rear
end in the driver’s seat and started driving. Driving to visit the
relatives. Driving to the store to buy allergy medicine for my kid.
Driving to buy food for dinner. Driving driving driving. It drove me
crazy. And for my seven-year-old, who is not used to doing time in the
back seat, it was torture.

DSC_0341.jpgWhat Mom looks like from the back seat. Photo by Nathaniel Goodyear.

It
was also an important reminder of American reality for someone who
lives in a place (Brooklyn) where a car-free existence is not only
possible, it’s actually more convenient than living with a car. Because
for so many people in this country — even those who really "get it" in
terms of sustainable transportation — that’s just not the case. They
may want to be taking transit, or walking, or biking, but the way their
communities are set up makes it impractical or downright impossible.
And they feel lousy about it.

That’s the subject of today’s featured post on the Streetsblog Network, from East Busway Blog in Pittsburgh:

I
live a double life. In my ideal (weekend) life, I either walk, or hop
on the busway or another bus to get to things that I need to… Life is
good.

Then there is my dirty little secret. 5 days a week,
I get in a car, and I drive 40 minutes in the car, by myself to work
and back. Don’t worry, I hate it. It’s stressful, tiring, and long. In
fact, I daydream about being able to hop on the busway, or any other
form of public transit and sit back, and relax, read, listen to music
etc, while I am taken to work.

Why
do I live this double life you ask? Because I have to. I really tried
to find a way to make it work using mass transit, but I can honestly
say it would not work. I would have to take a Port Authority bus to
Pittsburgh Mills, wait (and I mean wait), get a Westmoreland transit
bus to New Kensington, (wait again), and then take another Westmoreland
County bus the remaining distance to work. If it were to work for me, I
would have to leave three hours before work started. That would put the
start of my journey at 5 A.M. Even if I were committed (or crazy)
enough to undertake that daily sojourn, it would not be possible,
because of how early my trip would have to start.

Leaving
New York always makes me newly thankful for all of our transportation
options when I return. And it always makes me newly amazed at how many
people here use and depend on cars when they don’t have to.

Fortunately,
there is a growing movement of people around the country, in all kinds
of communities, who want things to change. That’s what the Streetsblog Network is all about. And here’s some other news from the network: We’ve got an update on the Connecticut red light camera bill from WalkBikeCT; a hopeful report on transit in Sacramento from RT Rider; and from Decatur Metro, proof that the Georgia state goverment is ready to compete with New York’s for dysfunction when it comes to funding transi

  • Walker in LA

    Brooklyn/NYC has the benefit of 110 years of rail development, most of it done under czar-like powers, and at great public expense, and today, the entire city exists at huge federal subsidy.

    The rest of America does not live either at the density of NYC, nor has the privilege of someone else funding their existence. As much as NYC folks will claim they can get by without a car, the same is not true for the need for massive utility power grid inputs – in their case, Nukes. How “green” is your car-free existence now?

    How “sustainable” is your city if you don’t provide your own water, sewer, trash, power, building materials, and food? Sorry, but “sustainability” is a crock – its just a political movement to empower old hippies to become the establishment and find creative ways to tax us more.

    The rest of America generally chooses to live a car-enhanced life, because the central-planning folks don’t seem to understand the rest of us want privacy, space, clean air, and our own house. Funny, as the central-planning folks always manage to carve out a nice place for themselves, then tax the rest of us to build their housing projects that they want to force us to live in, so we can ride their buses to get about.

    No, thank you.

    If we need to segregate highway cost so lower-density communities pay “their share”, that’s fine. Just don’t expect the suburban taxpayer to subsidize anything in the city.

  • Nancy

    Wow. Just wow. I’m incredulous that you can mock the sustainable existence of an urbanite vs. your own suburban lifestyle. What about the deforestation that occurred in order for your housing development to exist in the first place? The immense water usage for your plentiful lawns? The energy consumption for your gigantic homes? Not to mention the massive amounts of oil used for toting everything to and from your isolated suburban residence – So much for your plea for clean air…

    You are the people who need good mass transit the most, and yet you can’t see the forest from the trees. How sad.

  • @Walker in LA

    “A car-enhanced life”. I’m sure the commuters on the 405 freeway going 12 miles per hour and the residents lining both sides breathing the air feel very car-enhanced. Suburbs subsiding cities, ha what a silly notion. So all the jobs in the city and all the roads the cities build to bring suburban commuters to their jobs and all the land use for their parked cars, you think the suburbanites pay for all of that? You talk of “How “sustainable” is your city if you don’t provide your own water, sewer, trash, power, building materials, and food?”, but suburbs do not provide all their own resources either and demand far more of them due to their decentralized nature and greater demands on water and power per capita. Not to mention the fact that suburbs tend to lack sufficient jobs for their residents, and much of the freeway crush into the city is from all the suburbs.

    I’m sure suburbs will be around in some form for many years to come, but we cannot sustain outward growth indefinitely. Our economy and our environment cannot support a big house for every family with 2 or 3 cars in the garage. We can acknowledge this and prepare for the future or stick our heads in the sand and wait for the consequences.

  • Not necessarily. We need to decentralize, but we expect the amenities of the large city. LA was founded on the ability to give everyone two cars and a yard for the dog to run in, while providing world class amenities like professional sports, nightlife, and world-class art. The model should be going to smaller cities and towns, with metro areas about the size of Dayton or Spokane, and people working about the same distance as folks do in those cities.

    To be honest, out of the millions of people in the LA area, VERY FEW are making the decision to get stuck in gridlock. The average commute time in Los Angeles remains at about half an hour, and the volume carried by 12 lanes of traffic on the 405 (roughly 20,000 per hour at rush hour congestion, which is less than the 2,200 or so at peak volume conditions – 40-50 mph) is nothing compared to the millions of commuters in Los Angeles. If they want to get stuck on the 405, rather than moving closer or finding a job elsewhere, it really is their choice.

    And generally speaking, the suburbanites do pay for their roads, through gas taxes. The businesses they work for pay for parking, and taxes for the city. That indirectly comes out of the paycheck. Landfills are always in the suburbs, not in the city. Nor is there necessarily greater demand for water due to suburban landscaping, especially if appropriate landscaping for the soil and rainfall environment is considered. In addition, there is a large back to nature movement in the suburbs that you don’t see. Whether it’s raising hens for eggs, or gardening, or growing fruit trees, a lot of folks in the suburbs are going back to nature for this. Try raising a hen in the city. In fact, the problem with suburbia is actually the excessive size of houses: the infamous 2500 square foot hours on the 5000 square foot lot. The older “streetcar suburbs” in the San Gabriel Valley were historically 1000-2000 square foot houses on 6000-10000 square foot lots, which were sustainable in the pre-car era.

    The fact is that cities need the suburbs to survive, but the suburbs could easily create a world amongst themselves without the city. However, the entire metro area suffers. Look at Detroit, where basically the suburbs (both black and white) told the City of Detroit F-U. Now the entire metro area is in the crapper.

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