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  • Sam Darling

Walk! Avanti!

Cars are good and useful tools that I enjoy. No one on Earth can parallel park a GMC Suburban in Beverly Hills like I can. And no one loves a road trip as much as I do either. I’ve traversed the USA in various vehicles, done the south island of New Zealand, zipped back and forth across southern France. I’m a road trip fiend.

Here you see me thrilled to set off from Los Angeles for a grand, four-week long road trip.

Sam Chardin Honda Prelude road trip Los Angeles 1999

So I tell you from personal experience that Americans have a strange relationship with their motor vehicles.

There’s an interesting blind spot in the US culture around private car ownership. I notice this every time I mention that we don’t own a car ourselves. We’ve lived in cities where people reflexively tell us, “You have to have a car here.” Apparently, we were living an impossible life navigating those places with no car. Walking in -20C temperatures isn’t always enjoyable, but it’s hardly impossible.

Kold in Kobenhavn

I demonstrate in December in Denmark.

When I mention I don’t own a car the conversation goes something like, “Oh, I hate taking the bus. People are so gross and inconsiderate. And you have to wait for a late bus or one that never comes. I would never give up my car.”

Fair enough. There are some parts of public transit that are a pain.

But then a short while later we ride in the person’s car and I might ask when they bought it and the same person will say, “It’s only two years old but I’ve already had to replace the timing belt and repair the air conditioning twice. And then I had an accident last year. That one cost me!”

It’s a funny thing that people will compare only the bad parts of public transit to the good parts of private car ownership.

There are times that we need a car. We have two children and some errands just can’t be run by foot. Our solutions include: grocery delivery, renting a car, begging a ride, and Car2Go or Zipcar or some other car share program. I’ve had to install the car seats more times than I can count, but overall these solutions work well. We have the added flexibility of choosing vehicles based on needs: a van for moving furniture versus a smart car for a quick errand to the store.

When you let go of cars as your primary mode of transport the world looks like a different place. That “deal” on a quiet house in the suburbs is actually remote and very expensive. Because we walk I rarely wear heels. Because we walk I don’t need to go to the gym as often. Because we walk I dress for the weather and I find climate-controlled stores over air conditioned. Because we walk I notice details and greet neighbors and pick up trash on the roadside. Because my kids and I walk and use the bus they are great at talking to strangers and have good instincts for when someone is friendly versus when someone is creepy.

Auckland park 2009 Chardin

Last year I stayed with a friend in a lovely countryside area of New Hampshire and she was kind enough to loan me her new car so I could get around with the kids while she was at work. I was actually looking forward to this vacation from my hard-walking lifestyle. I thought that everyone chooses the car because it is a delightful luxury.

Driving was a pain in the ass.

Again, I love to drive. But let’s compare: My baby is in a stroller and we’re walking and she falls asleep. I do a bit of food shopping, sling the groceries over the handle of the stroller, drop into a clothing store to get socks, walk a block to the bank to run an errand, and decide to stop into a cafe to read and have a snack. Her older sister chats or reads while the baby sleeps and then we walk to a nearby park and have a good play. The baby wakes up and joins in the play time for a while. It starts to rain so we throw on the wet gear and then walk home. We sing a song together on the walk home and pick some wild flowers. After five miles of walking over the course of several hours we’re all tired and flop on the couch to watch a movie and cuddle.

Or… I’m driving and the baby falls asleep. Now what? Wake her and take her into the store? Park somewhere to read? Well, okay, but the only places I can get coffee are drive-thru fast food joints so I guess her older sister is eating junk for lunch today. We’ll drive to the park now. That’s all right. And there’s the latching and unlatching ritual. Older sister is getting frustrated because she can’t see over the dash and she’s bored. I can’t really chat so I turn on the radio and let the kids sing along with it when the baby isn’t asleep. If I’m not too busy navigating traffic I might sing along. There are no kids at the local park because people don’t use public spaces in the same way when they drive. Baby wakes up. We play a bit and then drive home but the kids haven’t had enough exercise or fun chatting with strangers and they’re bouncing off the walls. Meanwhile, I’m exhausted even though I’ve barely had any exercise today. This isn’t delightful.

Auckland wintergarden 2009

This summer we were in a similarly bucolic country house in the USA and it was gorgeous but it also hurt me. So much lovely countryside, yet I witnessed two different people drive their driveway to retrieve their mail. I thought, “At least they have to mow those giant lawns for some exercise” until I saw them all on Sunday on their motorized lawn mowers. I should have guessed. Any errands was a 20-minute drive. We tried walking but it was dangerous with no sidewalks and speedsters. We played in a cornfield but the neighbors were anxious when they saw people walking near their property because no one walks.

In only three weeks I gained weight and felt like crap because of lack of exercise. The older friends complained of their diabetes or bad backs and I could see how just a few months of their lifestyle would put me into a similar fix in the near future.

When Americans visit Europe on vacation you will often hear, “It’s amazing! We ate like pigs but didn’t gain an ounce. It must have been all of the walking.”

Part of the problem is that people in the USA have some of the cheapest petrol in the world. They’ll complain about the rising cost of gasoline, but the reality is that their gas is subsidized and ridiculously cheap, certainly not reflecting the actual toll on the planet or the community. Their parking is also subsidized and frequently free–or rather paid for in their taxes. Driving looks like an attractive option when it’s not too much more expensive than taking the bus. But it’s a lie. Driving is killing Americans.

I’m not using hyperbole either. Driving is literally the most dangerous thing that Americans do each day.

I’ve had many conversations with concerned parents who are worried about the health and safety of their child with regards to stranger danger, schooling, imaginary fears about genetically modified foods or vaccination… yet the single most dangerous and well documented danger to their child they blithely ignore. People will actually move further away to a “safer” neighborhood, thereby increasing their risk to their kids by having to drive more. It doesn’t seem to matter how the math works out, people simply “feel” safer when they drive. But it’s a lie. It’s a lie that Americans are blind to because they are in a car-centric culture and can’t see it. Cars do something to us on a psychological level. Enveloped in our fiberglass and metal skin we are separated from the rest of humanity. We watch things happening on the other side of our windshield as though we are watching a movie.

Sitting in that soft, couch-like chair I witness the things happening out there but I am not a participant. This is not my community, I am merely passing through. This is not my responsibility, I am merely observing. I’m in a hurry to get home and put my feet up and relax and that pedestrian walking with her stroller in the rain looks like a sucker to me.

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