King of the Road

I love my car. Not necessarily the specific car I drive now — more accurately, I love having a car available to me (two, in fact). They’re great for a quick trip to the supermarket. I also love day trips with my wife. We travel well together. And, when you have to go somewhere “with stuff,” like helping your child move into a college dorm, cars are just about indispensable. Life would be soooo inconvenient without them.

All this is a rather lengthy way of saying, I’m just like you. I’m totally hooked on owning a car and using it to get wherever I need to go. Based on the number of cars on our roads, I have to assume that most of you feel this way too.

Yes, we love our cars, but we sacrifice a lot in the name of love.

Almost 34,000 people were killed in automobile accidents in the United States in 2009, and over 2,000,000 people were injured during the same period.1

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) “The current U.S. transportation infrastructure focuses on motor vehicle travel and provides limited support for other transportation options for most Americans. [As a result] Physical activity and active transportation have declined compared to previous generations. The lack of physical activity is a major contributor to the steady rise in rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other chronic health conditions in the United States.”

Again, according to the CDC: “Transportation accounts for approximately one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.”2

The United States has the largest network of roadways of any country at 3,995,644 miles (2005). On average over 20% of developed land in a typical U.S. community is devoted to the automobile in the form of roads, parking lots, gas stations and garages. In some cities, such as New York, it exceeds 30%.

Streets in our communities have been redefined by the automobile from places with various uses to channels for moving the most vehicular traffic as quickly as possible, bringing new dangers, and degrading the qualities that make our communities attractive: spontaneity, locality, and human interaction.3

And cars can be just plain annoying — when you’re stuck in traffic, when you’re trying to cross a busy street, or when car horns or alarms destroy the peace of a residential neighborhood.

Are the sacrifices worth it? Maybe some are for the short term, but I suspect that the short term — from the dawn of the automobile age to the present — is rapidly coming to an end. The combined impacts of the automobile on our planet, our communities and our health have now become unsustainable.

Fortunately, strategies for making alternative forms of transit more available and more desirable already exist. Implementation of these strategies however, requires both public and private will. Government on all levels has to be willing to abandon old habits in the areas of  planning and funding. At the same time, individuals — that’s you and me — will have to be willing to sacrifice some convenience.

And, we all must be prepared to challenge some very fundamental assumptions underlying our responses to questions about the future of transportation. Must congested roads always be “improved” to promote better traffic flow? How do we determine an appropriate level of service for a new road? Is it determined by traffic flow alone, or also by the needs of the pedestrians, bicyclists and shop owners along the road? In other words, is the car still king of the road, or are we ready to acknowledge that roads must be shared, and that streets are places for walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and mass transit vehicles as well?

Strategies such as complete streets, smart growth, shared spaces, healthy communities, placemaking, and more offer a variety of ways in which communities can adapt in order to make it easier for individuals to regularly use more varied modes of transportation, including active choices such as walking and biking. This is part two of a multi-part series on our “car-centric” culture. In future posts I’ll talk more about these strategies and how some of them might work here in Sag Hampton.

What are your thoughts and feelings about your cars? Is the era of “Car as King” over? Are you ready to embrace mass transit, walking, biking? If not, what will it take to get you out of your car? Share you thoughts on these questions, or other concerns you may have in the comments below.



(1) Motor Vehicle Accidents–Number and Deaths
(2) CDC Transportation Recommendations
(3) The Traffic Guru by Tom Vanderbilt. The Wilson Quarterly

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3 Responses to King of the Road

  1. Corinne says:

    As someone who was never able to drive a car, I have to say it’s like a nice deep breath when family or friends with cars offer me a ride or help with transporting something heavy. It makes a trip so much more pleasant when I don’t have to carry heavy luggage all over the subway just to get to my bus or train. And the more small trips I take and the more heavy objects I lug around, it’s like a tension build-up over time which is all released when I get that next gift of a car ride.

    I don’t have anything in mind as an answer to your question, but I just thought I’d share that little nugget of nonsense anyway.

  2. Dorothy Reilly says:

    Love your “King of the Road” car thoughts. I’m wanting in on the discussions of ‘complete streets’ – making our roads for all people, not just the cars. Where do we focus our attention to make them the norm, so leaving our car at home will be enjoyable? We’ll get to improve our overall health and the health of the planet at the same time as you point out so well, a win-win for all.

    • Saltbox says:

      Right now most of the conversation on “complete streets” is taking place at the meeting of the Southampton Transportation Commission. These are open meetings. Anyone can attend, and there is a public input item on every agenda (although it’s rare that we actually have members of the public attending). I believe we’re almost done with the draft resolution we are creating for the Town Board, so the discussion will move there soon. Tom Neely is going to make a presentation to the Town Board sometime in the next month.

      There is no simple answer to your question as to how we make alternative forms of transportation the norm. A complete streets policy is good first step. Improved mass transit is another important ingredient. Implementation of zoning changes to encourage “smart growth” type development in the hamlets is yet another. And one should never forget educating the public, because all these concepts — complete streets, mass transit, smart growth, and others in that vein are always subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Now that I’ve stated all the foregoing, it occurs to me that a series of public forums throughout the town might be an excellent place to start.

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