Image credit: Zoe Alexandra, used under Creative Commons license.
The first time I came to America I was 23 years old, and it always confused me why people were so shocked that I had never driven a car. Until I started to travel. Because as soon as you leave the major metropolitan areas, it can be amazing how un-pedestrian friendly most infrastructure is. The fact is that being carless in most of America is, without doubt, a major impediment to social inclusion and economic well-being. Without a car, you're basically a second class citizen. As a transplanted Brit, I need to be careful here. I learned from painful experience when I wrote about 5 things I hate about America, that many folks don't take too kindly to criticism from outsiders. (Never mind that I wrote 5 green things I love about America first, or that I acknowledged that my own homeland has at least as many faults and drawbacks.)
Automobile Mania Leaves Many Sidelined
But a curious yet provocative piece over at The Guardian has gotten me thinking about what it really means to be carless in the Land of Opportunity. Linh Dinn—who himself grew up in suburban Virginia—writes a fascinating essay/rant about America's automobile mania and those who cannot, for whatever reason, participate. He begins with an account of a horrific incident in South Carolina where a woman deliberately drove into a group of teenagers who would not get out of the road because she "wanted to knock some sense into them". This is, says Dinn, a symptom of a wider malaise:
"At that intersection, there are no sidewalks. All over America, there are many roads without sidewalks. Many communities are built just for the car. Lawns, often vast, encroach right to the curbs. America's 307 million people own about 150m cars. Entire blocks are reserved for parking garages. Walking on a road shoulders, one can feel like a vagrant or a prowling criminal."
Dependence on Cars Brings Attachment
Dinn's essay goes off on some interesting tangents, exploring everything from the mono-cultural blandness of the suburban megamall, to the inevitable emotional attachment to the automobile that comes when it is ones ticket to freedom and, often, sexual awakening.
Living now in rural North Carolina, the hegemony of the motor car is ever more apparent to me. It's rare that I see people walking down the grass verge on the road into town as cars come rushing by. Given the unpleasant experience it must be, I can only assume that most that do are doing so because they have to, not because they want to.
Is America's Oil Addiction an Accident of History?
I'm not writing about this to dump on America, or claim that Europe or anywhere else does it better. The fact is that American infrastructure developed in the age of the motorcar, while much of the rest of the world was originally built for the horse and cart. But given the fact that peak oil is looking like an ever more urgent reality—America would do well to recognize its own vulnerability and do something about it.
It's time we stopped thinking about sidewalks, bike paths, buses and trains as nice "add ons" for communities that can afford them. They are essential infrastructure for an inclusive society. And as unrest in North Africa and the Middle East has shown, if a society is not inclusive, it is ultimately not sustainable.
More on Livable Communities and a Pedestrian-Friendly World
Beautiful Chinese Pedestrian Bridge
The War on Cyclists and Pedestrians is Getting Ugly
More Highways Becoming Pedestrian Death Traps (Video)