Learning things about myself

Over the Christmas holiday, my mother and I “drove to Iowa” (that’s what my dad calls driving out to his sister’s house in Aurora because that’s what the signs say on the route “To Iowa”) for a short visit. We were both surprised by how little traffic there was and we got to talking about driving generally. In the course of the conversation, I realized that as soon as I got my driver’s license, I started looking for ways to avoid situations where it was necessary to drive. Always letting someone else drive helped, but I disliked even being a passenger. It was boring at best; frustrating and time-consuming most of the time, and downright scary often. Talking to my mom, in the car, on the tollway, I realized that I have been trying to order my life so that a car was a sometime thing since I was old enough to use one.

Since I have started commuting to work on my bike (as much as possible. I’m not terribly confident of bad weather riding yet), I’ve become more aware that it’s not just driving which irritates me, and it’s not just being a passenger that irritates me. It’s the dominance. I was out with friends a few weeks ago and we were listing all the places in Chicago that you can’t get into easily from the sidewalk. Where you have to go into the parking garage to get inside–like the Trader Joe’s in the North/Clyborn shopping disaster. It’s infuriating and it’s dangerous.And on a metaphysical level, it emphasizes the wrong things.

We have a leading pedestrian interval built into a busy intersection near my home; that is, all auto traffic lights are red for a few seconds, when the pedestrian walk signal initially turns “go”. For the first week or two, all cars stopped and the throngs pedestrians had a nice safe leading interval to cross. Now, cars who are waiting for the green start making their right turns as soon as the pedestrian light changes and cross traffic left turns keep going after the light is red. You see? We have this idea that the cars are the most important thing out there. Even if it’s raining on the pedestrian; even if she’s pushing a baby carriage; even if she’s on crutches or just slow walking. Even if the automobile traffic has a red light and cannot legally proceed through the intersection.

In Chicago now, thanks to Mayor Daly’s last patronage push, we can’t even eliminate a parking space if it will make an intersection safer or more efficient without paying in the neighborhood of a million dollars to some contractor (I can’t find this source anymore, but here‘s some good criticism of the parking meter leases).

This week, I learned a new term for this deference to automobile traffic: Carnage Culture. That sums it up nicely. Here’s some stories from NYC and some from Chicago and from LA.

I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls. I’m not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George: that automobiles had no business to be invented.

It isn’t that I think no-one should drive ever. Or that I don’t drive ever or take cabs ever (in fact, I’ll be taking a cab to a meeting in about an hour). However, I see significant, troubling effects of building cities and living in spaces where the baseline assumption is that we’ll be traveling around them, alone, in cars. I am very happy I’m able to live my life not moving around in cars, but it’s scary out there on foot.

And half the time, I can’t find the way in, which is just weird, people.

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