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In My Perfect World...

I step off the CDTA bus and onto the curb of Central Avenue, somewhere out in Colonie where the view from the vehicle window is a ceaseless parade of parking lots. Grateful that Central Avenue actually has sidewalks, I begin my short journey on foot to the building where I am to have an eye exam. The apparent convenience of the bus is such that after only about a minute of walking, the building comes into view—in fact, I would be inside in another 20 seconds, if only I could walk to the front door in a straight line.

But I can’t: The straight-line route is obstructed by a snowbank and by the prickly vegetation that separates the sidewalk from the strip-mall parking lot. No walking path cuts through it, so I walk all the way down to the next street corner, then turn and walk another 25 yards or so until I finally reach the parking-lot entrance, then cut back across the lot toward the building I passed several minutes ago. Inside, the receptionist asks if I had any trouble finding the place, and when I reply, “No, the bus dropped me off practically in front, though I did have to walk quite a distance anyway,” she looks at me in surprise, and says, “You took the bus?”

As anyone who regularly walks and/or uses public transportation can attest, a great deal of America’s built landscape was designed under the assumption that people would drive virtually everywhere they needed or wanted to go. This is no accident: It is an outgrowth of the mentality (and money) that shaped development in the United States, which placed such faith in the automobile’s ability to deliver millions of individual citizens quickly and conveniently to their daily destinations that our nation has spent the better part of the century subsidizing sprawl and nurturing car dependence.

In fact, many of us are so conditioned to the inevitability of driving that we don’t even consider the alternatives, or don’t know how to adjust when the alternatives intrude on the daily rituals of the Automobile Nation. Bicyclists take their lives into their hands on busy highways, or else are banned from using them. Puzzled bank clerks turn away would-be customers who try to walk up to the drive-through window, having been instructed that the convenience is for motorists only. A businesswoman cancels an appointment because her car is in the shop, despite the fact that her destination is both on a bus line and within easy walking distance. Stores, restaurants, theaters, special events and the like offer potential customers, in their ads, directions on how to get there by car and where to park—ignoring the fact that they’re also on a transit line. And the National Center for Injury Prevention & Control, responding to the recent upswing in vehicle-related injuries and deaths among the elderly, recommends design improvements to vehicles and vehicle environments, increased illumination and character size on instrument panels and road signs—God forbid the NCIPC should entertain the notion that elderly people would be a whole lot safer if they could reduce or eliminate driving and rely instead on public transit.

Which brings me to a debate that took place earlier this week in the United States Senate over a proposal to raise automobile fuel efficiency requirements by 50 percent, to an average of 36 mpg, by 2015. Stiff opposition likely will kill the proposal; in fact, the Senate scheduled a vote yesterday (Wednesday) on a toothless version of the bill that sets no specific fuel efficiency requirement. Some of the objections were quite ludicrous—soccer moms would revolt, people would be forced to drive “glorified golf carts,” etc.—and it wasn’t difficult to see oil- and auto-industry strings moving the senators’ mouths this way and that. Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who proposed the bill, lamented that we are “going backward” in our fuel-consumption habits.

Kerry is right about that, of course, and our current fuel-efficiency standards should be a national embarrassment. But the defeat of this particular bill doesn’t upset me, because until we, as a nation, make it possible—no, essential—for all of us to drive less, then improving fuel standards is the wrong battle. In the words of Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation: “Cleaner engines and better mileage will accomplish little if we drive twice as much as we have in the last twenty years or continue to more than double our Sports Utility Vehicles as we have in the last five. . . . The god-given right to go for a ride, anywhere, anytime, to trample the country with roads and sprawl has crippled every technological advance, has hardtopped the valleys and flattened the farmlands for Wal-Marts, axed forest and covered stream for Godzilla subdivision.”

It is nothing short of astonishing that policymakers by now do not see—or choose not to see—the devastating consequences of a half-century of subsidizing sprawl and automobile dependence, and the urgent need to reverse course as soon as possible. America’s blighted landscape should be evidence enough, as should the fact that highway and parking congestion seem to be getting ever worse—and both logic and history show that building more highways and parking lots actually make the congestion worse by encouraging even more driving. It is again, a product of deep conditioning—and profound misinformation—that most people cannot seem to understand why local governments can’t create more and better and freer parking in urban downtowns [see “Wish We Were There,” page 9]. If you were to actually build enough highways and parking lots to accommodate a lively, interesting downtown, so much of that downtown would have to be razed and paved over that it would no longer be interesting or lively, beyond the chorus of honking horns. Only a well-funded and reliable mass transit system that moves thousands in and out with a minimum of demands on available land can sustain the kind of urban core that most of us envision as ideal.

It also is astonishing that most policymakers don’t recognize the No. 1 public-health scandal of our time: The grisly toll of death and disease exacted by automobiles. Besides the vast daily stream of auto-spewed pollution that has, among other things, contributed to a phenomenal rise in asthma cases, automobiles directly kill 42,000 Americans each year (that’s 115 a day) in preventable accidents. We were rightly outraged by the cold-blooded slaughter of 3,000 people on Sept. 11, and we went to war over it; where is the outrage over this much deadlier and more persistent nemesis? We have a war on terrorism and a war on drugs, but no such war on automobile accidents, the No. 1 cause of death among young people in the United States.

The bitter pill we will have to swallow sooner or later is that we will have to learn to drive less; the world we have created simply will not sustain our current lifestyle. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: If we ever get to that paradise of fewer highways, fewer cars, fewer parking lots, less sprawl, more mass transit, more walkable neighborhoods, etc., you’re going to like it better. The air will be cleaner. Your neighborhood will look nicer. Your commute will be easier, even if you still drive. You will be healthier and safer. Transportation will cost you a lot less (for every car you can convert to a transit pass, you’ll save about $4,000).

And no one will look at you funny when you say you took the bus.

—Stephen Leon

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