Tuesday, May 20, 2008

This Car-Loving Nation of Ours



In yesterday's New York Times, beard-having liberal Paul Krugman mused about why we Americans can't give up our cars: He says it's because we all live in suburbs and exurbs that were built with cars in mind. He compares this state of affairs to some neighborhood in Berlin (Germany, not Connecticut) where he's hanging out: "a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping."

Krugman says that there aren't enough such places in the U.S. of A., but here's the thing: I live in such a place - it's called West Hartford (well, not so many four- and five-story buildings, but otherwise similar). And you know what? People still drive everywhere. I live about six blocks from the grocery store, and I am the only person I ever see walking to get groceries. My house is under a mile from West Hartford center, but none of our neighbors ever walk there. There is a bus stop at the end of our block, but I have not seen anyone take the bus from there in the eight months since I moved in. Frankly, the only people I ever see on foot in my neighborhood are (a) children, (b) people walking dogs, and (c) joggers.

Ken had a recent post on this here blog about the American love affair with cars and he called it "Americans Still Stupid . . . or Trapped." In the comments, Caitlynne took issue with the title, saying, Krugman-style, "It's not us- people are great! It's the SYSTEM, man!" The example of West Hartford (and of so many other close, accessible, walkable suburbs) makes me want to throw my lot in with Ken and say that dumb Americans are in the grip of some deep foolishness. Paul Krugman's beard (and, to a certain degree, his eloquence) and Caitlynne's earnestness make me want to throw my lot in with them and blame years of bad planning (and more than a little racism and classism, which have encouraged people to flee the cities whenever possible). So I ask you, dear readers, who's right?

(Don't click on "read more" below. There's no more to read, but "read more" shows up automatically.)

22 comments:

Brendan said...

I should probably side with Krugman because I'm a bearded liberal, too.

Ms.Feral said...

There is a lack of alt. transportation & yet even with other options available I believe there is this philosophy of life here that riding a car is a well-deserved luxury & a status symbol. I believe more would bike ride if they knew the blood pumping thrill & freedom of it, just look at New Haven.

Karma said...

+1 For the bearded liberals.

However this is a tricky one and like anything else it is the result of multiple influences. While I agree that the American built environment has been the product of over a century of automobile-biased design and planning, and has been controlled by the lobbies and development interests that perpetuate them, we still have cities and older suburbs like West Hartford that offer many of the resources to escape from auto-dependency. The problem is that so many (present company excluded of course) refuse to exert their free will and break the chains of popular culture that bind us to the suburban system. Despite the proven benefits of alternative transportation the majority of people still prefer to fire up the Suburban and drive the mile to Whole Foods to go shopping rather than hop on the trusty two-wheeled steed. Call it laziness, a lack of creativity, or the bondage of society, the truth is it will take more than $4 gas prices to change things.

We know the suburbs don't work. We know cars are wasteful, damaging to the environment, and overly expensive. While there are far too few of the environments Mr. bearded liberal refers to, Americans are also not taking advantage of the few that do exist. Two perpetuations of the same problem.

Rant over....

Rich H said...

Good one. Can I be wishy-washy and say "a little from column A, a little from column B?" The rise of the suburbs happened because people of means wanted "the better life," which in the 20th century meant a big split-level home with the 3-car garage and a big lawn where they could raise their 2.6 children. The suburbia concept was sustained in part due to influences steering the infrastructure towards servicing those who made that choice. That basically cemented our autocentric lifestyles. Later, desirability of returning to the urban centers priced out many lower & middle class people forcing the creation of the exurbs in several metro regions.

I've been meaning to read James Howard Kunsler's "The Geography of Nowhere" which tackles this very question with an apparent "it's the system" angle. While I tend to agree with that, it still bothers me that people don't realize that we have the power to change the system if we want to. That original "the good life = suburbia" mindset has embedded itself incredibly deep in our society's DNA.

Karma said...

In addition to Kunsler, Dolores Hayden's "Building Suburbia" and Kenneth Jackson's "Crabgrass Frontier" are worthy reading for anyone interested in this topic.

Brendan said...

Speaking of spending $4 on gas to go grocery shopping, I just filled up the passat for $57 to spend almost that exact same amount my groceries at trader joe's.

($58 at trader joe's)

Caitlynne! said...

While I believe (truly) that this is a structural issue and not an issue of individual choices, I want to choose Kenny over Paul Krugman. Why? Paul Krugman is a crazy free-trade maniac, and the worst kind of liber- an economic liberal- while Kenny is a pretty nice guy.

Caitlynne! said...

I meant to write "worst kind of liberal".

Brendan said...

Krugman isn't crazy into free trade. He wouldn't take the stand on health care that he does.

I continue to lean towards the structure thing is right on many counts. Post-war urban planners were all about staying as far away from mixed-used zoning as they could. FHWA over the last 50 years strove to make roadways as ped/bike unfriendly as possible. Also, they keep making cool cars! Who wouldn't want to drive one. Riding a cool bike and driving a cool car aren't mutually exclusive.

El Presidente de China said...

Brendan - have you ever tried to ride a bike and drive a car at the same time?! It is really difficult.

Karma said...

I agree that the structural issues play a major role in this problem but I do not think we can ignore personal choices. Money talks, if there was not a market for McMansions there would be no drive to build them at the rate we are (or if at all). The "If you built it" logic works some of the time but not all of the time. A large portion of our society are lemmings but I hate to say the majority is. While advertising is a powerful drug, the markets in the end follow the whim of the consumer, change that and you will change the domestic landscape.

Caitlynne! said...

Krugman and Stiglitz and the rest of them are not fooling me. Krugman is a neo-Keynesian- he believes in the invisible hand with a bit of engineering thrown in when in crisis. Anyone who says our trade problems can be solved through any class of market solutions (and he does) is a free-market maniac to me. It's just so clear that markets only screw us! But this is a longer conversation...
As far as the "money talks" thing- it's rough to take that stand for me simply because if we let the money make the decisions (and consumer activism does just that) it's always going to be certain people making decisions and sectors in power.If you don't have money, by that logic, you don't talk. And we can't rely on trends to make progress- it's got to be something more fundamental. I always think about the bus systems- how much the people who depend on them hate how inconvenient they are...but the reality is that the "money talks" logic creates a situation where you don't really matter if you can't afford to matter. That's why I would go for fighting the power dynamic battle as opposed to the consumer trend battle.
And I don't think I'm arguing anything about marketing, really.
This all makes total sense in my head.
Oh yeah, and remember when GM bought up all the trolley and train tracks in the 1920s and destroyed them just to create a stronger market for their cars? If money talks, we're fucked, because we are NO MATCH for business. Consumers can never win that fight. People were totally relying on the streetcars...

El Presidente de China said...

Spoken like a trotskyist, Caitlynne
;)

Seriously, I agree that relying only on market action probably won't work - at least not entirely. We could hope for market conditions to become so awful (i.e., for gas prices to continue to rise) so that people are gradually left with no option but wholesale change, but that begs the question: What do we do in the mean time? Of course, on the individual level we can prepare (get a bike, learn to repair it, stockpile weapons, etc.), but how, precisely, do we "fight the power dynamic battle," as you say? (I'm not asking rhetorically as a tacit way of saying you're wrong; I'm asking earnestly.)

chillwill said...

neo-Keynesian? huh?


but, i must disagree, even the poor do have a financial vote. even those not in the mainstream. farmers markets, the street market, garden plots, anything grassroots! look at drugs. there's a whole other economy out there inwhich to cast your votes! ( i will regretfully admit, there are certainly things inwhich we don't get many "voting choices" but i'd rather focus on what we can do rather than complain about what we can't) (ok, atleast most of the time, i'll complain plenty sometimes too!)

even GM's roach BS move about the traintracks! F them! with even a small financial vote you could buy a bike; work, buy and live local and with enough people together doing that...it is a powerful force. of course, organizing enough people that well, would also take a powerful force...but its happening...everywhere! we all have much more personal power than we realize.


i think the mcmansion comment is deeper than just demand. why is there a demand to live an overly big, gawdy, energy wasting house with no sweet porch? cuz its a status symbol for many people and that is the deeper issue, very screwed up priorities!

Caitlynne! said...

El P. of Ch. asks how it is that we fight "the power dynamic" battle... this is where all those justice organizations come in. Steady democratization of people's lives in general will bring the deepest and most far-reaching consequences -as opposed to smaller gradual legislative reforms- because they will be total and won't have to constantly negotiate with industry.

Caitlynne! said...

Sorry- "They" being the progressive solutions to environmental degradation and to our fucked up relationship to our world.

Caitlynne! said...

...and like, bike-friendly policy.

Karma said...

This steady democratization and the progressive solutions spoken of are exactly what I alluded to when I spoke of supply and demand. I don't honestly think we can change the status quo solely through the use of market forces as I feel people in general are too complacent, too vulnerable to trends and advertising forces, and not well enough informed to make the types of choices that move us away from unsustainable and damaging behaviors particularly in transportation and residential systems. This is where public advocacy entities and forums such as this become so important as they help to expose people to these ideas and help shift policy AND demand. While I am pessimistic that the majority will ever exert as much force on these types of decisions as the minority that currently control them but I do feel that shifts in demand by the majority can have an significant impact. We may not have as much money and influence as the minority but en masse the picture is somewhat altered, and as such we become harder to ignore.

There will always, however, be the type of conservative resistance that will oppose democratization as being "communist" or too liberal but that doesn't seem to phase me nor do I feel it will frustrate many of our friends and readers. Take the lane!

Caitlynne! said...

Ok Ok, I get it- you're right. When we fight the smaller fights we do become harder to ignore. And we also help influence ideology and create new communities, both of which can one day be vital to "that big power shift that's a'coming".
So I can sign on to these forums and advocacy groups as long as we continue to make important systemic connections- for example with justice groups who work on environmental racism. I'm thinking about groups in Hartford who work on disproportionate asthma rates in the city, food issues in urban schools, and those people who fought the city dump being built squarely in the North End.
If we continue to make these connections the things we fight for will matter.
Hey guys, blogging is fun!

Karma said...

Hear that guys, blogging is fun! Bike riding is fun! A progressive bike blog... is fun!

chillwill said...

take the lane!!

Caitlynne! said...

Yeah take the lane! Onward reflective practice!