These spaces which our cars have taken over
“How do you keep yourself from just flooring it?”
Dad laughed at my question. “I guess you just get used to it.”
The one-way roadway begged me to go faster. SUVs on either side both faced the same direction. Overhanging branches created the impression of endless tunnel, with its unmarked asphalt speeding toward a singular vanishing point. Everything about the street, how wide it was, how straight and smooth and black, expected speed — except some tiny sign? The black-on-white lettering obviously lied. If I were driving my dream car, a Tesla Model S, I would rip this local autobahn from 0 to 60 in 3.1s. Even Dad’s Infiniti G20, a four-door sedan too-hot leather seats and a finicky AUX cord, deserved to seize the road. It felt ridiculous to plod along at 15 MPH.
Of course, I resisted my inner speed racer. It was my first time driving with my permit, and I felt uncomfortable operating such a large machine. In general, I preferred to walk or ride my bike. However, a bicycle doesn’t get very far in Webster Groves, the suburb of St. Louis where I grew up. There, the same roads which looked so inviting from the driver’s seat transform to uninviting hellscapes on a bicycle, and disappearing sidewalks next to five line Franken-streets made my own two feet the most unpleasant form of transportation available. I hated waiting for a ride. I hated other people’s podcasts. I wanted my own freedom. I thought that freedom meant a driver’s license and a car.
The reason I equated the two was the nature of the space I lived in. The car has so ingrained itself into our culture that we hardly bat an eye at the assumption made by double-door garages and employee-only parking spots: that everyone must have a car. To “go” is to drive. Where once commuters took crowded trains to work, they now enjoy a private cabin in their SUVs. Where children once would walk to school, a parent now must take a shift on car-pool duty. We have made these places that exclude those who do not drive, either because they aren’t old enough, can’t afford to, or choose not to. We have made these places that are roadlocked.
The roadlocked neighborhood is easily identified by several key characteristics, from which other problems spring. First, it has deficient walking paths. I do not mean it has no paths — although that is certainly the case in many places — or that its internal sidewalks are not serviceable. Rather, the roadlocked area is surrounded on all sides by highways or arterials, whose sidewalks are ugly and unpleasant. One feels out of place next to a 40 MPH river of aluminum. Indeed, one fears for one’s life. The sidewalk that connects a roadlocked place to other areas is an afterthought, built to satisfy the barest minimum of what a street should look like, so that in making walking technically possible, city planners may dedicate no more energy to those inconvenient individuals who do not drive. After all, they themselves are drivers. Who would want to walk?
Second, the transportation infrastructure focuses on personal vehicles at the expense of all other forms of transportation. A neighborhood may have footpaths in abundance, but without buses, railways, and protected bike lanes to augment them, its residents will feel that they should own a car regardless. If a roadlocked space has any non-car routes to speak of, they are afterthoughts like sidewalks. The buses are late due to traffic, and the trains run so infrequently that one’s own schedule serves the timesheet, not the other way around. The bike lanes, often shared with buses and prone to disappearing for some blocks, are so dangerous that only experienced cyclists dare to use them, and the lack of covered racks to lock up one’s bike makes the whole endeavor dependent on the weather. It’s much simpler to drive and not have to worry.
Finally, the grocery stores that serve a roadlocked space are far too big. One might think that this condition benefits consumers, who enjoy the choice of fifty kinds of Jiffy peanut butter, but in fact it serves the interest of the grocery chains. Logistics networks benefit from fewer points of sale, and a larger store provides more opportunities to advertise to shoppers, who must navigate a maze of sponsored products, ice cream by bananas, separate sections for organic — all on a circuitous route designed to be as long as possible. It’s exhausting. To stay sane, one relegates one day a week to the unpleasant task, so one ends up buying a whole week’s worth of food at a time. This is far too much to carry. Even if the sidewalks were Parisian and the biking lanes abounded, one would still have to drive just to eat.
Together, these characteristics ensure that roadlocked places are so inconvenient as to be uninhabitable without a car. The residents, who drive, have no incentive to change the space they live in, even while the problem festers. Shopping malls spring up which are inaccessible on foot. Urban sprawl ensures that endless highway projects will do nothing but make traffic worse. Carbon emissions due to transportation continue to climb. We can’t escape; the people love their cars.
Six years ago, I moved from Webster Groves to Chicago, Illinois for school. There, I experienced for the first time what spaces felt like when they weren’t so heavily dependent on the car. I got used to public transit networks built to serve the population as a whole, not just those who couldn’t afford to drive. Transit and bike paths provided not just alternate routes but, in many cases, better routes than roads. Countless times, my friends and I took the 55 to Garfield station, transferred to the Red Line, and got off at Cermak-Chinatown for dim sum and some late night boba, because it was quicker and easier than driving. We would catch the six bus to the river, near Magnificent Mile, and the South Shore Line to Indiana Dunes for the day. For exercise, a friend and I would jog out to the Point and back, or cycle on the Lakefront trail, traversing dedicated paths and pedestrian tunnels. Grocery shopping, though still a chore, could be done in frequent, shorter trips to Hyde Park Produce, up on 53rd Street. I developed a new expectation: my own two feet (and Google Maps) could get me where I wanted to go, and I could carry what I needed with me.
Thus, I have lost my dream of driving. Having glimpsed a world beyond the roadlocked suburb where I grew up, I dread the possibility of going back. I envy those New Yorkers with their subway system, and I pity Angelenos with their schedules ruled by traffic. Two years ago I moved to Baltimore for grad school, where I found a city somewhere in between St. Louis and Chicago, on the roadlocked spectrum. The sidewalks are narrow but almost always present. The grocery stores are large, but now they offer free delivery. There are even protected bike lanes beginning to appear, like fairies no one quite believes in. I wish they would build more.
Recently, I visited the suburbs in Maryland to house-sit for a family. I used their car to commute, as one of them does, into downtown Baltimore, and I shopped at grocery stores the size of airport hangars, near their home. I even jogged along the Baltimore-Annapolis trail starting from their house, a route which necessitated running on the roadside in two separate places. (I assumed the sidewalk would connect their enclave on the Severn to the trail. It did not.) I enjoyed the water, the nature, and their beautiful home, but in the end, the experience reinforced the idea borne from four years in Chicago.
I do not want to own a car. Ever. Not even a Tesla Model S.
In looking at places as either roadlocked or not, I have come to view the car as ugly and unnatural. It preys upon our cities like a parasitic worm inhabiting the small intestine. Voracious, it consumes the avenues. Unsatisfied, it gobbles up the undigested promenades and puts up strip malls in their place. We tell ourselves, “It’s so convenient.” Then we waste away on interstates staring at red taillights, trying to alleviate our boredom. Our long commutes are deathly numbing, but at least we have our podcasts.
Meanwhile, the places we inhabit are no longer built for us but for hulks of metal many times our size. The reason that a local road with a 15 MPH speed limit looks more like a race track than a neighborhood is obvious. It was designed that way. We believe the car represents personal freedom, but we have fashioned spaces where the freedom not to drive is dead.
Ford have mercy.