Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Driving in Denial 5/16/09

A few years back I was in the Wal-Mart parking lot during a gentle rain. As I approached the driveway in front of the building, the cars made me wait as they passed. Drivers sat dry and warm in their cars, avoiding eye contact with the pedestrians they made stand in the rain and wait. At such moments I am reminded how callous cars have made us. Cars have desensitized us to the world we’ve made for them.
A trip to Europe or to a pedestrian-friendly U.S. city like San Francisco or Portland reveals through contrast what an ugly mess we’ve made of our land for the sake of our cars. Here in Noblesville we’ve seen restorable historic architecture – irreplaceable pieces of our heritage, leveled for random handfuls of parking spaces. Over the years the city has taken patches of wetlands and removed the ancient trees so a road can be cut through it.
Nothing is so stupid or heartless that we won’t gladly do it for the sake of our cars. Some recent Christmas I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Castleton looking about that repulsive landscape. Asphalt deserts stretch forever, punctuated with harsh 24-hour halogen lighting, garish signage, trash blowing in the medians, gray guardrails and cast concrete pillars – and cars, lines and lines of cars. A pedestrian in this place is a menace and a fool.
That we create such large “public” spaces that are too dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles is not a complement to our culture. When land planners hold public forums to see what kind of growth taxpayers want, nobody votes for a Castleton kind of place. But it seems every town gets one . . . or two . . . or a dozen.
That Europeans get it so right and we get it so wrong is a national disgrace If you ever get a chance to sit in an outdoor cafĂ© in Paris on the Champs Illisay, look across those six lanes of traffic passing through the Arc De Triumph. You’ll be left wondering how a nation as functionally bone-headed as France can make a six lane road a pleasant place to sit and sip a cup of coffee, while we struggle to do it with just 2 lanes.
But the answer is really pretty simple. They build places for people. Cars are forced to adapt. We build places for cars. People are forced to adapt. We go to Europe or “quaint” places in America, and marvel at the old world charm. Yet, look at some of the barren, ugly areas near Indianapolis’ downtown, like sections of Meridian, Pennsylvania and Delaware streets just north of the circle. A hundred years ago these were lovely places, built primarily for people. Yet nearly every modern fault to be found here was caused by foolish compromises made with the automobile.
Please don’t tell me that such compromises keep our economy strong. Start with Japan and look across Asia at countries that are increasingly kicking our asses economically. They are, almost universally, like the rest of the developed western world, pedestrian/mass transit societies. When gas prices spike, it hurts us a lot more than it hurts them.
It’s ironic: During WWII our fathers and grandfathers went off to save Europe, then came home and began dismantling the ways our cities and towns were similar to Europe. We let the world’s best rail systems fall into disuse and built an Interstate system whose use would destroy small town economies across the nation as businesses, their locations now dictated by the automobile, were drawn to the highway. Whites, unwilling to live alongside blacks, abandoned them and our cities and built new, disjointed communities in the suburbs, places where shopping, school, work, worship and entertainment could not be reached without a car. This ugly, physically dysfunctional world is now taken for granted by generations who can’t remember or don’t know what life was like before.
What is beyond our windshields seems not to matter. We fear the slums of the inner city, yet drive daily through strip mall hells like East Washington Street in Indy, seeming not to recognize they’re every bit as bleak. As a nation we spend tens of billions of dollars a year building and maintaining roads, but can’t find the money to upgrade our rail systems. Indiana automatically spends hundreds of millions annually to build and maintain roads but wince at the thought of diverting a portion of that into a commuter rail system to serve our most congested areas. We send our children off to war in the middle east, drive our big gas-guzzlers, and give barely a thought to the fact that the tyrants, their wars, and our involvement with them is built almost entirely around oil – who has it, who wants it, and who gets rich off it.
Let’s look beyond our windshields and take a hard look at what our over zealous love of the automobile has done to our communities, to our lives, to our health. This doesn’t mean abolishing cars; it just means their needs won’t automatically win every debate regarding community design.

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