Oct 29, 2011
Did I ever tell you that while in college, before I specialized in religious studies, I was on my way to becoming a professional geographer. I would have become an urban planner had I stayed the course! This is someone who analyzes space, building-codes, traffic flow and ultimately designs cities, towns, and even residential subdivisions and shopping malls. So I have special sensitivities to how towns and neighborhoods are laid out. In general I like European cities because they are decidedly people friendly.
Let me tell you about America, at least the part of America where I live. Without a car, life is almost dysfunctional. The kind of car you drive defines you. It’s your status symbol. The better the car you drive the more respect people show you. In certain jobs, even my own priestly job, you can get paid better if you have a better car! A car has a lot value in of America. This week I’ve flown from California to Arizona to perform a wedding, so I am without my car for the next few days. Not having a car means that I can hardly live. It’s hard to eat. The nearest restaurant from my hotel is 4 kms away. The nearest food store is 5 kms away. There is no metro and the bus service is so limited as to be useless except for the busiest hours. I suppose I could call a taxi, but it would take 30 mins to arrive and cost over $20 for a single trip to a store. Most of America is built on car culture. Drive a nice car, life is nice. Drive a not so nice car, life is not so nice. Drive no car, no life. This week I am suffering from car separation anxiety.
In Southern California I live near a small town about a hundred kilometers away from the Los Angeles area. Unfortunately my small town is one of the worst places I know, yet it is typical of most towns in this part of the world. The town is spread out along a wide highway that runs through the center of town. Our poor town is bifurcated by this highway. Cars and trucks roar through this town all day and all night at over 65 kms an hour. The shops on one side of the street are disconnected from the shops on the other side and so are the shoppers. The town is almost 10 kms long, so one side of town has no cohesion to the other end of town. A pedestrian on one side of the highway has no relationship with a pedestrian on the other side. In a car you can move easily across the highway or from one end of town to the other, but without the car you cannot function in this town at all. No pedestrians cross the street walking to shop on one side and then to the other. Everyone moves through this town in a car or truck! Walking anywhere in this town other than from your car to an immediate shop is unpleasant. Every part of this town is designed for car or truck movement. And because everything is designed for the personal car or truck, the existing local bus service is so limited as to be useless. Without a critical mass of users there is no way to expand the service to make it useful. My town is not made for people. It is for cars and trucks. There is no town center, no focus of commerce or community relationships.
Nor has my town any rail or bus service to the Los Angeles area. One gets to or leaves my town only by a personal vehicle. It is impossible, for example, for me to drive from home outside of town, park my car and take a train into the Los Angeles area. And even if I could reach the Los Angeles area the existing public transportation system is poor to the point of being dysfunctional. Only the poor use public transportation in my part of America.
And here’s another aspect of car culture. Driving a car makes you fat. A major reason why so many Americans are obese is because they do not walk. They are forced to drive because few goods and services are within walking distance. No one walks even to buy milk and bread. And because no one walks the streets are empty. We bank from our cars at drive through ATMs. We eat from our cars at drive thru coffee shops and fast food restaurants, we can even buy milk and bread at drive through grocery stores.
Americans actually park their cars inside their homes. They enter their cars from inside their houses and then drive to places with an enclosed parking garage. They never have to leave their car and actually be in the sunshine. So here I am for the next three days in Phoenix Arizona without car, forced to walk. I will have no life. But, ah yes, I will get thin!! Lol