Recently, I read an article by D.J. Waldie, the bard of suburban living and author of the critically-acclaimed memoir of Lakewood Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. As the product of suburbia myself, Waldie’s essay got me thinking about the ways in which the form of the suburb has shaped our thinking about the automobile and personal mobility in general.
Waldie’s memoir is a defense of the postwar suburb against those who argue that they are essentially places without memory, without individuality, making up in materialism what they lack in culture. For Waldie, Lakewood was his place of memory, the place that shaped his individuality, and his almost poetic defense of it let you know that it wasn’t without its deeper cultural significance.
In his recent essay, Waldie wrote about giving a tour of Lakewood to Gwendolyn Wright, professor of Architecture at Columbia University, and offered his insight on ways suburban form shapes the consciousness of the individual and, by extension, the community. ”The tour is, by necessity,” he writes,
an argument with illustrations. It’s an argument about the place of everydayness and about the purpose of the habits of ordinariness that are built into any human-made landscape. Inescapably, the built molds the personal. It works even in inattentiveness, engraving patterns of the familiar.
Waldie allows that this landscape is perhaps best understood on foot, for it is only at the slower pace that one sees the small details that give texture to a place.
Walkers see modest (even humble) vistas opening at a pace that lets contemplation occur unbidden. You can be woefully distracted by daydreams or sorrow while walking a suburban sidewalk, but then a birdcall, the rattle of the wind in the leafless trees, the unconscious expectation fulfilled in seeing again some sight will momentarily lighten the darkness of self-absorption. A sense of place is made.
As anyone who has bicycled or walked a neighborhood knows, one sees, hears, senses so much more of a place on foot or on a bike than in a car. In fact, one of the things that has struck me so powerfully since I began riding my bike for transportation four years ago is the richer sense of place one gets when not in a car. It’s not just the speed, it’s also the way we are literally insulated from “the world” in our cars. It is a testament to the blindness of many developers that some postwar suburban streets even lack sidewalks as well as safe places to ride bikes.
At least Waldie considers a walking tour, but ultimately succumbs to the imperative of the automobile. ”It’s not possible,” he says, to walk the tour.
My town is relatively dense but not very compact, and we have to drive to its places of memory.
“We have to drive.” How often, living in suburbia, do we hear those words? How often have we said them without thinking? Nestled in the middle of his sentence is one of the shortcomings of suburbia writ large. Aside from the suburban home mortgage, the car is likely the largest personal expense incurred by the suburban family. Thus it requires an enormous personal investment in a car to be a fully functioning member of the suburb. This is one reason that suburban teenagers dream of the freedom of the drivers’ license and the car. Without it, “it is not possible” to participate fully in the life of suburbia, and thus, to be fully human. The car becomes an imperative and raises the cost of admission to suburbia.
Consider the social cost of this investment. It impoverishes public transportation as working people struggle to pay for private motorized transportation (an average of $8,000 per car per year, according to 2012 figures from AAA). That is an average of $8,000 per car per year invested in private modes of transportation instead of public transit. Add to this the taxes and fees that go toward the building and maintenance of freeways and it’s no wonder suburbanites are often reluctant to support funding of public transit. After shelling out thousands to car companies, finance banks, insurance companies, and auto repair shops, how much do they have left over? The car also impoverishes public space, necessitating acres of parking lots for their storage, acreage that is bereft of any real human purpose.
There are, of course, the environmental consequences of the “we have to drive” mentality, not the least of which is climate change, and it is due time that we who live in suburbia address the way our mode of transport affects our world. It’s not that any single person in suburbia is responsible for traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change, but collectively we in suburbia are a big part of the problem when we assume driving is the way things have to be.
The real shame of the “we have to drive” mentality is that a city like Lakewood is eminently bikeable. With a relatively flat topography and a little more than 3.5 miles across at its widest point, it would be easy to bike around Lakewood, enjoying the benefits the walker enjoys without adding to pollution, traffic, and the social isolation that the car causes. Indeed, on Lakewood’s eastern edge sits the San Gabriel River bike path, which offers a dedicated bike route to the seashore in less time than it takes to get your car’s oil changed at the nearest Jiffy Lube. Of course, I think some of Lakewood’s arterial streets need to be made more bike-friendly, as do most of suburbia’s, but distance and geography are not barriers to bicycling Lakewood.
None of this is meant to single out Lakewood as uniquely car-centric in its thinking. It is a problem confronting all of suburbia. Indeed, Lakewood has a relatively bikeable grid pattern of streets, instead of the awful meandering cul-de-sac model favored by some suburban developers (curving cul-de-sacs emptying onto high-speed arterials are much less bikeable and walkable). It raises the importance of infrastructure in providing alternatives to the car-centered lifestyle, and some suburban streetscapes are more amenable to bikeability and walkability than others. Nevertheless, we need to start thinking, as more communities are, about using the streets we’ve got in ways that encourage alternative transportation, even in suburbia.
Perhaps the best part of bicycling suburbia, where possible, is that it opens an alternative to the unthinking “we have to drive” reflex. I look forward to the day when walking or riding a bicycle for short trips around one’s hometown becomes part of the “habits of ordinariness” in the suburban landscape. When that happens, the suburban “sense of place” will be that much richer.