One less car: escaping the motorized wheel-cage prison

"Mom, why is America so ugly?"

From the mouths of babes come amazing insights. This one was offered tremulously from the back seat of a rental car in 1978 on our way from the airport after living six years in Germany. My son was seeing for the first time his native country. I could not put my finger on the answer at the time, but I too had wondered why in America, nearly everything we add to the topography seems to have an uglifying effect. Why can't we put in buildings that harmonize with the landscape as they do in much of Europe?

The answer finally dawned on me nearly twenty years later when I read an Atlantic Monthly Article entitled, Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler points out that after World War II, Americans made a mass collective consciousness decision to zone everything for the car. Americans gleefully threw out all efforts to create the kind of aesthetic public space that once graced the main streets of our small towns. In fact, we created a complex code of zoning laws that ruled them out. The idea was to get out of industrial areas of cities into sprawling suburbs. The codes allowed for commercial space along wide automobile arterials, which therefore became lined with garish shopping malls fronted by huge parking lots.

During the same period since World War II, quite a different process has occurred in a number of cities around the world, such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Singapore. These cities planned, and now manage, urban growth around transit systems. There is a central core of old city from which rail lines extend out in several directions like the spokes of a wheel. At each stop on the rail line, a small town center has grown up.

Imagine you live in one of those town centers. You probably have a fairly modest sized home or apartment integrated in a planned and artful manner, with others of variable, modest size. You have windows and balconies from which to view gardens, farms, green space all around, perhaps a castle on a hilltop. Leaving for work in the morning you walk out into a relatively car free world with pleasant sidewalks, fountains, shops and stores. People sit around talking or having coffee in sidewalk cafes. A half-mile walk takes you to the station where you wait maybe five minutes for the next train. After a ride of say fifteen or twenty minutes through green and open landscape you come to another town center, or perhaps the central core of the city, where you get off and walk a short distance to work.

By contrast, what is your life like in an American metropolis like Seattle? Maybe you live in a single family home with a little plot of yard and garden with a fence around it. Probably you have few occasions to meet neighbors face to face. Instead of spending evenings visiting with friends in a town center, you may watch television inside the walls of your house. Leaving for work in the morning involves locking yourself inside a little motorized wheel-cage and barreling frantically down an ugly commercial strip and up a ramp onto the freeway. If even one of the fifty thousand SUV's in front of you has an accident, you sit there for hours all stressed and anxious about being late for work.

The little cage you climb into every day is considered a necessity in this car culture. It is used, not only for getting to work, but for fulfilling virtually every human need from education to food to medical care, even for going to social events and, ironically, exercise clubs. And sadly this cage upon which you feel so dependent is not only a prison, it is a death trap. Statistics show you could very easily die in it or become maimed for life. It is expensive and probably absorbs a sizable chunk of your income. All the while it imprisons you, the car culture belches out clouds of lethal fumes that despoil the environment, lay waste the earth's limited supply of petroleum, and create disastrous global climate change.

Luckily for me, I gave up driving several years ago because my eyes are forty degrees misaligned. My life in the auto-oriented metropolis of Seattle is unusual. I had to earn a living. Now, in my retirement years, I fulfill all my needs without being dependent on a motorized wheel cage. However, I've learned a well-kept secret. The fastest, most enjoyable transportation system in Puget Sound is bike and bus. I go everywhere that way, even to our vacation cabin on Hood Canal. Although many Seattle streets don't have bike lanes, major arterials have sidewalks which are virtually bicycle freeways: there are few pedestrians. My bike is equipped with double panniers, so it can carry a week's groceries. Well, sometimes I don't bike/bus. Maybe I need something big, like a bag of lawn fertilizer from Lowe's Hardware. In that case I bus/walk with my collapsible shopping cart. Bus drivers will cheerfully let down the wheel chair ramp and hoist me, Mary-Poppins-like, up with my cart and parasol (in the likely event that it's raining.)

Once a car-culture prisoner friend asked me how much extra time I spend on transportation each week by not driving a car. I thought about that a moment. "None," I assured her. "I get most of my reading done on the bus and my exercise in on the bike. If I spent a lot of time driving around, I would need extra time for reading and exercise."

So maybe my lifestyle isn't for everyone. Maybe you wouldn't be caught dead riding a bike home on a dark, rainy winter night? What's an old grandma type doing loading a bike full of groceries onto the front of a bus anyway? It sounds like bad slapstick comedy, but I enjoy this life very much. I would never go back to the isolation of driving a car.

At this moment, Seattle is poised to escape the prison of the car culture in a manner perhaps more graceful than mine. We have enlightened city planners who are familiar with the world's great transit metropolises as well as with Kunstler's principles of New Urbanism. With input from the citizenry, a series of pedestrian friendly town centers has been planned along light rail lines extending out from a beautiful city center transit tunnel. It has been a struggle to change the collective consciousness of our car-oriented culture. But we have finally broken ground and have begun to build, slowly but almost surely, a transportation system that will provide a viable escape route for everyone wanting freedom from the prison of the car culture.[[In-content Ad]]