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City Places for City People
A Word from Richard Risemberg for August, 2002

Car Crazy

A few weeks ago I rode LA's excellent Rapid bus along Wilshire to downtown, where I met up with the girlfriend to see the Andy Warhol exhibit at MoCA. It was a beautiful early summer evening, and quite a crowd had drifted into the museum plaza when I arrived. I lingered on the steps, people watching and enjoying the fountain-cooled breezes of the financial district, when the cell phone rang in my pocket. It was my darling, asking me to look east up Grand Avenue, where I soon saw her little red car zipping along. She waved as she passed and scurried on in her search for a parking space. Ten or fifteen minutes later she wandered up to the museum, and we went in to see the show.

We rode home together in her car. Night had come and the sky, what you could see of it through the windshield, was a luminous dark lavender; streetlamps glared along Olympic Boulevard and neon buzzed in the shop windows on either side. We talked over Warhol and art and such as you would expect, then turned up La Brea Avenue to head for home. A few minutes later, a college student coming the other way cut left through a gap in the traffic to enter a stripmall's driveway and hit our car. The little red Acura slid up over the curb and into a lamp pole, both sides smashed. The car was fifteen years old, and it was an obvious total.

The girlfriend took it calmly for a few days--I never drive except with her, so I suffered little change in routine--but after the psychological shock wore off, and she began to miss the protective delusions of her automotive habits, she became increasingly nervous, a condition only ameliorated, not relieved, by the college student's insurer providing us a rental car for a few weeks. (A colleague of mine at work, whose car was stolen only a few days before this, also suffered greatly from anxiety in the aftermath.) So it is that I am contributing to the purchase of a new small car--in solidarity with my darling, though I would never buy one for myself--certainly not while I live in a city.

And as we sat in traffic in various rental cars--including a prospective purchase choice--I felt once again the weight of delusion that automotive culture foists upon us. Most particularly I felt irritated at the idea that we are actually being or going someplace when we drive. Most of the time we aren't, not really.

Sitting on the freeway one bright afternoon, I stared through the windshield at the gleaming posteriors of car after car in the lanes ahead, bulges of hollow steel separated from each other by bleary-pale expanses of asphalt striped alternately with white paint and grease smears. On either side of the freeway were rows of ragged oleanders, or in some sections a sloping concrete wall. Inside the car was the familiar array of vinyl and glass, the usual rumbles of car travel, the same weary whining of canned music. We were together, but we were nowhere in particular, fast traversing a space designed so specifically for fast traversing that it served no other purpose, and all our efforts to fill the time with music or talk could not make up for the prison-cell barrenness of the experience. In prison, too, one has company and music--but no one volunteers for it, as most of us do to drive. And I thought, I'll never gain these minutes spent here back; they are gone, and I'll grow old and die without them.

And I thought of a few months back when we were shopping for a new suit for me. The first place we visited was within walking distance of our home, but, because she had grown up habituated to the way you shop in car culture, we immediately therafter set out on a dreary odyssey of the West and East San Fernando Valleys, driving some hundred miles and visiting four or five more stores. All these stores were in low-density suburbs, and even the ones that were of the same chain as the first we visited had smaller selections, to fit the more restricted collective tastes of their less-diverse communities. In the end, we found a beautiful, classic suit, at a good price--in the first store we'd gone to--the one located a walk away, in a dense, diverse, highly-pedestrianized (though still traffic-plagued) city community.

The more we drive, the less we get done. We become amateur chauffeurs, paying rather than being paid for the privilege, and we throw away precious minutes of our lives that we could spend in transaction, or in company--including the company found in buses and trains and on sidewalks--we spend our minutes in the numbing sameness of the car and traffic. The motions and efforts we expend convince us we're doing something, and the hurry and frustration we feel convince us it's something important…but it's just time thrown away, doing things inefficiently and alone that we could, if our cities were built only a little differently, be doing quickly, conveniently, and in company.

Well, there's a subway in Los Angeles, of all cities, and pedestrian streets are showing up more and more, and not far from where we work there is a new mall gone up that has sidewalk storefronts, underground parking, apartments on the top floors, and a subway station nearby. And the store where we bought that handsome suit? It's in another mall--one made to imitate a pedestrian street (of which there are a couple of real ones in LA). It even has a quarter-mile-long trolley system. It fails, it's terribly fake, and it turns a blank wall to the real street and the huge luxury apartment complexes across that street, but even in failure it acknowledges that we have been doing something wrong, and it shyly points in the direction we ought to go.

The New Colonist can tell you much about the ways we can make our lives better in the city. Read through it, and let us know what you think. And then look at two more sites I recommend:

Living Room
Carfree Cities

There's a better way. There are many better ways. It's up to us to reshape the world. We can do it together. Or we can sit out our lives in traffic jams, each in the expensive prison of his choice.

Richard Risemberg

Go to A Word from Eric Miller