Thursday, February 9, 2023

Child soldier in the war on cars


As you may have come to know I have increasingly become opposed to the car and its culture. Though I still use one, finding it impossible to function in my life in Saint Minneapolis without a car, I have tasted the dreams of cities that have eschewed the automobile at least in some important part. And when I reflect on all the happiest places I have been to in my life, they are curiously along this theme and centered on the demotion or absence of the car. My inclination in writing this is to say that going to Europe with my wife, the happiest of occasions in my life, opened my eyes to the wonders of carlessness, but in truth, I have been a soldier in the war on cars, in my heart, from my early childhood.

I loved riding my bike through a nearby school when I was only five or six years old and was aware of some kind of freedom in it, freedom of movement, freedom from danger, that I barely understood. Disneyland, quite nearly the only walkable part of my whole childhood, was quickly the ideal for the kind of world I wanted to live in, though held then as some kind of a child's fantasy. And as I became a teenager my interest in nature grew exponentially not merely, as I may have first thought, from my love of wild places, which indeed is strong, but also, perhaps equally as strongly, as a place of escape from the all-encompassing prison of road, asphalt, and driving life as I knew it. And while New York was a wonder to me when I came upon it at age 17, that was as much for the dazzling effect of its subway system and walkable density as it was for its wonders, food, and culture. And more than twenty years later when I went to Rome I found its amazing pleasures only had texture, meaning, and gravity in the context of its sometimes vigorous walkability.

I often watch videos and read books on this New Urbanism, along these themes of a better world without cars, and sometimes I get restless and impatient with the dawdling pace of the changes around me, and the low standards people accept and praise. My city, which I would give a walkability score of around 30 out of 100, is regularly on people's top ten lists for most walkable/bikeable North American cities, something that never fails to alarm me and inform me that everywhere must be pretty bad. If Saint Minneapolis is a 70, and New York is an 88, then surely Nice, France is a 112, and as much as I love Nice, France, there's still plenty of room for improvement there. 

Maybe walkability is a Kelvin scale?

But as much as I feel negative and doomed about so much of the pervasive car culture, there is also a part of me that does thrill at every bit of relief from it, and every small improvement. There is some delight in not only seeing my feelings finally expressed a little in the culture, in books and podcasts and YouTube videos, and even, occasionally, thrillingly, in bits of tangible urban design. As frustrated as I am, I also revel in every little path in the middle of a shopping district, every closed street, proper bike lane, widened sidewalk, or dense, walkable environment. And though it is still the minority, I am nevertheless thrilled when something in my town, or even someone else's, is built for people instead of cars.

Maybe all this is even more on my mind through this long Winter full of snow and ice everywhere, spending too much time indoors, looking out a bit longingly at a world that seems dangerously icy, and still ever so full of cars.

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