America’s Love Affair with Our …Dishwashers?

“Americans love their cars!” We hear it so often, we don’t even pause to think how false that statement is.

I own a car. I also own a refrigerator. And a lawn mower. I appreciate all three for what they’re worth. But love? Not so much.

(Funny that no one ever talks about “American’s love affair with their dishwashers.” Substitute any other appliance and it starts to sound kinky. Try it at a party; then watch as people suddenly take a keen interest in the guacamole tray on the other side of the room.)

We don’t love our cars; we love convenience and independence. We love the freedom to move when and where we please. And we want to get there quickly and efficiently. This is an important distinction.

We don’t drive because we love our cars, we drive because—for the past 60 years or so–an entrenched system of financial incentives and public policy has ensured our dependence on the automobile.

First, cities adopted zoning codes that “separated uses.”  This means that–for the first time–residential and commercial spaces could no longer co-exist.  Modern zoning prevented people from living above a store, and walking across the street to work.  Next, because everyone had to drive to every destination, we began prioritizing parking lots over people.  Finally, lenders encouraged suburban “greenfield” development, making it easier to build sprawl than to reinvest in older areas of the city.

The result?  We have created cities that are so spread out, we must travel great distances to fulfill our most basic needs. Whether we love or hate our cars, most of us need one just to get through the day.

Meanwhile, generations of inadequate funding have left our transit system operating on scraps. While we have invested billions in extending, widening and repaving streets for cars, we have failed to make comparable investments for transit, walking and biking.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when our underfunded transit system fails to deliver fast and efficient service. Imagine what our streets would look like if we hadn’t continually invested in them for the past 70 years!

It’s time for a change.

It’s time we stopped equating America, freedom and independence with the automobile. (It’s a tired old trope that fails to consider the very real burden that cars place on individuals, communities and the environment.) It’s time we started an honest conversation about transportation and the needs of people. And it’s time we started designing our cities, streets and neighborhoods for people, not parking. Only then can we make transit, walking and biking into viable options that will reduce auto-dependency moving forward.

The next time you hear someone talking about how much Americans love their automobiles, you can be ready with a retort: “America should be a place for people, not a place for people to park their cars.”

– Sarah Kobos

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