By Dom Nozzi
In our societal transformation toward extreme dependence on cars, Americans have come to neglect an essential element of our quality of life. A large portion of our daily lives (approximately 10 percent, on average) consists of journeys to destinations (almost always, in America, by car). Car travel—because it requires deployment of a large metal box usually driven at high speeds—inherently isolates travelers from others, and compels us to make our routes as high-speed as possible. Get from Point A to Point B as fast as is feasible. The result, over the course of several decades, is that we have neglected the quality of our travel routes.
Of course, this is precisely what we should expect.
When the quest to increase the speed of the journey becomes the imperative, all other features of the route become secondary and forgotten. Nothing matters except figuring out ways to get cars moving more swiftly. What has happened, as a result, is that American streets and roads have often become terrible, horrifying, strip commercial auto slums. Or are lined with sterile residential compounds that turn their backs to the road (typically thrusting out a protruding garage), and are often set far back from the road behind security systems.
Is it any surprise that we do what we can to minimize how much time we spend along such “car sewers” by striving to maximize our speed of travel?
Increasing car speeds along routes, by adding travel lanes, widening travel lanes, removing on-street parking, and setting buildings and trees back from the road or street, creates a downwardly spiraling pressure for property owners along the routes to establish “sellscapes.” Enormous billboards, glaring and flashing lights, cartoonish “anywhere USA” architecture, buildings as signs, etc., are established in a desperate, effort to attract the attention of the potential customer speeding by in their car. It becomes an arms race. If my competitor down the road puts up a big sign to attract customers, I need to shout louder by putting up a bigger, brighter, more jarring sign.
Under such circumstances, the motorist and the property owner don’t give a damn about the quality of the road—the “public realm.” Motorists want to fly through it as fast as possible and retailers want to scream to these potential custormers as loud as they can in the few seconds the retailer has to draw the attention of the high-velocity motorist.
In the end, the quality of life for Americans is substantially harmed because so many of us spend so much of our lives being exposed to such awful misery in our daily journeys—about one-tenth of our day.
In America, it is all about the destination, not the journey. The destination quality is maximized. The journey is neglected and degraded, and thereby becomes horrendous misery. Our quality of life therefore suffers immensely.
And our blood pressure rises as we angrily (or frightfully) engage in (or are the victims of) road rage on a nearly daily basis. We find ourselves locked in competitive combat with our fellow citizens while involved in a simple, daily act that should be enjoyable—travel.
By striking contrast, in places such as western Europe, where traditional design and transportation choices are still employed (i.e., where there is less of an imperative to be narrowly, destructively focused on making cars happy), almost all journeys are a sociable, pleasant, therapeutic experience.
Streets are friendly. Calmer. More vibrant and attractive. Buildings are detailed and rich with ornamentation. Shopfronts abut the sidewalk to form a comfortable sense of enclosure—a human-scaled “outdoor room.” There are actually civic, civilized places to stop and chat. Travelers are more patient and happy. More willing to be courteous to others. Some of us actually smile at our neighbors as we pass by.
Because the journey is often so much better in Europe than in America, and because it consumes a fairly sizable portion of our day, the European quality of life increasingly exceeds that of Americans, despite the American cornucopia of luxury cars, luxury homes, and luxury entertainment systems.
Isn’t it time for Americans to return to the time-tested, famed tradition of slowing down to smell the roses? To return to the recognition that the journey matters?
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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