1.16.2008

SUBURBAN ANTHROPOLOGIST

I'm here in San Jose, where I spent 15 of my 18 childhood years but where I haven't lived in almost two decades. So while I feel like I know the area pretty well, in another sense there's a foreignness not unlike visiting a new country. So let me put my "untrained anthropologist" hat on and tell you what I've observed so far.

Amy and I like to take the kids for walks, and if there's one thing we've learned about the area around where my parents live, it's that it's very pedestrian-unfriendly. There are curb cuts for every driveway but almost never at street corners, so strollers and luggage and wheelchairs have to plop down a good six inches and then tilt back up a good six inches on the other side of the street. But why would parents, travelers, and the handicapped be walking anyway, since everyone drives to exactly where they want to go; garages are literally inside your house, and retail centers are seas of parking lots.

I had lunch with a friend of mine who lives in Oakland and asked him whether it was absolutely necessary to own a car in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco. He said most every family owns at least one, no matter how poor; and if you're really poor and can't afford one, you're pretty screwed, because public transit involves long waits and longer walks.

And this is why public transit is the one area where I'm a flaming liberal. Making a car practically necessary for efficient living leads to a lot of poor people living very inefficient lives, and other almost poor people getting very junky (read: fuel-inefficient) cars to get around. This can't be socially optimal in the grand scheme of things.

Pair this with low densities and not a lot of mixing of uses, and you have all sorts of environmental and equity problems. To drop off the dry cleaning, pick up a gallon of milk, and mail a package might take you to three separate places, involving four distinct car trips (home to Point A, Point A to Point B, Point B to Point C, and Point C to home) and the pollution belched and energy consumed involved in firing up the car each time, and further clogging and wearing down roads. If you're either so poor you can't afford a car or so eco-conscious that you intentionally avoid using your car, the time you allocate for this set of errands could well end up being multiple hours.

Speaking of suburban anthropologists, what year will we look back at as the year we realized suburban living was environmentally unsustainable and socially inequitable? Slap on a national carbon tax, and it'll be sooner to the present, and we'll get on with real talk and real action towards some solutions that work. Reporting from suburban San Jose in the year 2008, I'm signing off.
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