Category Archives: car culture

Moving beyond the margins, part II

Recently, a dear friend of mine moved from Seattle to a small city in the desert southwest. It wasn’t exactly a voluntary exit (a casualty of the rising cost of living in our shared hometown), but the destination, selected precisely for its “different-ness” from the sparkling, blue and green beauty she was leaving behind, was a welcome new adventure.

Shortly after my friend and her husband settled into their new home, a series of unexpected circumstances conspired to leave them without a car. Their lives almost completely fell apart. Bus service in their new city is hourly on most routes—and essentially nonexistent after 7 PM. Sidewalks are limited. Crossings are inconvenient, dangerous, or both.

My friend and her hubby both have jobs. (Hubby works shifts outside of business hours, so no bus commuting for him. ) They also have many pets and so must haul giant bags of food and litter on the regular. And, of course, they must manage all of life’s other errands, obligations, and appointments. Without a car, their lives became consumed with figuring out how they were going to get where they needed to go. It was difficult and stressful and time consuming and not at all workable for the long term. So, they did what they had to do to return to the ranks of vehicle-owning Americans.

Talking to my friend about her struggles getting around reminded me of some similar struggles in my own past. As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t afford a car for most of the time I lived in Houston. Back then, I wasn’t proudly “car-free”; I was broke and desperate for reliable transportation.

Sidewalks are not a given in our nation’s fourth largest city, and walking is often isolating and risky. Almost every time I left my apartment, I was forced to walk through parking lots and in drainage ditches and an on the edges of roads. (As a bonus, I also regularly experienced street harassment.*)

Houston is huge – 628 square miles, to be exact – with no real center of commerce, so traveling by bus would have been difficult even on the best-run transit system. And back then (ahem), Houston did not have the best-run transit system.** Poor frequency, awful transfers, and some drivers’ tendency to blow past stops to avoid missing green lights (OK, maybe it was just that one driver) made it very hard to arrive anywhere on time. I was fired from one of my many college jobs for chronic lateness.

When I started teaching and could finally afford it, I bought a reliable used car. A few years later, I bought a reliable new car. I was so happy and proud and excited and empowered on the day I drove that car off the lot, I could not have imagined that, only a few years later, I would hand over my keys and never look back.

I have not owned a car in almost 14 years. To this day, I think of my decision to live carfree as one of the best I have ever made. It has changed my life in innumerable positive and beautiful ways. This does not mean that my choice has been painless or without challenges, but most of the time, and certainly on balance, it’s pretty darn good. I would argue, however, that a significant percentage – dare I say a majority? — of people who don’t own cars do not feel enriched by their circumstances. Instead they feel helpless, disconnected, and vulnerable.

So what makes the difference between being happily carfree and desperately carless? Certainly, a lot depends on where you live. In Manhattan, living without a car is easy. In Yakima, not so much. But in Seattle, or Pittsburgh, or Houston, or St, Louis, it can go either way. The most important determining factors are a person’s neighborhood and life circumstances. Shift work, kids and errands, sprawling communities, poor transit, mobility struggles, and high crime rates increase the challenges to living without a car.

It is in these “in-between” places where we have the greatest opportunity to improve people’s lives  — the most low-hanging fruit, as it were. In these places, we need to design our transportation systems to accommodate the shift workers, the errand runners, the physically challenged, and the vulnerable. This means frequent, reliable, affordable (preferably free) public transit, all day, every day. It means safe, comfortable transit stops and convenient transfer points. It means sidewalks in every neighborhood. It means protected bike infrastructure. It means accessible everything.

Of course, these improvements will benefit everyone, as they should. Living without a car, whether voluntary or not, should be as painless as possible, for as many people as possible. It is the only way we will build more equitable communities, or reduce car ownership, or lower the cost of living in increasingly expensive cities.

All we are missing is the will.

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

***

* To be clear, this happens on pedestrian-friendly streets, too. In fact, the more dudes there are walking on a street, the more likely one is to experience harassment.

** Since I moved back to Seattle in 1998, they’ve added light rail and completely revamped the bus system, so I really can’t speak to what it’s like now. Hey, if it’s good enough for Janis Scott

 

What he said

A few months ago, my friend Dawn gave me Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, for my birthday. I had placed a library hold on the book earlier in the year, but, as is common with popular new releases, the waiting list was dozens deep. I had resigned myself to a long wait, and in a way, I didn’t mind. I had read several of Coates’s magazine pieces, so I knew his words would resonate. And, in my fragile state of generalized rage, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sit with the weight of centuries of injustice and misery visited on people of African descent in this country.

But then Dawn popped up with a surprise at a long-overdue gathering of old friends, and I no longer had a reason to put it off. After weeks of procrastination, I finally decided to read it. I am so glad I did. Between the World and Me is absolutely mesmerizing. It touched me on many levels. And it resonated more than I could have imagined.

As I grow in wisdom and experience, as I learn what I had never been taught and unlearn so much of what I had, I am beginning to understand the deep connections between the exploitation of human beings and the exploitation of our planet. The forces that drove the transatlantic slave trade, the centuries of forced labor, colonization, and genocide are the same forces that are responsible for the razing of hills, poisoning of rivers, and clear-cutting of forests. This material greed, this disconnection from cause and effect, this propensity to elevate Self to the highest status, is behind the belief that “property owners” have the right to do whatever they want to our shared planet. It is the source of austerity politics. It drives corporations’ obsession with short-term profits. And it created the concept of race.

The rise of the automobile is this warped world view now reaching its pinnacle. And, as Coates points out in this brilliant quote, all of us, even — in fact, especially — its chief victims, will suffer as it finally collapses upon itself.

No. I left The Mecca knowing this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the bodies of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky.

Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is riding with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.

Reign of terror

On April 7th, one of my dearest friends, who lives in Texas, called to tell me that her cousin, “T,” whom I’ve known since she was in elementary school, and T’s baby daughter had been in a crash the night before. The list of injuries was shocking.

T: broken leg (fixed with surgery and several screws), bruised lung, fractured pelvis, c2 spine/neck fracture

Baby Girl: lacerated spleen, bruised lung, spine/neck c2 fracture, severed arm

After our conversation, my friend sent me photographs of T’s vehicle, which had been hit by an 18-wheeler. It looked like a crumpled aluminum can. First responders used the “Jaws of Life” to rescue them and then sent them via Life Flight to a trauma center in Austin.

Three weeks later, the baby is still in the hospital, finally breathing without a tube but still sedated. She will have to wear a full body cast for an entire year. She will live the rest of her life with only one arm. It is not yet clear what other effects she and her mother will suffer.

Last Thursday, my son’s teacher told me that her husband was in Louisiana for the funeral of their two nieces, ages four and six, who had been killed when their family’s car was hit by a drunk driver two days earlier. The surviving family members (one child and one adult) were still in the hospital with serious injuries.

These horrific, shocking incidents have brought far too close to home the devastating violence of cars. It’s not just the gore — the crushed bones, bruised organs, shredded skin, and severed limbs. It is the pervasiveness. It is the fact that everyone is at risk, almost all of the time

Most people in the United States rely on cars to get through their days. We have built our communities and our lives in ways that all but require us to drive. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to alternatives (and lifestyles that make those alternatives feasible) must still share space with cars. We use the same roads (or attempt to walk across them). We walk on narrow sidewalks — if we’re lucky, shoulders and ditches if we’re not — as they whiz by. We cross parking lots to shop or visit the doctor.

All of us live under constant threat that an inattentive, or unskilled, or negligent driver could end our lives in an instant, and there is no transportation “choice” we can make to insulate us from this danger.

This isn’t about drivers and non-drivers, good guys and bad guys, “us” and “them.” We’re all in the same (terrifying) boat.

What are we going to do about it?

On cars and community

My love of the bus has always had its roots in a deep craving for community. I have written extensively (here and here and here and here and here, for starters) about how my family’s bus-based life has enriched our sense of community and our connection to our city and neighborhood.

And it’s not just about sharing the ride. Living without a car has forced us to participate in our neighborhood in a way we never would have if zipping* all over the region was as easy as jumping in the car. Out of necessity, we play at local parks, attend the local school, shop for groceries at the local store, and get our check-ups at the local clinic. (Our church is the outlier at exactly one mile from home.) We frequent the library, community center, and city pool. And, we regularly socialize with our neighbors. Instead of spending our energy searching for something “perfect,” we focus on enjoying — and occasionally, improving — what is available. This way of living has added a richness and sense of belonging to our lives that is nothing less than magical.

But for all its community-building benefits, our carfree life also has a disconnecting influence. We have a network of family and close friends that spans the entire region, and we don’t see them nearly as much as we’d like to. Traveling long distances by bus is fine for adventures, but it’s not something you “fit in” to your day; it is the day. Almost as soon as you arrive at your destination, you’re figuring out how you’re going to get back.

So, we rarely eat Sunday dinner with my youngest brother and his family in Tacoma, or spend a spontaneous afternoon with close friends in Renton or Kirkland. We skip most birthday parties that are held at transit-inaccessible venues — in other words, most birthday parties**. We leave evening gatherings earlier than everyone else, because waiting for a transfer with two small people after dark is not my idea of a good time.

It is very important to us  to be connected to the Black community– both for our own social well-being and to foster a strong sense of identity in our children. While we are definitely connected to Black folks through family, church, and neighborhood friendships, we don’t participate in some of the organizations and institutions — specifically, those aimed at connecting Black families — we would otherwise be a part of. With Seattle’s small Black community now so dispersed — “automobility” is essentially a requirement.

Of course we know about (and occasionally use) carsharing, but, with car seats to schlep and no cars nearby, it’s not especially convenient or desirable for us. More than anything, the need to use a car regularly to feel connected reinforces how integral cars are to the way we practice community in the United States in 2015.

I don’t see a path to changing the way of life in this country so radically that cars (or for that matter, airplanes) are no longer necessary for maintaining relationships. Our culture is too mobile and often more focused on opportunity than community. But certainly, we can all work to build connections with the people we share our neighborhoods with. We can think of the places we choose to live as more than just access points to all the other places we want to go. Rather, we can think of them as the places where we build our lives.

As the late activist (and Bus Chick shero) Grace Lee Boggs said, one of “the most radical things [we can do] is stay put.”

***
* I should note that traveling around this region by car involves very little zipping—hello traffic!—but you get the point.
** Having a few friends over for cake (ahem) apparently does not cut it anymore.

Moving beyond the margins

Last week, Portland bicycle activist* Elly Blue published a piece in Bicycling magazine about how her decision not to have children has enabled her carfree activism: both her ability to afford life as an full-time rabble rouser and her general freedom to cycle without the physical encumbrance and time constraints of transporting children.

Some UCLA researchers have thrown down some science about women and bicycling. The gender gap in cycling is so huge in the US (by comparison, to say, the Netherlands) not because women are particularly afraid or particularly fussy about their hair, but because of the pure logistics of the combination of errands, drop-offs, pick-ups required to run the Mom Taxi.

I read about this new work with interest. I’ve never owned a car. And I’ve never had kids. Both these factors have contributed to my ability to get around by bike, write about bicycling, live a bike-obsessed life. Otherwise, there isn’t really a practical connection between these two definitive—and in some circles, oddball—life choices, but they’re linked in my mind, in my own story of my life. And that link is very much economic.

While Blue’s piece is on the one hand a celebration of her freedom to make these choices, it is also an implicit acknowledgement that her circumstances are unlikely to be replicated on a broad scale.

As someone who, in over 11 years of living without a car, has taken fewer than a dozen bicycle trips**, I am hardly the right person to say what will get folks on bikes. (Or, perhaps I’m exactly the right person.) But, I do know a thing or two about what it’s like to parent without a car. And I have some thoughts.

On the one hand, we should definitely challenge the concept of the “mom taxi,” both the mom part and the taxi part. It is past time for us to address the cultural (and economic) conditions that chain mothers to their cars.

On the other hand, people need to live their lives. And currently, just getting to the most basic destinations is not feasible by bike (or transit, for that matter) for most parents–most people–in most parts of the country. To have any hope of shifting the paradigm, we must provide robust, affordable***, accessible, safe, reliable alternatives to driving.

We aren’t.

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* Or, as I affectionately refer to her, “bike hustler.”
** I am working hard to raise two cyclists, though!
*** And by “affordable,” I mean free.

When “growing up” = getting behind the wheel

This morning, NPR ran a story about a teenager’s first time driving herself to school. A reporter followed Rebecca Rivers, a high school junior in Canton, NY, from the breakfast table to the parking lot of her high school. (It wasn’t my idea of riveting journalism, but then again, I recently wrote a post about all the parks I visited on the bus this summer. To each her own.) The point of the piece was to focus on an important “rite of passage” in the life of an American child.

During the interview, Rebecca talks about why the milestone of driving solo is so important for her.

When you’re driving a car, you’re totally in control—I mean except for the other drivers. You’re in control, and you get to decide which roads you drive on and which route you take home and where you stop, and there’s something incredibly wonderful about that.

While I can certainly relate to her feelings of exhilaration—I experienced those same feelings when I learned to drive (well) over two decades ago—I would argue that they have very little to do with controlling a vehicle and very much to do with experiencing a first taste of independence.

Much of the reason we associate cars with freedom and control (despite the fact that they have actually stripped us of control of our communities) is because we have created a culture in which they are required for mobility. Kids can’t wait to drive because they want to go somewhere without an adult.

Would this first solo drive have meant so much–Would it even have happened?–if Rebecca had grown up with a bicycle and safe, dedicated paths to ride on? Or if there was a frequent, reliable, free (!) transit system in her town? Or if she had been given the freedom to get around without her parents before she was old enough to drive? Or if there were more constraints on when, where, and how fast cars could travel?

We’ll never know. What we do know is that very few kids in this country grow up with dedicated bicycle infrastructure or frequent, reliable transit–or, for that matter, the freedom to take advantage of the options that are available. Instead, they are shuttled to every destination in the back seat of the family car.

As we continue to indoctrinate our children into an archaic, inefficient, dangerous, and irresponsible transportation system, we are dooming them to a future of poor health, frustration, isolation, and unprecedented environmental catastrophe.

We can and must do better.

Seven freeways that never were

More good stuff from Slate’s Tom Vanderbilt (via Bus Nerd):

The Lower Manhattan Expressway—dubbed “Lomex”—which would have coursed in eight-lane glory through the now-vibrant (and expensive) neighborhoods of Soho and Nolita, is one of the world’s most famous unbuilt highways. The epic battle about whether it should be built is virtual mythology in New York City, pitting the sweeping interventions of Robert Moses against that savior of the street, Jane Jacobs, a conflict of networks against neighbors, a struggle over a road that was either essential to Gotham’s 20th century survival or, in the words of Lewis Mumford, was “the first serious step in turning New York into Los Angeles.” (Not thought to be a good thing.)

A recent exhibit* at New York’s Cooper Union, Paul Rudolph: The Lower Manhattan Expressway—complete with an exhaustively recreated scale model* of the proposed road—provided an opportunity to consider the invisible (and sometimes visible) presence of this and other phantom highways in the world’s cities. Existing merely as segments of many-tentacled schemes on faded planner’s maps, they are more than historical oddities or visions of an alternate future. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue about the meaning and possibilities of mobility in the world’s cities: Would their host cities be better off if these highways been built? How should we balance the desire for mobility with the desire to create livable, meaningful urban spaces? Is there any room for the megaprojects of Rudolph in a city that now favors pocket parks and restriped bike lanes?

Read the rest…

Seattle even got a shout–for 520’s ramps to nowhere. Here’s hoping for another miracle.

More snow talk

My latest for Grist: “Driving a car doesn’t mean being in control”:

It’s during the times we are not able to drive that it becomes clear just how little “control” a car-dependent life provides. Driving a mile or more to buy a gallon of milk or a box of Band-Aids may not seem especially remarkable until your alternator dies. Or gas prices rise above $4 per gallon. Or the roads are covered in a foot of snow.

Read the rest…

Upcoming events for transit types

The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives

What: An SDOT-sponsored talk by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, authors of the recently released Carjacked. Here’s a synopsis of the book:

Carjacked is an in-depth look at our obsession with cars. While the automobile’s contribution to global warming and the effects of volatile gas prices is widely known, the problems we face every day because of our cars are much more widespread and yet much less known — from the surprising $14,000 that the average family pays each year for the vehicles it owns, to the increase in rates of obesity and asthma to which cars contribute, to the 40,000 deaths and 2.5 million crash injuries each and every year.

Carjacked details the complex impact of the automobile on modern society and shows us how to develop a healthier, cheaper, and greener relationship with cars.

When: Friday, August 6th, 3 PM – 4:30 PM
Where: Bertha Knight Landes Room, City Hall: 600 5th Avenue
How much: Free!

I’m embarrassed to admit (especially given the reviews) that I’ve had this book on my nightstand for several months, and I’ve only managed to read the first few pages. (I received a publicity copy shortly after Busling was born, and it got lost in the new-baby shuffle.) It is my intention to read at least a few chapters before attending the talk. I’ll share my thoughts here after I finish it.

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Off the Chainring Tour, Seattle Edition
What: A traveling bikestravaganza! Join Elly Blue and Joe Biel for an “evening of bike talk, bike zines, and short movies about transportation activism! We’ll share ideas and inspiration about bike stuff in Portland, in your town, and in other places. Our focus is on bikes but also the big picture: buses, trains, walking, freeways, cars, housing, affordability, what works and what doesn’t.”

When: Saturday, August 14th, 7 PM – 9 PM
Where: Ada’s Technical Books: 713 Broadway East
How much: $3 – $10, based on ability to pay

More good stuff from the alt transpo capital of the universe. If Nerd and I can sucker my dad and/or one of my brothers into babysitting, we’re there.

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UPDATE, 8/4: Metro Employee Historic Vehicle Association (MEHVA) Snoqualmie tour
What: “A leisurely 4-hour scenic trip [on an old-school bus!] to the historic and charming small town of Snoqualmie where you can ride the train from the restored depot built in 1890, visit the scenic spectacular Snoqualmie Falls or have a picnic lunch.”
When: Sunday, August 15th, 11 AM
Where: Tour departs from 2nd Ave S. & S. Main
How much: $5 (Free for kids 5 and under)

We’ve got a lot going on in the next couple of weeks (more on that later), but I’d really like to make it to this. A train ride and the falls? Chicklet would be beside herself.

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August Regional Transit Task Force meetings

What: The RTTF is a group of citizens and elected officials appointed by the County Executive and charged with “identify[ing] short-term and long-term objectives for transit service investment. [The task force] will formulate a service implementation policy based on those objectives” by September 2010.”

In other words, Metro is facing huge cuts, and the County is looking for input about the most fair, least disruptive way to make those cuts. They’re also looking for help developing strong implementation policies for future (fingers crossed) service additions.

When: Thursday, August 5th & Thursday, August 19th, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM
Where: Mercer Island Community Center: 8236 SE 24th Street, Mercer Island (You can take the 550.)
How much: Free (unless you count your tax dollars)

I didn’t mention this task force when it was formed earlier this year, mostly because I’m a member (as one of three rider representatives), and I try to keep my community involvement separate from this blog. In this case I’m making an exception, because the recommendations of the group (if they’re adopted by the council) are going to affect bus riders in every corner of the county.

The task force meets twice a month (schedule here), and there is time for public comment at the end of every meeting. If you can’t attend, you can find meeting materials and notes on the RTTF website.

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Rainier Valley Summer Streets
What: Rainier Valley’s version of the city’s Summer Streets series.

Come out and watch the Rainier Valley Heritage Parade then stay and play in the streets afterwards. The parade begins at 11 a.m. and lasts about an hour. After that, the streets open up for people to enjoy. Dine at local restaurants, make art, find out about urban gardening and learn how to fix your bike. Seattle Children’s is sponsoring a kid’s obstacle course and there will be skateboard demos with free helmet give-aways. There will also be cultural activities like learning how to write calligraphy and making star lanterns.

When: Saturday, August 21st, 11 AM – 3 PM
Where: Rainier Ave South, between South Brandon and South Alaska
How much: Free!

So going to this. Again.

The opposite of progress

From Tom Vanderbilt’s recent piece in Slate:

In Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays Greenberg, a drifting musician-turned-carpenter who’s getting over a nervous breakdown. He’s a needy and casually abusive schmuck, a socially awkward and obsessive crank. And if you need any more clues to the extent of his pathological loserdom, here’s one: He doesn’t drive.

[…]

Greenberg is just the most recent film in which a character’s non-automobility–whether for lack of a car or for lack of the ability to drive–is used for comic effect, whether as a metaphor for a deeper personality flaw or as a token of marginality and/or plain creepiness. As the humorist Art Buchwald once observed, “People are broad-minded. They’ll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn’t drive, there’s something wrong with him.”

We bus, train [ahem], and bike chicks beg to differ.