What Have We Sacrificed For Transit Independence?

Imagine I told you there was a revolutionary transportation idea that would give everyone the freedom to go anywhere, relatively cheaply and easily.  A way for everyone to feel the thrill American Independence in a new and exciting way, making the commute an enjoyable experience, and the cross country adventure a tangible reality.

Now imagine I told you that you could have all this, but there would be a cost.  Your city would be completely restructured to house this new form of transit… in fact, everything about your city would change… neighborhoods would fall to poverty, public space would turn to open lots, and the ability for people to move safely through their urban centers and even suburban neighborhoods would be compromised.

Maybe you would give these things up for a transportation solution that would allow you to move about your town, city and region as you pleased.  Maybe you could deal with the degradation of your hometown in favor of your personal desire to go where you want, when you want.  But there’s one more catch.

To experience this luxury, 40,000 people would have to die.  About 1,600 of those would be children under the age of 15.  Surely, this would cause you balk at the idea of this new transit construct.  Your sense of logic would likely take over, causing you to think twice about the consequences of this revolutionary way to move about your world.  You would think about your safety and the security of the ones you love, realizing that no level of convenience could justify this carnage.

By now you know where I’m going with this, and by now you’ve likely already thought of 5 reasons why the logic I’ve referenced here is simplistic and nonsensical.  After all, it is in our nature to defend what we know, to justify the choices we have woven into the fabric of our everyday life.

The American obsession with the automobile has opened our world to the magnificence of personal transportation.  In a country where our desire to express our free will overpowers virtually any alternative, it is fitting that our cars, our trucks and yes, our coveted SUVs have taken center stage in the definition of who we are for nearly a century.  The future of our hometowns, the safety of our families, the infrastructure we cannot maintain… all of these considerations have taken a “backseat” to our unwavering addiction… the 2500 pound vehicles of mobility we inhabit every day.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com

Let me take a step back for a moment.  Believe it or not, this is not an indictment of the American automobile.  We live in a country built on free choice, and who am I to question this American right to personal freedom?

Rather, my motive here is to ask everyone who’s gotten this far without clicking the “x” in the top right hand corner of your screen to have a conversation with yourself.  My hope is that anyone who is reading this stops, just for a moment, and really questions what we have given up for the proliferation of one of the most iconic symbol of American freedom.  It’s not the American flag that sets us apart from the rest of the world… it’s the automobile.  We drive more than any other country in the world despite growing data that shows that this fact likely has more detrimental long term consequences than positive ones.  Here’s why we need to ask ourselves… was it worth it?

In 2014, CityLab featured a piece that poignantly portrays the hidden cancer that is parking spaces in our urban areas.  The effort by cities across the country to better serve the automobile has resulted in massive parking lots and wide streets with fast moving cars.  These vehicular additions have made our cities unattractive, uninteresting and frankly unsafe for anyone who isn’t traveling inside a ton of steel and 4 wheels.  Where cities used to be places where pedestrians and transit riders could leave their cars at home (or not bother with them at all) and enjoy the fruits of their urban paradise on foot, an unimaginable percentage of downtown space is now devoted to moving or parking cars at the tune of an enormous cost to the taxpayer.  Furthermore, they have degraded the fabric of our urban centers so heavily that walkability and pedestrian access has become the exception, not the norm.  The spirit of pride and strength in our cities has suffered for decades, as people have lost touch with their urban centers, experiencing them either from their automotive bubbles, or in their rear view mirrors as they motor down the highway to their suburban homes.

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Speaking of suburban living, we cannot forget to mention that the average one way commute for Americans today is 27 minutes long, an all time high.  The sprawl that was initially enabled by the automobile has continued to grow, as population maps spread outward like an event horizon of residents moving farther and farther away from a common center.  As we add miles to our commutes, the stress and wear on our already crumbling automobile infrastructure builds, causing an even greater gap between what we use and what we can afford.  Whether we like it or not, we have already created a road and bridge system in this country that is completely unsustainable with the current financial allocations.  As our roads and bridges crumble, our federal budget for repairs is less than 50% of what it needs to be to bring our roads back up to a safe and usable standard.  Most Americans have no clue what it costs to maintain a bridge, an 80,000 car-per-day highway, or even a city street.  I’ll clue you in, it’s really expensive.

And how about our personal budgets?  Americans spend a little over 19% of their income on transportation, which is about 32% more than we spend on food.  And what about those in the outlying suburbs?  These folks spend about a quarter of their paycheck on transportation, while their “location-efficient” counterparts, specifically people that live close to their work and other practical amenities, spend only 9%.

We are quick as a society to call out the poor man walking down the street who has a cell phone, or the woman who buys potato chips with food stamps… yet every day we climb into our cars and drive on a road infrastructure we cannot afford to maintain.  But of course it’s not “our fault,” it’s someone else’s misuse of resources right?  Well, probably partially, but the point is that everyone is guilty of enjoying a luxury we cannot afford, none greater than our ability to go where want want, when we want.

And how about safety?  In the above example, I noted that over 40,000 people died in auto accidents last year.  That’s more deaths than from guns.  That’s more than colon or prostate cancer and about the same number as breast cancer.  It’s more than three times the number of deaths each year from Heroin, one of the fastest-growing opioid killers in our country.  Furthermore, over 4 million Americans are injured in auto accidents every year, more than the population of Manhattan and Queens combined.  If auto accidents were a disease, it would be an epidemic.

Likely, most Americans see automobile deaths and injuries as a “necessary evil,” a sort of acceptable risk that comes with having complete transportation freedom.  The question is, how many deaths and severe injuries have to occur before our roads are deemed unsafe?  Traffic deaths in 2016 were up 6% from the previous year as the number of miles driven in the United States continues to rise.  As high-speed roads and highways become more congested, even the latest and greatest automotive safety features may not be able to keep pace.

The key misnomer about automobile danger is that it’s “someone else’s fault.”  It’s  generally easier for the mind to dismiss an alarming statistic if the person executing the risk behavior feels that they are in control, and that the statistics don’t apply to them.  “It’s all the drunk drivers/teen drivers/texters, etc.”  of course, the thorn in this argument is the fact that these high-risk groups share the road with everyone, even you.  With that said, efforts to make our streets safer by slowing traffic and adding infrastructure amenities that reduce speed or the chances of driver injury are often met with tremendous resistance.  It is a telling story of our obsession with speed when a statistically safer system is trumped by our desire to make it to our destination a few minutes earlier.

So why do we defend our reliance on the automobile?  Why cast aside any thought of making our roads safer for drivers and more inviting for pedestrians?  The truth likely lies in a much bigger picture, speaking from a social perspective.  It’s not the car itself, it’s what it allows us to do.

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We as Americans are willing to support an infrastructure we cannot afford, to purchase a vehicle that costs a quarter of our budget, to waste an hour each day of our lives, and risk the safety of ourselves and our loved ones, all for a simple reason that nobody wants to talk about… we don’t like being around people we don’t know, and we will go to ungodly lengths to ensure we don’t have to.

The car is our escape… not just from the rigors of work and family, but from the fear most of us hate to admit we have when we board public transit, or walk down a busy street.  It allows those of us who are fortunate enough to afford a vehicle the choice to escape our urban centers where people might not look, talk or think like us.  We not only have bubbles for homes, we have bubbles to get us there, solidifying our desire to avoid any situations that might be uncomfortable or contradict our neatly-tied bow of a life.

Often, people speak of our country as a place of diminishing values.  Rap music, violence on TV, mobile technology, video games and the internet are common scapegoats for this supposed degradation of society.  I would argue instead that our extreme desire to escape situations, people and encounters that might cause us to rethink our oversimplified views of the world and how it works, and the infrastructure we’ve created to make this desire a reality, is perhaps the most damaging element in our country today.  We have created a system whereby, if you are fortunate enough, you can choose to live in a place where, quite simply, you can create your own reality, no matter how much it may differ from the truth.

The car is not the enemy.  The highway is not the cancer of our society.  Rather they are reflections and manifestations of our insatiable desire to minimize the chance of any enounter with other people, specifically the ones that might not look or act like us.  We defend this desire so blindly, so fervently that we are willing to build and utilize the most inefficient and unsafe system of moving people around, and defend its existence with everything we have.

As always, I’m painting with the broadest of brushes.  I would never advocate for a car-free United States, nor would I believe any form of mass transit would likely come close touching the popularity of the car.  I know that most of the people who are still reading this have little choice in their transit lives… it’s the car or nothing.  I know that dense urban areas are typically not conducive to family life (though the reason for this is partially everything I’ve mentioned here).  I fully appreciate that so many of us don’t know the high-functioning, efficient examples of public transit around the world that make streets more inviting and urban centers more appealing.

This is simply a reminder, one we don’t often consider, of the enormous temporal, financial and societal sacrifices we make to ensure that we live where we want and encounter only who we want, when we want.  The question we must ask ourselves as we continue to sprawl toward our havens of homogeneity is, simply this… is it worth it?