Thursday, June 19, 2008

The fine line between trend-setter and Cassandra

Today's rant is not about the innocent victims of the higher gas prices...and it's certainly not about you, the dear friends who have cars and take me on the errands that have become otherwise impossible. I'm not going to knock you ust because you're more practical than me, and willing to accept the reality of the situation. By offering to drive us on certain occasions, you have helped my household to remain carless, so you're contributing to the overall lower carbon footprint. So make sure I buy you a drink once in a while!

But anyway, the existence of kind people who drive me places occasionally proves the point I'm about to make. When I lived in the Greater Obscure Midwestern City Metro Area in the bygone 80s, it was relatively easy to live without a vehicle. The bus system was never great, but the goods and services one really needed were in more or less centralized locations. There were the two downtowns, the university areas, the Big Mall and its environs, the strip malls on the way to the mall, all places on the basic bus lines. The whole Suburban Megalopolises on the south and east sides of town didn't exist, nor the tentacles of sprawl spawned on the southside.

Thus, with a combination of busing, biking, and walking, I could fulfil my needs. When I moved back to the area, things were still more or less the same. But within a few years, numerous places I regularly went to relocated to random farflung locations, and services that used to be available in easy walking distance have gotten further away with every move.

So in general, the retail, errand-running life has gotten noticably more difficult in the last ten or fifteen years, which I attribute to stripmallization. That is, different businesses were once loosely grouped in particular areas, accessible to some people on foot, and fairly easy to get to on bus, because there were different things to do at a location, making it worth the bus system's while to stop there. But now, those businesses have been scattered in every direction, plunked down wherever anyone will let them build one.

My favorite example is that the place where you go to get a driver's license is hard to get to if you don't have a car. And some of those areas on the south side, always talked about as the future of the city, where everybody's going, you wouldn't want to go across the street without driving, because of the zillion lanes of traffic, and the awkwardness of the spatial design. Even if your destination is really across the street, it's not going to be that easy to get there.

This has happened because of the absolute assumption that everyone drives. Everyone is willing, and able, to drive across the street, and to make a dozen trips to random strip malls to stop at this place and that place. (Or else to drive across town to an enormo superstore where the distances from the housewares to the electronics is way further than I want to walk). With that as a given, it's totally fine to set things up that way. The people who can't or won't drive aren't really worth worrying about (not even necessarily out of meanness; just because we're not statistically significant).

Let's just say that this is the reality I've been shaking my fist at for a long time, and I recommend a kick-ass book called Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream on this subject.

Now suddenly, I witness people walking into a place of business who, upon discovering that they can't have instant gratification, complain that "I wasted all that gas to come here!" They're suddenly aware of the gas they're spending for every one of these little trips they wouldn't have even noticed before, but which I've been well aware of. It's not schaudenfreude I'm feeling, because I know there are repercussions for everybody in these high prices, but it's just...so many people are so surprised that they're reaping what they've sown.

1 comment:

memsaab said...

and here I thought I was the only person on earth---well, America---who didn't own a car.

Never have, hopefully never will. Luckily I live in a city with very good public transportation. It astounds me that so few do!

If I need one (like to go away for a weekend) I rent one. Makes my life simple (and much more inexpensve) :-)