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City Places for City People
Irreconcilable Differences

by Debra Efroymson


 

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was suicidal.

Something odd happens when I talk to people about the idea of carfree cities. Rarely if ever does anyone object to the idea in general. Most people promptly see the beauty of it, and respond with warm sympathy to the possibilities that emerge when cars are removed and life returns. The objections, universally, are practical ones. They perceive it as an impossible dream, suggesting that people have short memories and little sense of history. After all, some of the major changes in cities wrought by cars have occurred just in the past generation--today's adults walked to school and played on sidewalks if not in the streets, while today's children consider the streets dangerous and unpleasant forbidden zones.

The more I think about existing cities, the more I think that it is what we now have that is impossible; that we have learned to accept the unreasonable and unlivable.

Change scares us perhaps in part because it would force us to acknowledge just how much we have given up--and question why we waited so long to fix things.

What is unimaginable about existing cities? The list is long, but I will offer a few suggestions:

The more I think about it, the more stunned I am that we accept the carnage in our streets, the loss of lives and limbs, the inability to breathe properly or sleep soundly.

Imagine describing many existing cities to someone forty years ago; they would have laughed, or called it a weird nightmare. Yet we have come to accept it as a daily reality.

Since becoming involved in carfree issues, I have begun to notice how car crashes--and bicycles--are portrayed in books and movies. An elderly man steps into the street and is hit by a young woman in a car. The man's son profusely apologizes; after all, a person stumbled into territory that belongs to the other, the car. A woman is nearly killed in a car crash; when she recovers, she gets into a car without the slightest indication of fear. Bicycles are dangerous, often brought into the plot only in order to create an injury; cyclists are crazy and anti-social. Children enjoy the freedom of cycling only until they reach the age to drive a car.

We could no doubt do this without their help, but books and movies seem intent on helping us reconcile incompatible thoughts about cars. Take my dogs, for instance--who consider books as eating rather than reading material. When they are walking and cars block the sidewalk, the cars are a nuisance, an irritating obstacle. When they wish to cross the street, cars are more than a nuisance; they are a frightening, potentially murderous force to be reckoned with. Even walking alongside a busy road, the roar of traffic and continual honking frightens and upsets them. As for their freedom of movement, this too is ruined by cars, so that they never enjoy the sensation of running free in the streets of our neighborhood.

Yet when my dogs have the chance to ride in a car, they could hardly be happier. They leap in with great delight, and ride with their noses hanging out the window, enjoying the breeze, the freedom from fear, the ability to move easily.

If I could get my dogs to answer a simple question--are cars good or bad?--I imagine they would say, that depends whether we are riding in one.

Well, they're dogs, and I know they can never reach the state of reason that is supposed to mark people as superior creatures.

That we have failed to grasp how much a myth is the image of cars bringing us freedom also amazes me. For many car users throughout the world, cars are a means to escape from the realities of the street, in one sense, but also to become immersed in traffic jams. Meanwhile, the presence of the cars has so greatly limited freedom for so many. And yet, when we discuss those limitations, they seem somehow minor, or acceptable, compared to the potential limitations involved in curtailing car use. Walk 100 meters to my car so that kids can play in my street? What then is the point of owning one??

Perhaps we fail to notice, or to react "appropriately", because the changes have been gradual. We didn't give up all our freedom, our safety, our clean air in one step. We were seduced by the seeming freedom and other advantages of cars, lulled along each step of the way. As things grow unbearable, we look around, waiting for others to react. But as bad as things are when we wish to walk or cycle, we again enjoy cars when we wish to use one. Like my dogs, we allow the incompatible to coexist; cars are awful, cars are great. We divert the tragedies, blaming them not on the existence of cars, but on the careless behavior of dogs, of cats, of children. We mourn the individual loss, but fail to grasp the overall reality.

Like the critter put in cool water that is slowly heated to a boiling point, we seem to have accepted the ever-growing problems and miseries brought by cars, because they have revealed themselves gradually over the decades instead of falling on us all at once. How hot must the water get before we wake up?

During the Jewish holiday of Passover, there is a song whose refrain consists of the word "dayenu", meaning "that would have been enough". The point of the song is, what God did for the Jews each step of the way would have been enough, but God always did more, leading them safely out of Egypt, through the desert, and so on. I cannot help but think that a similar song needs to be written--and acted on--in terms of cars and our cities, our lives.

Cars made it unsafe to play ball games in the street. Dayenu!

Cars made it unsafe to cycle. Dayenu!!

Cars made it impossible to walk comfortably within our neighborhoods or, for many, to sleep soundly at night. Dayenu!!!

Cars were considered more important and valuable than people. Dayenu!!!!

Free our cities of cars, free our cities for people. One day we will dance in the streets, and the dim fond memories of riding in a car on an empty road, the breeze blowing in the window, will seem like a silly fantasy from a long-ago world doomed by its myopia. Hurrah for the changes, hurrah for ceasing to reconcile the irreconcilable, hurrah for life in the streets!

So the point is perhaps less about accepting the possibility of a carfree city, than about ceasing to deny the impossibility of continuing to pay the costs--economic, environmental, health, social, and ethical--of car-filled ones. Travel through the looking glass and realize which is the crazy fantasy and which the glorious future reality.

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was carfree.

Debra Efroymson