Americans Shouldn't Have to Drive, but the Law Insists On It
July 9, 2019 7:50 AM   Subscribe

In America, the freedom of movement comes with an asterisk: the obligation to drive. It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency upon the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it.
posted by xingcat (62 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great to see this all laid out in one place so coherently. Personally I lived in a few different places in the greater NYC metro area - the first a walkable community with transit options, and then later more traditional suburbs where driving was not only really necessary, but strongly encouraged. People would quite literally do a double take if they saw you on foot, and ask what was wrong.

It made a very strong impression on me at a young age, I was much more free in the city. Later as a young, poor worker living in a semi-urban area but having no way to get to my job with transit, watching a good portion of my pay be allocated to owning and insuring a vehicle I was compelled to own was another lesson. (It's a trap!)

It's all a crying shame in so many ways; financially and, as only a real zealot can claim, spiritually. Walking is essential to humanity.
posted by pilot pirx at 8:05 AM on July 9 [20 favorites]


I can't drive right now (badly arthritic right knee), and I keep running into this.

Our apartment building had both washers (for 40 units!) break down, and they just took it all out as too expensive to keep running, besides, over by the supermarket (3/4ths of a mile away) there's a laundromat. (Thankfully there's at least a bus one can take,b ut I end up using a Lyft to get back home with the folded laundry especially in bad weather.)

In the Northern NJ area, there's a reason my area is in the middle of the NJT Summer Of Hell: due to 'repairs', the train I'd take to work is running to goddamn Hoboken for rush hour, then you need to take the PATH (already over capacity) to NYC, then I'd need to walk across the Eye of Sauron World Trade Center rotunda and hope the elevators are working to get to the subway... or do what I do now and get to work at 7:30 AM (for a 9 AM start time) by taking a train that goes into NYC.

And people keep telling me "if it's so bad, drive". And I hear it and I think, Wow, my cane would look just great shoved down your throat...
posted by mephron at 8:12 AM on July 9 [21 favorites]


I grew up in upstate South Carolina and in my youth walking to work or using the (terrible) bus system was socially shameful. I remember feeling intense embarrassment just for...walking on a sidewalk next to a roadway which some would describe as a 5-6 lane highway but in Greenville was just like, a road.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:39 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


This is the biggest reason I moved to the giant city I live in. We complain about our transit system (and rightly so) but my god it's better than wondering all the time if this is the day that a child will amble into the street in front of me, or if I'll flip over a guardrail in an attempt to avoid getting sideswiped by a semi. Or worse, that I'll lose my attention and cause a tragedy.

An added bonus is that I spend a lot more time in proximity to the same things. It's no longer normal for me to go 10-100 miles to do a thing. I like that. I get that it's not for everyone, but it's really nice. I also understand that the things I'm near are very very different from the things that are available in other parts of the country. If I had to move away and to a place where I couldn't easily walk to everything I needed, I'd move to a place where I could commute by horse. That's how done I am with cars.

Risk is something that humans are Very Bad at assessing. Mary Douglas did some great pioneering work in the area. One of the reasons we don't culturally view cars as insanely dangerous is because we come in contact with them very very frequently. Another reason is the need for car use. Check out Risk and Culture: an essay on the selection of technical and environmental dangers.
posted by bilabial at 8:56 AM on July 9 [24 favorites]



I grew up in upstate South Carolina and in my youth walking to work or using the (terrible) bus system was socially shameful. I remember feeling intense embarrassment just for...walking on a sidewalk next to a roadway which some would describe as a 5-6 lane highway but in Greenville was just like, a road.


Same here, although it was in a major city in Kentucky. It was so embarrassing and shameful that I bought a car in my late 20s despite never honestly wanting to drive or have the financial burden of one. I just got rid of it, and I am happier and healthier, but I swear to god I would get questions every week about when I was going to start driving until I just finally broke down and bought a car. Wouldn't you know that during the time I was driving the city made a huge push to revamp the transit system to be more "progressive." And my back got fucked up for a while in a wreck (the very thing I wanted to avoid!). And now no one cares about my not having a car because more and more people are starting to bike or take ride-shares. Guh.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:04 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


As someone who grew up in NC but has spent the last decade in NYC, I recently had a conversation with my mother that encapsulates our different views on driving and car culture. I was visiting my mom in NC and her neighbor was having a party that she was planning on going to. This neighbor, whose house backs up to my mom's house on the block behind her, is literally close enough that they could have a conversation from their respective decks or toss a ball back and forth. As my mom prepared to leave, she asked my sister to move her car so that she could back out of the garage. Gobsmacked I was like, "mom it would take literally take you longer to drive than to just walk around the corner. Why would you drive when you could walk?" She turned to me, befuddled and near disgust, and said, "No, why would you walk when you could drive?" And therein lies the problem. It's hard to argue with people's fundamental beliefs when they have never even considered the alternative.
posted by greta simone at 9:16 AM on July 9 [29 favorites]


Let's not forget that the highway and road system is first a massive Logistics system that makes our modern lives possible. Even "farm to fork" presupposes it's presence It is noteworthy that Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway system with DOD money. A modern Supermarket can be emptied in less than a day during an emergency. Think of all the other examples of the logistics of daily life that would cease without the road system. The frivolous and wasteful components are merely a spin-off of the system.
posted by shnarg at 9:22 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


The examples in the article are all about personal, not commercial, car usage.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:29 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


The examples in the article are all about personal, not commercial, car usage.

From TFA:

It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:33 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


shnarg: It is noteworthy that Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway system with DOD money.

I was reading about the financing of early railroads recently, and it seems like Europe got a government funded rail systems from the 1870s on because European governments were preparing for war, while the U.S. got a government-funded road system in the 1950s because of the Cold War. It's almost like the transportation situation today is the result of the coincidence of war fears and the predominant technology of the moment.

It's amazing how quickly driving was able to become a necessary indication of adulthood and full citizenship in our culture. Nice to see that attitude slowly fading here and there.
posted by clawsoon at 9:50 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


God, the shame, yes, of being seen just walking around. I also grew up in NC and it was bizarre and racist as fuck, this core belief that owning and using a car, instead of walking around, was just morally better. The thing the Upper Class does.

It's really awful. I always wondered if it was intentionally produced...this social view.
posted by odinsdream at 9:57 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I've always loved walking, and walked to/from school my whole time from kindergarten onward. In Denver, weather can get cold/icy/snowy in the winter - and that was my *favorite*. I was forever turning down rides from well-meaning mothers of friends "Are you SURE you don't want a ride?"
I didn't drive until I was 27, using my feet, transit, bicycle, or the occasional shared ride or taxi. When I moved to California, I HAD to learn to drive - or go almost nowhere, and have no access to a supermarket.
I long to live somewhere I could walk to everything I need for daily living.
posted by dbmcd at 10:11 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I was reading about the financing of early railroads recently, and it seems like Europe got a government funded rail systems from the 1870s on because European governments were preparing for war, while the U.S. got a government-funded road system in the 1950s because of the Cold War.

And I think this really makes the case, right? America is a road-centric country because the government decided it should be back in the 50s. The long-haul shipping and passenger travel that is currently routed over the highways could have been handled by rail, but the folks in charge of the purse strings -- from the President on down to Robert Moses -- made the decision to invest in high-speed road corridors instead.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:22 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Bear in mind that 80 years of technological progress lay between those decisions as well, not to mention a couple of World Wars that showed whether rails or roads might be more useful in a large-scale military context.
posted by Etrigan at 10:28 AM on July 9


The neighborhood I grew up in in Milwaukee was ripped apart because of highways that were never built. We got on without a car through most of the 70s and 80s, but in the ghetto, that means long waits for crappy bus service and (as we found out after my aunt got a car and we could drive to Cub Foods), really gross and overpriced groceries in our area, among other poor services. Walking could be dangerous, as a lot of walk lights seemed awfully short to me, a healthy teen on the track team at school, and biking was more dangerous, because there were no dedicated bike lanes. And yes, even among us poor folk, if you didn’t have a car? Damn near the bottom of the totem pole socially.

I live in NYC now, and while the subway system is a garbage fire of incompetence and graft, and pedestrians and bikers here are in danger from poor traffic planning and bad drivers, one doesn’t need a car to live like an adult. Hardly anyone in my friend group, even the ones with kids, has a car. They rent cars only when out of town. I still don’t know how to drive.
posted by droplet at 10:28 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Now that we've laid all this out can we stop blaming individuals who do have cars for not being pure of heart enough to stop using them?
posted by bleep at 10:29 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I'd need to walk across the Eye of Sauron World Trade Center rotunda and hope the elevators are working to get to the subway

I'm staying a few nights a week in Greenville, Jersey City, and WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING when they put the PATH trains literally as far as possible from the subway.

Makes me not even want to head into the city.
posted by mikelieman at 10:30 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I'm staying a few nights a week in Greenville, Jersey City, and WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING when they put the PATH trains literally as far as possible from the subway.

"Well, we have this shopping stuff here, might as well figure out a way to make it work for us."

It swear it wasn't that far before the Great Maddening Of Manhattan happened. It's like they somehow managed to shift it all.
posted by mephron at 10:45 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I didn't grow up in NC, but I live there now. Before I moved to my current house, I looked on a map and was excited to see that it's "walking distance" to a bunch of stuff including groceries, a movie theater, a bus stop to useful places, and a library. I looked forward to walking to all of these things.

After I moved in, I quickly realized my street is not walkable unless I want to fear for my life every time I walk on it. It's downright hostile to pedestrians. It's an extremely narrow two-way street with no sidewalks. The speed limit is 25, but everyone ignores that. Although as a residential street one would think pedestrians could just walk at the edge of people's yards, most of them have drainage ditches and there's really nowhere to walk that doesn't have you in the street, where you risk getting clipped by a side view mirror or worse.

The city I live in is huge and spread out and has lots of amenities, but it's the sort of place where most people can't walk anywhere good from their home even if they want to. It's really frustrating.
posted by bananana at 10:50 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


not to mention a couple of World Wars that showed whether rails or roads might be more useful in a large-scale military context.

With motor vehicle collisions having caused the deaths of around as many people as World War Two did, that's an interesting thought. What's the military context of transportation planning now?
posted by asperity at 10:51 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Yes. I moved to NC from Philadelphia last year, and the racial elements of car culture are astounding. After a couple months here, I stopped biking to work because a thin line of paint isn't going to do anything to protect me against a 2-ton tank barreling down a residential street at 45 mph. (Bike lanes weren't always great in Philly, but traffic in Center City crawls at 10-15 mph, which is the difference between an accident and a fatality for a cyclist.)

Transit is almost as bad. I take the bus now, about a half-mile from my house, which supposedly runs every 30 minutes. Sounds manageable -- except the actual arrival time can vary by up to 20 min either way, meaning you could be waiting for the bus for 50 minutes at a stretch. Speaking of buses, last year, my clinic social worker suggested giving out free bus passes/vouchers to our patients to reduce no-shows. Administration told her that's not worth it because "no one rides the bus." Except, I ride the bus, and the melanin content of the bus (riders and drivers) far exceeds that of the C-suite execs who have reserved parking right outside the medical center, so yeah I know exactly what you're saying when you say "no one rides the bus."
posted by basalganglia at 10:57 AM on July 9 [26 favorites]


I live in Minneapolis which is supposedly the most bike-friendly city in the US but that’s just bullshit. Sure, people ride their bikes here but it’s always seen as a hobby or choice. Bikers have to be millitant here and I swear everyone who commutes via bike runs a blog about it or uses it as the focus of their lifestyle. It’s really just a means of commuting. Well except for the silent commuters aka day-laborers etc riding big box mountain bikes because they have no other options.
I also used to live in Amsterdam. That is a bike-friendly city. Cities like Utrecht are actually closing freeways in favor of bikes. The US needs to stop pretending and take actual steps if they want people bike or use transit because right now we really don’t.
posted by misterpatrick at 11:02 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


What's the military context of transportation planning now?

Trains are useful if the rails are already in place and in territory that is 100 percent controlled (including the sky) by friendly forces, and even then, for materiel rather than personnel. Essentially, trains are useful for getting tanks and conexes from home base to home air base. Everything else is trucks. I took a bus from home station (Knoxville, Tennessee) to Fort Dix, New Jersey, the last time I went anywhere.
posted by Etrigan at 11:06 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I live in Minneapolis which is supposedly the most bike-friendly city in the US but that’s just bullshit.

Yeah, I lived there and found its bike-friendliness to be way overhyped. A huge chunk of its bike infrastructure was just sidewalks that were declared bike routes. Its density is way too low, its population way too car-dependent, and most of even its residential streets too wide and fast for it to be truly bike friendly. When I moved to Philadelphia, I felt way safer and happier biking around town - even though everybody asked how disappointed I was to have left the "most bike friendly" city in the US.
posted by entropone at 11:10 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Now that we've laid all this out can we stop blaming individuals who do have cars for not being pure of heart enough to stop using them?

I don't think we ever started doing that.

The article's point, too, is that the behavior (widespread car use) is rooted in policy and design decisions. Not just people's independent choices. I think it lets individuals off the hook and places the blame on established structures.

That means that we can build ourselves out of this crisis. We can write new policies, and build cities, towns, and infrastructure that support something better.
posted by entropone at 11:14 AM on July 9 [13 favorites]


I mean this piece is completely correct but at this point I've totally given up that we'll be able to change anything. The changes proposed in the article are laughable in how unrealistic they are. Even the American left has been totally coopted by the interests of older wealthy homeowners, and if you think the right would stand for an attack on single family zoning and car centric regional design you are out of your mind. There would be literal riots.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:26 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Though there's also the problem of people and governments shrugging at the idea of building something better because "everybody drives." So, well.

Where possible, it's still always useful for us to consider whether we have options other than driving a car/SUV to get where we're going on any given day, and use those options when we can, demonstrating by our presence that it's possible. If it's not possible, safe, or comfortable, we can take the time to contact our local governments to ask for change.

And everybody can be pure of heart enough to put their goddamn phones in the glove compartment while driving. Please.
posted by asperity at 11:26 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I purposely moved to my current city so I could become a bike commuter and use my bike for 90% of my trips around my town. There's only two things I find terrifying about my current transportation use. One is travelling by car at high rates of speed on highways, especially two lane ones, and the other is the average driver behind the wheel of the average US battletank/SUV.
I have to remind myself daily it's not that people are idiots, it's the vehicles that make them into idiots, encased in solid steel, looking out through tinted windows with window pillars in the way, music blaring, cell phones ringing.
Yesterday's ride saw me looking at two potential accidents with senior types not paying attention. For all of that, I'm extremely grateful to be able to ride safely most of the time and not have to use a car.
posted by diode at 12:20 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I need my phone for maps and I need maps to get me where I have to go. Unwinding all of the reasons I have to get to these places would go back to Stone Age hunter gathering which I'm not opposed to per se and it will all come to pass in the fullness of climate change but in the meantime I'm sorry I have to get to work and spending 3 hours a day on various trains, I tried it and it wasn't sustainable for me.
posted by bleep at 12:23 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


People are trying. What's been happening in Madrid has been heartening. Barcelona is working to reclaim the streets from cars. The Netherlands know what they're doing, and Paris is starting the fight against cars. There's a model here we can follow in the US, and people are starting to notice.

New York is slowly building out bike lanes, and on a good day they are only half filled with cars. San Francisco has finally realized that an unprotected bike lane is just another way to say "car loading zone," so there's now an effort to, slowly, build actual car-free bike lanes in some areas, even if it takes away vehicle lanes.

But the thing that gives me hope is e-bikes. They don't entirely make up for single-family zoning and car-centric suburbs, but they're the closest thing that does. They're selling like hotcakes in Europe, to say nothing of China. San Francisco is trying to (modulo a lawsuit from Lyft, it's complicated) permit 10,000 shared e-bikes on the streets, which means more safety in numbers and more riders inclined to support streets for people, not cars, the next time a safety project is derailed with cries of "but my precious parking spaces." E-bikes don't try to shame people into not driving. They don't follow the usual public transit pitch of "we know this is massively inconvenient, but trust us, it's better." They just provide what is, for many people and many trips, a better option. They're the next step in the war on cars.
posted by zachlipton at 12:38 PM on July 9 [18 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. You can just make your points on their own, don't frame them as being about a person in the thread.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:49 PM on July 9


Though there's also the problem of people and governments shrugging at the idea of building something better because "everybody drives." So, well.

I see this getting pretty twisted around, too, to give it a fake justice angle: "Trying to shift transit modes away from cars is bad news for the working class just trying to get by who need their cars." That may be true some places, but in NYC (where I live, where I hear this a lot in conversations around things like congestion pricing), the average car-owning household has twice the income of a car-free household.

Building and allowing public space for public transit and for public safety is good for the young, the old, the poor, the working class. It's a crucial matter of justice.
posted by entropone at 1:00 PM on July 9 [14 favorites]


By the way, comparing the walking experience of anywhere I've lived in the US to Europe is astonishing. I've lived in NC, MA, PA and MN, in various cities, and none of them are what I'd even remotely describe as walkable compared to pretty much anywhere I've been in Europe.
posted by odinsdream at 1:09 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I live in Philadelphia, and it is incredibly walkable. Moreso than even NYC.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:17 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I see this getting pretty twisted around, too, to give it a fake justice angle: "Trying to shift transit modes away from cars is bad news for the working class just trying to get by who need their cars."

Not to mention that car ownership is an immense financial burden in itself. If working class people didn't have to own a car, they could stretch their income a lot further.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:23 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


I went to grad school in a very bus and bike unfriendly city without having a car, and the thing that made it possible to do any non-grocery-store shopping, you guessed it, was Amazon. And even the grocery store was a) only because I had the luxury to scout out a place that was decently walkable from the store and b) it was the only store available to me. If I wanted the fancier store or something they didn't have, it was a very long, hot walk with whatever you could carry, a long and unpredictable bus trip and a medium walk, or calling a cab. So even my choice/ability to not have a car was subsidized by perhaps equally capitalist choices.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:24 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I see this getting pretty twisted around, too, to give it a fake justice angle: "Trying to shift transit modes away from cars is bad news for the working class just trying to get by who need their cars." That may be true some places, but in NYC (where I live, where I hear this a lot in conversations around things like congestion pricing), the average car-owning household has twice the income of a car-free household.

You're right, but isn't it inherent in the nature of congestion pricing that the most price-sensitive drivers, the people most likely to say "yeah I can't/won't pay that" and not drive, will be the poorest? They may be relatively better off than non-drivers, and maybe that's justified if you can actually use the funds and decreased congestion to deliver massive, sweeping benefits to non-drivers (huge increases in public transit, dedicated bus lanes, etc...), but it still always feels like too much like "taking the roads from the lower-middle-class and selling faster traffic-free roads to the rich" for me.
posted by zachlipton at 1:39 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Thinking about some of the posts up-thread, about the shame of being visible while walking/bicycling...

I am a woman who has always lived in suburbs or small cities, places where it's impractical to go anywhere if you don't drive, where when you go somewhere without a car you are a weirdo and there's this constant uneasiness. Always on edge, waiting for the next catcalling yahoo in their car, who comes swooping down upon you to make sure you know how vulnerable you are, masked by their vehicle so you can't even see who they are to perhaps name and shame them.

Reaching for a parallel between cars and veils. Not from a Muslim background, don't want to assume I understand anything, but I wonder if a veil offers similar shelter from that visibility? In a society where most people assume a visible woman is fair game, well, what does the larger society consider an appropriate way for women to be invisible? A burqa isn't going to make you invisible in small town USA, but in some parts of the world, does it? Maybe in some places, hijab offers a similar sheltering invisibility to what cars offer us here in the USA. The very idea makes me imagine the veil as a car replacement and feel a certain envy.
posted by elizilla at 1:42 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I see this getting pretty twisted around, too, to give it a fake justice angle

Wealthy homeowners and car-owners have gotten great at appropriating the language of social justice to oppose things like bus rapid transit, which in this case would benefit mostly Black and Latinx people, even in cities like Berkeley that are widely perceived as the most leftist you can get in the USA.

That's part of why I'm so pessimistic about national change; if not even the left can get their shit together, who's the coalition that's going to advocate for transit and housing? Who has the time and money to show up to these meetings? How come our system permits rich old white people to heckler's-veto bike lanes and bus lanes with frivolous lawsuits?
posted by en forme de poire at 1:53 PM on July 9 [21 favorites]


You're right, but isn't it inherent in the nature of congestion pricing that the most price-sensitive drivers, the people most likely to say "yeah I can't/won't pay that" and not drive, will be the poorest? They may be relatively better off than non-drivers, and maybe that's justified if you can actually use the funds and decreased congestion to deliver massive, sweeping benefits to non-drivers (huge increases in public transit, dedicated bus lanes, etc...), but it still always feels like too much like "taking the roads from the lower-middle-class and selling faster traffic-free roads to the rich" for me.

Yes, those who will be nudged out might be the poorest car owners - but not the poorest residents. So it still feels like taxing people for a burdensome activity in order to benefit those who don't do that activity and suffer from that activity. Though I agree about market-based solutions being icky in the "you can mess up public space as long as you pay for it."

That said - we can't deliver better transit without there being fewer cars, and that means getting rid of subsidies for most damaging and least efficient transit mode. One thing the article didn't touch on is the massive giveaway of public space to car owners in the form of free parking - in cities (!) where land is both expensive and finite. In NYC, there are nearly 4,000,000 free street parking spaces - used for car storage, subsidizing car ownership, and limiting everybody else's ability to travel.

You get a lot more people-miles out of a dollar funding public transit than you do from a dollar funding car infrastructure.
posted by entropone at 2:12 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects

And while the people showing up to these city planning meetings, the ones demanding that we only build single-family housing and never remove a sacred parking space, are more likely to be older, their decisions obviously affect lower-income older people as much as they do millennials if not more.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:15 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


And to add one more related link: Progressive baby boomers are fighting housing and transportation progress, featuring "progressive NIMBYism at its best": a guy protesting a bike lane by holding up a sign saying to go vegan instead.
posted by zachlipton at 2:21 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


In NYC, we successfully lowered the speed limit and expanded our speed camera program largely through the advocacy of Families for Safe Streets, which now has 7-8 smaller branches around the country. They're extremely effective in NYC because it's really hard for policymakers to tell grieving parents etc to their faces that they're not interested in protecting other families from the same tragedies. A quote from our mayor after the speed camera bill was signed into law: "The conventional wisdom was that speed cameras were politically unpopular. But you made it a matter of life and death, because it is a matter of life and death. You explained to the people of this city and this state that this was about protecting children and you changed the entire discussion."

That's what we need more of. Everyone here is on board with the wonky technical stuff - we need to organize traffic violence victims and victims' families to demand change. It worked for the Nertherlands.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:24 PM on July 9 [15 favorites]


I remember reading that a specific long-term strategy of Thatcher, copied by other conservatives of the time, was to increase home ownership, because home owners are more likely to become small-c conservative. It seems that the strategy worked, even if many of the home owners still think of themselves as progressives.
posted by clawsoon at 2:26 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I got a bike for Christmas this year and I'm trying to do more of my everyday errands by bike. It's a mixed bag, to say the least. I'm not steady enough yet to have my toddler in a seat on the back, nor strong enough yet to pull a trailer, so these have to be solo errands or errands with my bigger kids (who ride their own bikes). I'm fortunate enough to live within walking/biking distance of a grocery store (not a supermarket) and the library, buuuuut I'm shopping for five people so right now I can basically do my weekly big shop by car (at the farther-away, not-bikeable supermarket) and then do small stockups and purchasing of perishables at the close grocery. But how much I can carry in my bike bags is very much a learning experience. Getting to the library on my bike is good, and a lot of local events/meetings are held there. But when I want to go with my kids I usually have to drive (toddler).

The roads are pretty safe, since I'm staying in the small pre-war downtown, and drivers are pretty courteous (the town has done a lot to encourage walking and biking, and make it safer, and definitely local people's attitudes are "we want to be a place where people can walk and bike, especially kids" so drivers aren't usually swearing at bikers.). But I am still sharing the roads with cars (there are too many pedestrians and dogs on the sidewalks for me to be on the sidewalk), and intersections can be a bit scary for me as a relative novice. Availability of bike racks is really good at public locations -- parks, city hall, the library, schools -- but varies widely at commercial locations. I recently rode to the pharmacy only to discover there was literally nowhere to lock up. (Except the handicapped parking sign, which, no.)

But there are SO many errands I just couldn't run without a car -- I couldn't buy clothes without having to get on a state highway. Or housewares. The bike shop is within biking distance but requires crossing a super-dangerous road. My kids' activities are all in town, but a lot of them are not in very bikeable places -- their gymnastics gym is in an industrial park that isn't easy to access by bike; peewee soccer tends to be played at parks on the outskirts of town (where big empty spaces were available when they realized they wanted to build playing fields for things other than baseball); their summer camps are not far but involve crossing a couple of dangerous intersections that I'd be willing to do when alone, but not with my kids.

We really don't drive that much; neither of us currently car commutes, and I usually only have to fill my gas tank once a month or less (and that's before I started trying to ride my bike on short errands). It's possible to imagine a future where we're a one-car family (we live close to the commuter train station to facilitate that, in fact), and on the very rare occasions where we both need cars at once, one of us calls a taxi or rents a car. But it's really hard to imagine being a NO-car family without convenient public transit that can take us to places like Target and Old Navy or a sea-change in retail that brings clothes and housewares and things back to town centers, and ways to get my kids to activities (protected bike lanes would be okay), and honestly without a grocery delivery service MY CHILDREN ARE ALL BLACK HOLES, I would do nothing but ride back and forth to the grocery store literally all day long.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:27 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I suppose on some level, occupying a home is even moreso codified into law than operating a personal car/truck, given how people without homes are treated legally. You'd think that lawmakers would be delighted to have people living in their cars, two birds with one stone.
posted by davejay at 3:22 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I just had a conversation with my wife about how stupidly conflicted I am over my love of cars and my hatred of car culture and this piece takes my half-baked argument and explains what I was trying to say perfectly. Mind blown.
posted by photoslob at 4:11 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


One culprit which led inevitably to reliance on cars (in the US at least) was the rise of Malls. It was not necessarily a coincidence that they began to appear in the mid-50s, along with the Interstate freeway system. The centralization of power was now centralizing profit as well. (Clear where that got us.)

Because of their lower prices, malls, of course, drew businesses away from neighborhoods. That exctincted the neighborhood candy and grocery stores oft-mentioned in songs/films of the era, and also extincted our chance meetings with neighbors on the street and in the stores. Needing a single loaf of bread, or a carton of milk, or a bag of chips meant driving a mile or three to the edge of your (now otherwise featureless) bedroom community ... where fewer and fewer of us knew any neighbors any more. Wedges.

Now the malls are being displaced by the delivery trucks of e-business. (Is that more efficient? with a box wrapped around every 'order'?) And in most places, mass transit is -a lot- less ratty than it once was. For sure we'll need cars less (neighborhood transit, anyone?), stand a better chance of regaining a sense of community. The move to multi-dwelling zoning may be part of the same trend.
posted by Twang at 4:33 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I'm really glad Greg Shill was able to get a popularized version of his law journal article on the subject (discussed here previously).

Gotta leave soon for tonight's city council meeting, after which I will pester my mayor for an appointment to present my wish list for improving local transportation options. Having this version of these concepts available is going to help me greatly.

Just returned from running a few errands with my new bike cargo trailer. You'd think the bright orange flag waving cheerfully from the trailer (holding a miter saw!) would improve driver behavior, but no. Got honked at by some shithead speeding past me way too close as I prepared to turn into my own driveway. Does it do any good to report all these assholes to local police? Who knows. I wish they had some kind of automated system whereby we could file complaints with photos (I record video for nearly all my rides) and we could at least be assured a postcard informing the registered owner about relevant laws would be sent.

Yes, cars provide anonymity to drivers. The more so as windshield and window visibility is reduced for the safety of the occupants, and still more as aftermarket window tinting becomes more common. There's not much normal people in most places can do with license plate information, even assuming the plates are legible. Why can't we have plates with easier to read typefaces? Why the fuck can't we hold registered owners responsible for crimes committed with their not-reported-stolen cars? I should not have to put myself at risk to try to get video of drivers' faces, even when it's possible.

In conclusion, I wish this article were in the current print edition of the Atlantic, because I would buy a stack of them to hand to the mayor and every council member.
posted by asperity at 4:51 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Anyway, RuPaul is on our side. How can we lose?
posted by asperity at 5:14 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


One culprit which led inevitably to reliance on cars (in the US at least) was the rise of Malls. ... Because of their lower prices, malls, of course, drew businesses away from neighborhoods

I think this is a good point, but there's also maybe a little bit of backwards causality? My sense is that malls are a result of our car-centric policy (as well as related things like crony capitalist deals with city governments that literally financially subsidized mall and big-box store development), though as you rightly mention, they also helped make it harder to change as people began to rely on them and as the competition went out of business.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:20 PM on July 9


I've looked at driving from both sides now, as I didn't learn to drive until late in life. I managed to construct a life where I could live without a car, but it really takes some doing and the right location (especially in my state) to be able to pull it off. And you are so limited in what you can do with your life. Even if most things in my town are accessible by public transport, that doesn't apply if you need to leave town. Things I want to do are not always located via public transport either. My job options were extremely limited (had to be in town, by public transport). Where to live was extremely limited (had to be close to work, a grocery store, public transport). When I was having car issues, I was considering going back to car-free again, but ... hell no, I don't want to go back to being SO limited as to my life options again. I honestly think I would be a better, more developed person had I not been so limited in my ability to get around and what I could do with my life, especially regarding job options. Now I'm stuck.

I don't get why kids don't want to drive these days, because the public transport options are just as crappy now as they have ever been. How the hell are they managing?!
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:31 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I moved from Minneapolis to Long Island two years ago. I ride my bike to work. When my coworkers found out, they told me that everyone will assume I was driving under the influence and lost my license, because why else would someone ride a bike?
posted by MrBobinski at 6:15 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I just moved from Taipei (very bikeable, very easy to get around) back to Irvine last month, and living without a car in the US is pretty much The Worst. Seriously, you don't know how good it gets until you leave America. The best thing about Taipei's transportation system is the multiple options: e-bikes (they're called uBikes, they're orange, they're great) and a bus system where buses come every 5-10 minutes and a working metro for high-volume transit and a bike/scooter culture in and of itself. If you only have one of these options then you'd run into huge problems, but if you have all of them then I can take the bus to the grocery store instead of biking, or if I missed the last metro then I can uBike home.

Every metro station has an elevator and bathrooms that are pretty much always clean, and if you just want to use a bathroom in the metro station all you have to do is ask the information person and they'll buzz you in for free. I wish Taipei had more tactile paving like Hong Kong does, though, and a lot of older streets have pretty steep curb cuts.

Many of the main streets in Taipei look like this. See how wide the sidewalks are? That road can comfortably fit several pedestrians and bikers. There are enough trees that the experience of walking is pleasant, and often the buildings you're walking next to all have shops on the first floor, making it easy to pick up something to eat when you're walking back from work and also providing an interesting set of things to look at. You also have a lot of parks basically everywhere, and underground malls connected to the metro where pedestrians when it's raining and teens practice hip-hop dancing.

The smaller alleyways are usually one-way streets, and certain neighborhoods (Ximending, Zhongxiao, Zhongshan) are set up so that they basically turn into pedestrian-only zones on weekend nights. People who live there and want some kind of vehicle use scooters. In some areas the crossing signals make noise to help the vision-impaired. Walking is not only convenient but a generally pleasant experience. Imagine if your neighborhood looked like this, and then compare that to your average main street in the US.
posted by storytam at 6:41 PM on July 9 [14 favorites]


I don't get why kids don't want to drive these days, because the public transport options are just as crappy now as they have ever been. How the hell are they managing?!

For me, part of the trick is other people's cars. It's not the majority of my transportation, but it's a significant enough percentage to make it work to live without a car. I can borrow a car from relatives or rent a Zipcar on the rare occasion I really want one. I can call a Lyft and someone will be there to pick me up in three minutes. A whole army of people are available to bring me any of the billions of products sold online (and I have the secure package space to receive them), deliver me groceries, pick up my dry cleaning, deliver foods, etc... And while these services aren't cheap, compare them to the enormous cost that comes from owning, insuring, maintaining, and parking a car in an urban area, and the occasional delivery service is a bargain. It's convenient, and allows me to personally live without a car, but there are still lots of cars involved, and lots of people in precarious labor situations doing that work.

We have to invest in getting public transit to come more often though ("frequency is freedom"). A lot of our public transit isn't particularly bad; it just doesn't come often enough. So many transit routes in this country come only once an hour, sometimes even just during commute hours. And since it comes so infrequently, you can't plan around it, so you have to allow hours of padding anytime you might need to get somewhere at a particular time. That's not real public transit; that's last-resort service. And I'm not just talking about rural bus routes. Major rail services like Caltrain only run hourly outside of commute hours and even less often on the weekend. BART runs every 20-28 minutes at night and weekends, even to the airport. Want to do something perfectly normal like take the train from Penn Station to Newark Airport this Sunday? Better come at the right time, because there are random 40 minute gaps between trains.

Public transit is competing against apps where someone in a car will show up in two minutes. Buses that run every hour are useless.
posted by zachlipton at 7:29 PM on July 9 [19 favorites]





I don't get why kids don't want to drive these days, because the public transport options are just as crappy now as they have ever been.


It's a lot easier to bear with a smart phone. My bus is my office.
posted by ocschwar at 12:15 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


I don't get why kids don't want to drive these days, because the public transport options are just as crappy now as they have ever been.

Yeah but so are other drivers. And you can't take a nap while you drive. I mean, I guess you can if you're not a coward, but it's generally frowned upon.
posted by gc at 8:01 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I don't get why kids don't want to drive these days, because the public transport options are just as crappy now as they have ever been. How the hell are they managing?!

For my kids (16, 14, 13), they manage via Discord and inline chatting and suchlike. When I was their age in the long-ago 1980s, the only way I could hang out with more than one of my friends at a time was when someone had that precious driver's license; nowadays, they just plug in their headsets and turn on their webcams.

Hell, I'm the same way. I have a coterie of friends who live all over the world, some of whom I've never been in the same room with. But we're on Slack constantly, and we celebrate each other's victories and mourn each other's losses just as keenly as if we lived on the same block.
posted by Etrigan at 8:13 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal.”

Can we please stop giving them ideas?
posted by shorstenbach at 2:02 PM on July 11


Cities and businesses also discourage public transit by making sure that bus stops are far from entrances - they wouldn't want customers thinking that people who can't afford cars shop there!

Marginalizing Bus Riders - "When mass transit stops are systematically located in inconvenient or isolated areas, it disadvantages those who are dependent on public transportation and discourages others from choosing to ride rather than driving their own car, and reinforces a common perception of the bus, in particular, as an inferior form of transportation...." (The first comment shrugs at the distance, saying it's just a two-minute walk. First commenter almost certainly doesn't use a cane or a wheelchair.)

Transit restrictions are also used to support racism. Some malls restrict bus acess because "They feel it will not bring in the type of people they want to come to the mall."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:41 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


I wrote a long comment, deleted it because it had way too much unnecessary information, decided to come back and deliver what I felt are the necessary parts. Here goes:

I don't own a car, hopefully never will, I live in a super narrow alley in the super walkable historical district of Beijing, a dense Asian capital city served impeccably by public transportation and non-fossil fuel private options. I work from home. I love it, I'm lucky af, I'm not you and can't claim to understand your life. I grew up in the US, but the last time I more than visited was 16 years ago. With that out of the way, here are some things I've learned about driving less and living small based on the comments in this thread. May they be of benefit to you.

Our apartment building had both washers (for 40 units!) break down, and they just took it all out as too expensive to keep running, besides, over by the supermarket (3/4ths of a mile away) there's a laundromat. (Thankfully there's at least a bus one can take,b ut I end up using a Lyft to get back home with the folded laundry especially in bad weather.)

Ok so. American washers & dryers are monstrosities that require special venting and power connections. The ones I grew up with were made in the 60's, and they still work. Fuck yeah Maytag, but also UGH. I've never seen a single one of those beasts in a household in Asia, and I've been all over Asia in lots of houses. Also, never in a million years have I seen a laundromat. I know they exist, I have seen lots of dry cleaner shops, but 16 years folks, not a one. People have what, at least on Home Depot's website, are called "portable washing machines". They run $300-ish for yer big-size base models, they're dead simple machines that can be fixed as long as the motors last (I've seen 'em 30 years old), they're about 2.5' x 2.5' (a narrow fridge's footprint, I plug mine into the same power strip as the fridge, ancient wiring here, no shorts when they're both running on 250vDC), they run on a normal power outlet, and in older houses they just drill a hole in the bathroom wall and drain them straight into the shower + plug an extra faucet into the shower pipe and get a screw-in hose that stays permanently, but if you get a wheeled platform and a few screw-in hoses, you don't even need that, just wheel it out when you need it and wheel back when you're done, and they have little clippy things for the hoses. I run a pretty tight no-paper-waste-except-toilet-paper-and-hopefully-soon-Japanese-bidet-seat-so-even-less-of-that house, so I wash a lot of rags, shoes, and 30's-hipster-moron black jeans, and I wash twice a week and dry on a folding rack in the living room overnight. It works. Sheets and blankets dry on 1-meter versions of these.

Two people & stairs or one with a dolly & elevator can move one of these anywhere you want it. They'll fit in any hatchback or sedan trunk, or a Smart car passenger seat if you really must. Unbeknownst to most, most faucets have standard-size screwy parts on the lip so you can hook up attachments...like the hoses for these machines.

Yes some US apartments have clauses in the rental contract that ban these but like...in that case, sue, you'll win. This is an infinitely better solution than laundromats & taxis. It's how billions of people do laundry. There are some coin-operated versions of these machines in Bangkok's tourist districts but LOLbye.

Gobsmacked I was like, "mom it would take literally take you longer to drive than to just walk around the corner. Why would you drive when you could walk?" She turned to me, befuddled and near disgust, and said, "No, why would you walk when you could drive?"


I live in China, where we got all these people who are like "no but I need this car to get married", and specifically Beijing where dude, you don't have a car? WTF? I've had success with bringing friends to car-unfriendly locations for dinner & shows. The minute it gets impossible to park, the defensiveness drops. Set up a few car-traps for people you love, and you'll be much better-situated to have the "drive less" conversation, but NOT BEFORE. Don't nag them, just...show them. I'm lucky that my own house is on a Bali-esque nightmare street where no, it's a one-way and all the parking for 700m in every direction is reserved and e-bikes full of angry delivery boys are short-cutting through the alley all hours of the day and you are walking here, but go ahead, drive here. Ok, I admit it, maybe it's a little on purpose that I live here.

I've weaned 3 good friends off car fever by insistently meeting them in car-unfriendly locations. One sold hers. She has a child, lives in the burbs.

I've always loved walking, and walked to/from school my whole time from kindergarten onward. In Denver, weather can get cold/icy/snowy in the winter - and that was my *favorite*. I was forever turning down rides from well-meaning mothers of friends "Are you SURE you don't want a ride?"

Ya got a camera? Or an Instagram account? Carry it, photograph things, people are like, "Oh you're on purpose because photography OK I get it."

Reaching for a parallel between cars and veils. Not from a Muslim background, don't want to assume I understand anything, but I wonder if a veil offers similar shelter from that visibility? In a society where most people assume a visible woman is fair game, well, what does the larger society consider an appropriate way for women to be invisible? A burqa isn't going to make you invisible in small town USA, but in some parts of the world, does it? Maybe in some places, hijab offers a similar sheltering invisibility to what cars offer us here in the USA. The very idea makes me imagine the veil as a car replacement and feel a certain envy.
posted by elizilla at 5:42 AM on July 10 [3 favorites +] [!]


My answer is very fraught, not least because I am not Muslim or a woman, but I have dated/befriended Muslim women and spent a good chunk of time in Indonesia, where the "to-hijab-or-not" debate rages more fiercely than anywhere on our planet. I normally wouldn't pipe up on this one except that Indonesia also walk less than any country on earth, their public transit is notoriously awful, and the roads are dominated by motorcycles, not cars. Also, public-space harassment of women is legendary there.

Here is my anecdata - YES. Yes that is exactly why you see so many people in hijab/niqab in public vs. 20 years ago. For the women who are "going out" to clubs or malls (Jakarta has 140+ malls and "hanging out at the mall" is not just for teenagers, it's The Done Thing, and it's a "get dressed up" occasion), modest dress is NOT in order, and taxis must be taken TO THE DOOR because dear goodness exposed midriffs on drunk women are everywhere indoors but outdoors NEVER. Covering of exposed sleeves while in public certainly is also The Done Thing. There's a whole thing with knowing women where it's like, "this is me in public so I don't get harassed" vs. "this is me in private so I can actually be me", which often includes a wardrobe change. I've never experienced that anywhere else, but exactly the thing you said is exactly the thing I heard from everyone all the time in Jakarta.

I traveled with one woman from urban Indonesia to urban Cambodia and Thailand, which have similar transit profiles but very dissimilar religious & cultural environments, and she wore her indoor clothes outdoors, and despite all the tattoos and piercings ("beach goth" is real yo, and she was pretty committed to it, what with being from a Muslim family and yes I did meet her parents and they knew), not one catcall, and she found it very liberating. Even in the Muslim-majority neighborhoods in Cambodia/Thailand (yup they got 'em, long-standing communities) when she was speaking Indonesian ('cause who else in pork-happy Cambodia & Thailand serves halal?) to restaurant managers in those two countries who wore very modest garb (what's the word for niqab but it shows the face) & husbands, no snide comments or judgy looks that I saw.

In China, it's the opposite, but not in the way you might think. The hood I live in is, well, this one. If you walk down the street in Beijing, something will strike you immediately - everyone is dressed like Billie Eilish, men and women. I'm not kidding. Either that, or cosplayers, or Hanfu-min, or just...wtf?!?! Mixed in with the dirty hipsters like the aforementioned & myself are the locals, who are just straight up in pajamas, shirts for men and bras for women optional, the streets are their front yard and in China you don't change out of pajamas unless you're going out to impress, so it's understood. Some of that gets revealing. Also in the hutongs, fun fact, public toilets every 100m because even today some people don't have indoor plumbing capable of handling poop, AKA the neighbors poop together. Here's what happens when men visibly harass women in the smartphone-happy city of Beijing. It Is Known. Don't Do It. That raises some interesting questions about visibility too.

I don't have a conclusion, I'm just saying that visibility and invisibility work in ways you might not expect.

I'm not steady enough yet to have my toddler in a seat on the back, nor strong enough yet to pull a trailer, so these have to be solo errands or errands with my bigger kids (who ride their own bikes).

So I have a folding bike. It's great 'cause you can adjust the handlebar and seat height on the fly with the little flip clamps. The flip clamps are on the wheels too. You mention a trailer, and I was all like..."I have no front yard, but I'd love to be able to lug home more than I can carry, or possibly move my washing machine without hiring a stupid moving van that can't fit in my alley again, but where oh where would I put my bike trailer?" Turns out folding cargo trailers are real, and I have space for that, and it looks super light.

You may benefit from looking into both options.

The best thing about Taipei's transportation system is the multiple options: e-bikes (they're called uBikes, they're orange, they're great) and a bus system where buses come every 5-10 minutes and a working metro for high-volume transit and a bike/scooter culture in and of itself.

Hell yeah high five

Every metro station has an elevator and bathrooms that are pretty much always clean

Wait. I live in a world where it's keys/wallet/phone/TOILET PAPER before you leave the door. Where smoke breaks in subway bathrooms are how it's done. Where flip-flops guarantee pee toes because floor puddles. You just go right to hell you...capitalist roader.
posted by saysthis at 7:33 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


Ohhh, buddy. I'm about to blow your mind. Taipei MRT bathrooms come equipped with toilet paper AND soap. (Though the countryside can get grody.) Last year the very sight of a rat on the train caused a panic and stampede.
posted by storytam at 9:14 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


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