Friday, January 30, 2015

Less Driving Foolishness through Urbanism

I recently lunched at a North Bay restaurant.  It wasn’t an elegant meal.  In fact, it was so far from elegant that the restaurant had a drive-thru.  (Disclaimer: I may dine occasionally at restaurants with drive-thrus, but rarely use the drive-thrus.  To do so would feel wasteful of gas and unsociable.  I support the efforts of an increasing number of cities to ban drive-thrus.)

So my meal that day was eaten in the so-called “dining room” of the restaurant.  But my route to the front door passed through the drive-thru lane in a marked crosswalk.  Just upstream of the crosswalk, with bumper overhanging the stripe, was car with a driver fully engrossed in his phone, precluding eye contact, the universal symbol of pedestrian acknowledgement.  Even worse, there was room for him to pull ahead, an opportunity that I feared he’d take as I stepped in front of him.

So I proceeded cautiously.  Sure enough, he noted the open space ahead out of the corner of his eye, didn’t look for pedestrians, and began to move ahead.  I jumped back.  He apparently noted my movement, braked to a stop, now halfway across the crosswalk, and returned to a study of his phone, still without making eye contact.  I resisted the temptation to scratch his car as I passed.

While inside and eating, I noted three cars of teenage boys in the drive-thru lane.  All three cars were beaters, with battered body work and indistinct color.  Any car repair dollars that might have been scraped together had apparently gone into boosting the horsepower, adjusting the carburetors to give full-throated rumbles, and bolting on scrap metal bumpers.  While waiting in line, their game was to run up the rpm, ease out the clutch, and tap the bumpers of their buddies’ cars, followed by leaning out the window and laughing.

With only inches between bumpers, the taps were at low speed and neither life nor limb was at risk.  And the cars were largely beyond the possibility of further damage.  So the taps were only a sport, although a dumb sport.

As I dined, I noted an older woman in the dining room, mostly standing with a vacant stare, seemingly unaware of her surroundings.  She left right behind me and I found to my consternation that she had driven to the restaurant, parking her car in a disabled parking space.  Although it’s an overstatement to write that she was “in” a parking space.  Her aging sedan was skewed across the space so badly that her bumper was almost into the other disabled space on the far side of the disabled unloading area.  She had effectively parked diagonally in a head-in parking space.

I departed quickly, keeping far from her car.

Although the immediate causes of the three driving misbehaviors, inattentiveness, clueless playfulness, and age-related declining skills, are all different, they link together at a more fundamental level.  They are all symptomatic of a world in which driving is the only option.

The inattentive driver, whose lunchtime preference seemed to be catching up on email, would have likely preferred eating a diner a short walk from his business.  The bumper-tag-playing youths probably have cars only because they have no other way of reaching school.  And the elderly bad-parking driver is likely worried about conducting her daily live if she must surrender her driver’s license.

All would benefit from a world in which more of life can be conducted without a car.  But that option has been largely precluded by a world that has been shaped around “America’s love affair with the automobile”.

Thus, it was interesting to read of a recent talk by University of Virginia historian Peter Norton to the Transportation Review Board about the history of the “love affair”.  Norton argues that, although cars certainly have appeal, the love affair was largely the result of corporate propaganda, applied at a time when the U.S. was still wavering over the idea of configuring cities around cars.  Norton points specifically to a 1961 broadcast, underwritten by DuPont which owned a large share of GM, in which Groucho Marx rhapsodized about the love affair.

Emily Badger of the Washington Post and Eric Jaffe of CityLab write about Norton’s thesis.   Although both writers were at the same talk, they came away with slightly different perspectives on the Norton’s thoughts, so both articles are worth a read.

I particularly enjoyed Norton’s debunking of the argument that “Americans drive, therefore they must love driving”.  He notes that if he was locked in a convenience store for a week, he’d likely survive on convenience store food despite a preference for fruits and vegetables.

So corporate America, protecting bottom lines, tried to convince us to fall in love with cars, we bought the argument and gradually eliminated the options for walkable lifestyles, and today we find ourselves watching elderly drivers skewing cars across parking spaces while rambunctious youths play bumper-tag nearby.  At the same time, the car-orientation is pushing the world toward climate change through fossil fuel use and edging city halls toward bankruptcy as they struggle to maintain the car-oriented infrastructure.  But at least GM kept making money, at least for a few more years.

It was a seduction that went badly awry.

The Petaluma City Council has an annual goal-setting session, establishing an agenda for the coming year.  I’ll be attending this year’s session, setting forth a list of my suggested action items, many of them based on subjects that have been discussed in this blog.  In my next post, I’ll give the text of my comments.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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