Imagine yourself walking down a sidewalk. The street is full of little shops and restaurants, little boutiques and family-run bookstores alongside family restaurants and mom and pop ice cream shops. You live in an apartment above one of the stores, and from your balcony, you can see a small park across the street. You hear the laughter of children who are climbing the public art sculptures and swinging on the playsets. Elderly men gather to play chess, busy professionals rush across the grassy lawn while chatting on their cell phones and dogs bark with pleasure as they race to catch the tennis ball flying through the air.
You are walking to work, a commute which takes roughly 15 minutes. You could use the time to quickly go through your emails or catch up on the morning’s news on your phone. Sometimes you share pleasantries walking alongside your elderly next-door neighbor, who is taking her grandson to school. The sounds of human life fill the air around you: the laughter emanating from the couple on a nearby bench who just shared an inside joke; the young girl crying because her mom wouldn’t buy the ice cream cone; the humming of the delivery man as he sings his favorite ‘90s tune.
You blink, and suddenly, you find yourself thrust back to reality. You are sitting in traffic all by yourself, listening to the bland NPR broadcaster as he interviews a congressman about the latest bill winding through Congress. You hands weakly grip the steering wheel as you stare intently forward while lightly pressing the gas pedal every few seconds. Your commute takes an hour because you live in a suburban community far from the distant office park where you work. You can’t check your email, or read the newspaper, or idly chat with the stranger you just met on the bus. Instead, you are inching along in a metal box, spewing greenhouse gases into the air. All around you, there are other people miserably sitting in their own metal boxes. But other than the sound of the congressman on the radio, you are all alone.
Cars are turning us all into misanthropes. When we are inside our own personal metal box, everything outside of it becomes a nuisance. Pedestrians, bicycles, pets, traffic lights, cops and other cars are all obstacles that are slowing us down. When we are in a car, it seems as if every inch is important, even if it means blocking the intersection and those 50 riders on the shuttle trying to cross be damned.
I am not arguing that the automobile is an inherently destructive technology. It has aided humanity tremendously by making transportation easier, quicker and possible for a larger number of people than ever before. But society has allowed cars to take over our lives to such an extreme extent that it has destroyed our communities. Before the advent of the automobile, humans lived in places that were oriented around interaction among one another. Vestiges of this mindset is still alive in some of the older European cities, but almost everywhere in the United States today is dominated by cars. Almost every planning decision made today has made the car a priority, to the detriment of streetscapes, sidewalks and public transportation. The word “pedestrian” has even become a synonym for “dull” and “boring”. Unfortunately for us, this mindset has destroyed the life of our cities.
After all, everything that makes an urban pedestrian happy: festivals, parades, street performances, pop-up bazaars, reliable public transportation and crowds, are the exact same things that make drivers miserable. Buses get in the way, parades cause street closures and the presence of pedestrians lower speed limits. Cars are unable to participate in the gives and takes that characterize human interactions on a busy and vibrant street. Instead, what makes cars happy are parking spaces and a wide expanse of empty asphalt. However way you look at it, there is a fundamental disparity between the needs of a car and the needs of a human. Bill Lindeke, a street-life blogger from St. Paul explains it best: “Outside a car, more is good. Inside a car, more is bad.”
I think that it is time to begin thinking about reshaping our primary modes of transportation. It is getting increasingly difficult to sustain the demands of an automobile-centric planning strategy. Cars are allowing people to live further and further away from their jobs, clogging our interstates with idle, pollution-spewing metal boxes that physically divide us from our fellow humans. On the other hand, we can support a movement towards walkability and transit-oriented development that has sprouted up all over the country, including here in Atlanta.
What would life in such a pedestrian-centric neighborhood be like? I will use an example that we’re all familiar with: the Emory campus. Emory University, like many residential campuses, is a microcosm of the pedestrian neighborhood. Everyone on campus walks everywhere, whether they are students, professors or hospital staff, because all possible destinations, like the library or dining facilities, are within walking distance.
When a person travels between point A and point B at Emory, they have the possibility of running into a friend or two, the farmer’s market, an impromptu a capella performance, or Wonderful Wednesday. This allows for the opportunity to catch up with said friend, buy that weekly Blue Donkey coffee on the way to class, or enjoy some music and conversation at Wonderful Wednesday. It allows for impromptu activity and some unexpected excitement that I think everybody needs once in a while.
This kind of spontaneity and liveliness is not possible from within a car. A driver’s first and foremost objective is to get to their final destination as quickly as possible. If Emory were a car-centric campus, then we as drivers would miss all of the wonderful things that are possible when humans are allowed to interact with one another in a public space.
When we drive, we are electing to separate ourselves from the outside world. When we walk or bike, we are choosing to become participants in a dynamic community that always leads to incredible experiences and lasting memories. I understand that sometimes we just want to be alone, or that we are late for a meeting. But on those lazy Saturday mornings during school breaks, think about stretching your legs for a stroll around your neighborhood. You may be surprised by all of the things you’ve missed.
Edmund Xu is a College senior from Los Altos, California.