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Bumper to Bumper
"You're not stuck in a traffic jam, you are the jam."
--German public transport campaign,
Urban Transport International
"It was the thing that I most regretted leaving behind."
--President Bill Clinton surveying a Mustang in Phoenix
"It's not a car. It's an aphrodisiac."
--Infiniti advertisement launched on the
twenty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day
The nation's wake-up call goes like this: "Some of the usual rough stuff out there." "It's a mess." "Don't even think of trying the expressway this morning." "You'll find a stack-up at the intersection, where a tractor trailer truck has turned over, so avoid...."
It's morning in America and avoid is the imperative word. But avoiding is impossible. Traffic reports post warnings for specific locales, but why bother? The hits keep coming. At rush hour, A.M. or P.M., it's the usual: "heavy traffic in the usual places"; it's "the usual twenty-minute delay." The radio blares a chorus of stalled cars and jammed bridges, of car fires backing up interstates, of vapor lock bolting traffic into a motionless mass. Everywhere the commuters' clock ticks off the 8 billion hours a year Americans spend stuck in traffic.
The commuter's trip should jar us to a realization of the auto-bound life that penalizes both nondrivers and drivers of our 200 million motor vehicles. From the jammed tunnel under the Continental Divide to the Cross Bronx Expressway, movement is stymied on the nation's corridors. On the coasts that hold two-thirds of all Americans, the long-suffering "BosWash" and the newer "Los Diegos" freeways greet their share of the day's 80 million car commuters, and, with a screech of brakes, the love song of freedom and mobility goes flat. Freedom? Mobility?
We have heard these complaints before but never for so long a stretch of the day. A generation or so ago, in the complacent fifties, the motion was not so perpetual. The powerhouses of an earlier auto age rested between the hours of the commute. At midday roads emptied out. After darkness, too, there was respite as the steel chargers of the postwar boom, all those fin-tailed Buicks, those fang-grilled Chevies and Fords were corralled for the night in the nation's ranch houses.
Now, though, with four times the 50 million vehicles of that era and far more dispersed trips, the traffic never ceases. Highways become sealed chambers of isolation as commuters put in an average of ten forty-hour weeks behind the wheel each year. Back roads and arterials stall during our three-plus daily trips on errands. Steaming and waiting in traffic, we pay penance for the growth in cars and trips. Trading time behind the wheel for space in the exurbs, work-bound Americans travel from before daybreak to after dark to ever more sprawling homes.
No wonder aerial views show arteries that look like a chain of cabooses, bumper to bumper across the nation. In the last two decades we have doubled the mileage of the nation's highways and promptly filled these new roads by traveling twice as many miles. Seattle's traffic, for example, rising 121 percent in the past decade, matches most regions whose growing populations clog their roads. The chorus of complaints on congestion is hardly confined to any one place. A front-page Labor Day photo depicts a bulb-lit sign at a traffic jam near the tollbooth on the New Hampshire Turnpike. Its message emphasizes the irony: "ENJOY YOUR HOLIDAY!"
For decades traffic experts have observed the capacity of more highways to simply breed more traffic. "If you build it, they will come," the popular phrase, is the bleak truth confirmed by science and history. "Generated traffic" is the professional phrase used to describe the traffic generated by increased roads. "Triple convergence," another term, describes how more road space promotes more traffic in Anthony Downs's Stuck in Traffic, that is, if you have more road at peak hours, more cars will converge for three reasons: Some will converge for the improved roadway (spatial convergence), some for the more convenient time (temporal convergence), and some from public transportation (modal convergence). Equally glum and mathematical, the so-called Braess's paradox confirms that "by adding capacity to a crowded [highway] network you could actually slow things down." Add the experience of history, and you see why our road building prompts even some federal highway officials to predict that congestion will quadruple in the next twenty years.
And yet, the fact is slow to puncture the mythology of the traffic engineer. Highway departments in, say, St. Louis, whose relatively clear roads would be the envy of many a traffic manager, ask for widening. So do those in smalltown Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the tree-shaded model for Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. "It doesn't seem to penetrate," says an official in Atlanta, whose "Spaghetti Junction," the largest interchange in America, jams the district of House leader Newt Gingrich. The "spaghetti" proliferates, and so do the nicknames for the junctions of the expressways nationwide. "Long Island Distressway" is the one used by New Yorkers. Orlando's Interstate 4, already six lanes choked to a standstill, will need twenty-two more lanes by the millennium, regional planners insist. New Jersey's ex-Governor James Florio says, "our highway 287 is a parking lot." Everywhere roads expand, and so does traffic.
So, of course, have cars and the miles they travel. In the two decades after 1970, vehicle miles increased 90 percent and the registrations of those who drove them by more than 70 percent. In that time, wrote Downs, "The number of cars and trucks in use increased nearly 50 percent, twice as fast as the number of households in absolute terms and one-third faster in relative terms, faster, too, than the number of licensed drivers." The momentum has yet to subside.
At Home as We Range
So it is that we spend our lives behind the wheel. With almost two motor vehicles for every household, the car has become the ship of the highway desert. A multipurpose vessel, the automobile is outfitted to allay our hours sequestered there, a home away from home. The motor vehicle is a private chamber to telephone a buddy or boss with one hand and little concentration, a powder room to put on makeup, a cafeteria for lunching--at times simultaneously. We play Moby Dick or Stephen King on tape, and run a cellular phone or fax. Otherwise tidy human beings smoke and toss their cigarettes; otherwise decorous ones floss their teeth. Self-professed safe drivers take notes, talk to their clients, fight with their mates, or, incredibly, read or watch TV. Our backseats and trunks have become the attics of America.
In artist Anthony Natsoulas's sculpture a ceramic man is tucked into a real car seat. He is shoeless, his cigar in one hand, his phone attached to his ear in the exhibition Los Angeles Drives Me Wild. The artist has stationed a pizza in the figure's lap, a book between his legs, and a crumpled soda can on the floor. Life imitates art. "Going for a ride just isn't what it used to be," another sculptor in the exhibition labeled his piece. His "urban assault mobile" brandished a pistol and a ball and chain above a collection of license plates. It isn't all imagination. "You look up and see brake lights in your face, and you just have to jam on the brakes," a real-life driver described an accident in Washington, D.C. Down falls the computer, if not the driver. These are the hazards of trying to make up for lost time. But there are worse ones, like the Virginia commuter who crashed and died as he was consuming his lunch with fork in hand on a dog day in August traffic.
Automobile advertising goes to great lengths to befog these unnerving events. In the vast, untenanted scenarios delivered by Madison Avenue, the red racer swirls across an empty landscape. The great escape machine, built into the American dream of the getaway, beckons. No mountain or prairie, no desert or glacier is beyond four-wheel drive. In endless hours of television, the nation's quest for mobility is dramatized by such views. Commercials sell our shared imagery of the ninety-mile-an-hour roads less traveled. American corporations spend $40 billion a year to promote the car, $1 billion from GM alone.
With the ring of the cash register, advertisers concede the animosity and virtual warfare bred by the frantic search. "WLDNCRZY" (wild and crazy), said a Subaru commercial; "Presenting A Car Well Prepared To Take On Your Fellow Driver." A photo of license plates bore still other words: "NASTY1," "EAT DUST," "NUTS 2U," and "IG02XS." It's a jungle out there. As gridlock frays nerves and distances increase, driving accelerates aggression. "Look at it this way. Since the next guy is capable of almost anything, shouldn't the same be true of your next car," the advertisement concludes.
The stalled traffic has also given us a new breed of entrepreneur. On the Cross Bronx Expressway, highway peddlers cruise from lane to lane hustling mobile phones to the immobilized vehicles. In Boston vendors sell coffee by the tollbooth at jam-packed Callahan Tunnel during rush hour. Hawkers of newspapers at exits and stoplights share space with pushers for charities, bogus or real; street merchants sell cellophane-wrapped day-old roses. Entrepreneurship also lives on the road in the perceived menace of window washers wielding squeegees. Some drivers find intimidation in the strong-arm aggression. Others have sympathy for the pathos of "Will Work for Food" signs as the homeless stake out exit ramps in Manhattan, Los Angeles, or West Palm Beach.
In the desolate world of the parking lot, criminality grows. Stores distribute antitheft pamphlets in supermarket lots. Thefts, vehicle snatchings, and other hostile acts of our violent society swell on the highway. Actor Michael Douglas, the iconic angry white man in the movie Falling Down, was driven to rampage by L.A. traffic. Sexual symbol, getaway vehicle, or status object, the car has also become the weapon of choice, say some behaviorists and police. "The ideal vehicle for `type A' personalities," a Mitsubishi ad crowed. "Aggressive on the outside. Uncompromising on the inside." Given the anonymity of tinted glass windows, isolated highways, and sidewalks emptied by a driving population, the car culture sets the stage for antisocial behavior.
The Los Angeles freeways looked like a shooting range as fierce motorists took potshots in the early 1990s, about the time "drive-by shooting" entered the lexicon. By 1992 "carjacking" was another new phrase added to the dictionary of automobile crime. Don't look the other driver in the eye, the cautious advised as tempers rose. "Aggression Gets Wheels" was the headline used by one article describing a deadly incident that resulted from a "mistake." "The `mistake' in Brighton (Massachusetts) was not accelerating fast enough for a green light," the Boston Globe began its compilation of car-bred Christmas violence. "In Brockton last Friday, the mistake was tailgating. In Peabody, Monday night, it was passing in a no-passing zone." In Miami rent-a-car companies installed "panic buttons" to be used to call for help. The device came from Avis for a $5 a day charge, "a safety and security issue," said the company. Sales of cellular phones record both busy, car-bound lives and the nighttime fears of drivers on the lonely roads of an asphalt nation.
Dancing with Cars
Along with these dirges, we hear and read odes to the automobile. The romance of the road pervades our fantasies. "Americans love their cars" echoes with numbing regularity. Who has not heard or uttered a tale of the rite of passage that begins with the first license or the first set of wheels? Who has not expressed the inclination to go "on the road," in a swoon to the automotive dalliance of Jack Kerouac. The flexibility of car travel, the instant gratification, the indispensability of an automobile in a world designed for driving--all resound. And the one-million-plus cars sold every month attest to their imperative.
So bound are we to the sentiments--and the sentimentality--so dependent are we on this singular style of movement, that we must sometimes strain to hear or acknowledge the alternative view: that our culture's submission to a car-dependent way of life will only get worse. Listen to Madison Avenue and you hear the inconveniences amid the lore: "The 19th unwritten law of driving: the shortest distance between two points is always under construction," says an Isuzu Trooper advertisement.
"You're an hour from work. You can't change your job. You can change your space," a Lexus commercial goes on. Personal space, the advertisers mean, as the camera closes in on the driver's cornucopia of interior fittings, from cup holder to stereo. Yes, this is an enticement for a pleasure vehicle. But it is also an acknowledgment that fancy fittings are the best we can do to ease the commute.
When sales reps concede the car's inconvenience, something is askew. The nation is in gridlock. And not just on the road. The nation is in "lifelock" to the automobile as the dominant means of transportation. It is in its grip so securely that we can barely perceive how both the quality of mobility and the quality of life have diminished. For the startling fact is that it is not just the journey to work, not only the dashboard-pounding commuter, who creates the bulk of traffic and logs in the lost time, but all of us. In fact, the commute itself consumes less than one-quarter of our trips, a smaller percentage than two decades ago. Specifically, work-bound travel devours only 22.5 percent of the pie graphed by the Nationwide Personal Transportation Study of the Federal Highway Administration.
Statistically, most of our expanding hours behind the wheel, nearly eight of every ten vehicle miles we travel, have nothing to to with work. Neither are these miles vacation trips or long-distance travel, the reasons Americans give for buying the first--or second or third--automobile. Such holiday trips consume fewer miles than might be expected, a scant 8 percent of our total mileage.
What sets the odometer reeling is something else. It is something less critical than life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. And that is errands. According to the highway administration study one-third of the miles we travel go to consumption and family chores. A bottle of milk, a tube of toothpaste, a Little League game, taking grandma to the hospital or junior for eye glasses spin the miles. The ministuff of life clogs the nation's roads. Another third falls under the "social and recreational" category. These are the hours of amusement and friendship reached by wheel: a workout, a movie, a dinner. Total these lifestyle choices and tally the chores to consume, survive, and fraternize and we have covered two-thirds of our driving miles, more than half of the ten to twelve thousand miles of travel per car per year.
"Trip chaining" is the traffic engineers' word for these serial pickup trips. They come to six round-trips a day per household to cover the so-called family and personal category of our car-dependent lives. This eternal need for a ton of steel creates the shop and drop cycle that runs us ragged. To-ing and fro-ing, we spend our time and our horsepower on an endless round of errands. And we don't much like it. "I live in car country," a man from Rapid City, Iowa, said to me. "I need to use my car to buy a bar of soap," he complained.
Where has this rush of travel come from? Why are we so subservient to it? Some of it is demographics. Census figures tell us that we have shrunk the size of households, multiplied the number of them, and added cars for working women. Some of it is car-fed sprawl. We have sent drivers outward to settle their homes and two-car garages ever further into the hinterlands. We have deserted the compact cities and inner suburbs that offer varied housing, walkability, and public transportation. Housed at the periphery, half of all Americans own more than one car, one-third purchase a second car, and one-fifth own yet a third. Twin movements in housing and highways support and encourage movement to the outskirts in single-family dwellings.
We still build this free-standing Ozzie and Harriet house on the lone lot at the end of the road. Despite the fact that families with children under eighteen constitute only 26 percent of the population, we build for bygone demographics. In the years since Leave it to Beaver, the nuclear family of working dad and stay-at-home mom has halved in numbers, while the number of working women has risen to 46 percent of the workforce and hit the road. Thus the count on licensed drivers is 20 percent higher, and the women accounting for that increase have doubled the miles they drive.
In the great diaspora after World War II, Washington paid for the American dream and it was fulfilled. With the federal government financing 90 percent of the interstate system, the nation took to the highways, and the moving vans headed to the hills. The population of the suburbs tripled; the number of dense, walkable, transit-based cities shrank. "I want," Erma Bombeck, the bard of the lawn culture, wrote as she bought the second family car, "to go to the store, join a bowling league, have lunch downtown with the girls, volunteer, go to the dentist, take long drives in the country." She recorded her weekly ethos in the seventies. "I want to whirl dizzily in a cloud of exhaust, rotate my tires with the rest of the girls. Don't you understand? I want to honk if I love Jesus!"
Today everybody is honking at once. Distance and spatial segregation--here housing, there stores, elsewhere work--make every trip a separate car trip to a separate place. And inconvenience, mileage, and traffic multiply. On Cape Cod summer shoppers have to hit the stores before 7 A.M. or after 9 P.M. to do their errands. Crossing Cape Cod's main artery, Route 28, on foot in July can take ten minutes. "This morning at a shopping mall, I spent 20 minutes looking for a sweater and half an hour looking for my car," writer Ralph Schoenstein described parking panic in New Jersey. "Looking for my car is even better exercise than looking for my glasses, because the average parking lot is bigger than my house--or my neighborhood."
The trying lifestyle that has evolved from the automobile is the truth of fact and the subject of fiction. Mary Cahill's novel Carpool described one woman's life on wheels. "5:30--Take Phil to swim practice.... 7:00--Hurry home to make breakfast and get everyone up.... 7:15--Push Phil out door into school bus.... 8:00--Pick up Crista Galli.... 8:10--Drop Crista Galli and ..." "Mental, physical and spiritual cruelty," Cahill called it. Forget car pooling. With the mileage of the lone commuter up 35 percent in the past two decades, driving togetherness fell an almost equal amount. Some 91 percent of all households own a car.
Mom at the Wheel
The single-occupancy vehicle is a staple. And the driver of its miles remains disproportionately a she. "So where is Mom? Didn't she help Dad turn the American wilderness into a cement desert bright with golden arches?" Gore Vidal has asked. She is putting more hours behind the wheel than Russian women spend in food lines. Women not only chauffeur the bulk of America's children but also care for the nation's dependent elderly, stock the shelves of America's kitchens, and have jobs.
In a society that still apportions family chores to women, today's carburb mom, if she is lucky, is dropping the kids at the day care center, putting in a full day's work, caring for grandma and grandpa, and running errands. So, of course, is dad, but not by as many multiples, since women drivers are putting in twice as many miles as the norm. In less than ten years after 1983, women's travel guadrupled. And, by dint of those numbers, their lives became frantic. "It is women who do the driving," says Sandra Rosenbloom, of the Drachman Institute Land and Regional Development Studies at the University of Arizona, who has studied gender differences and what the traffic engineers call "transportation demand management," how to travel back and forth to a job in an orderly fashion. How to manage the unmanageable may be a woman's issue, but the transportation, the demand, and the management in this new field also apply to men, says Rosenbloom.
Rosenbloom's study of why working women drive alone and the implications for travel reduction programs underscored their household chores. Women do not take the direct route; their path is littered with errands and drop-offs because of the fact that "working mothers are much more dependent on driving alone than comparable male parents." How to solve the problem? Do environmental measures and travel reduction programs hurt working women? Rosenbloom's study asked. Her conclusion was yes. Penalties on automobiles penalize the female driver far more than the male.
Isn't that depressing? I ask her. It is dismal that positive programs to help the environment and reduce travel hurt female drivers. More than that, how shortsighted to make women and the environment adversaries. How grim that the report, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, concludes that the environment, the economy, and even the personal life of women have to suffer to ease the way for this vehicular bondage.
"You wouldn't believe how owning their first car frees women," is Rosenbloom's response.
Ah, Freedom, mobility, Ah, the open road. I mull over her words. How familiar ... how romantic ... how like a--man.
A woman in Hillsborough, Missouri, near St. Louis, discussing day care on a National Public Radio series, described her agonizing decision to quit work and stay at home with her young child. She recalled the hassles, the chaotic life, the clock without stop in her earlier life as a working mother. Then she described the piece de resistance that sent her out of the job market and home: the forty-five-minute drive to and from her day care pickup. The Child Care Action campaign newsletter phrased it concisely: "Time famine a national issue." Sociologist Arlie Hochschild of the University of California has put it another way: working mothers "talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food." But the cartoon character Sylvia tells it better in words in From the Journal of the Woman Who Never Wastes a Moment of Her Day:
This morning, while stopped at a traffic light, did some embroidery using the pre-threaded needle I keep on the passenger seat, dashed off a note to a shut-in on the stationery I keep above the visor, and partially filled out some medical insurance claim forms.... Later, caught in rush-hour traffic, I rolled down my window and screamed at the man next to me, "Your wife is cheating on you with a flight attendant," which always relieves any tension I'm carrying in my neck.
"Liberation" is the word commonly used to describe how the automobile has released women from social control and geographical confinement. Taking the Wheel, one recent history, assessed the freedom that arrived with the internal combustion machine in the early twentieth century. Mobile? Maybe. Yet, it is a false form of consciousness that fails to assess women's enslavement to the motor vehicle in the auto-dependent households and society it has helped install.
Most Americans lack stay-at-home options. The single-parent head of one-third of our households with children under eighteen, the less affluent, the households "daylighting" and moonlighting to survive cannot afford to do so. With two wage earners now joined by three-job couples working fifty hours a week, life behind the wheel becomes ever more relentless.
Parenting comes in both sexes, and at 5 A.M. on a brisk fall morning a Maryland widower backs one of his three cars out of the driveway of his modern Colonial and heads to his job in Washington, D.C. Harried on departure, he leaves work early to return equally distraught to complete the life of the after-hours chauffeur: one son to basketball, another to home, a daughter to music. It is typical of the Beltway, where the average home houses three cars, one for mom, one for dad, and one for junior of driving age. It is typical of suburban America too.
In Ties That Stress, David Elkind, a professor of child development, describes the modern home as a "railroad station" for Mr. and Ms. America's comings and goings. More likely it's a cabstand. Time-starved parents chauffeur immobilized children to sports and chores, and genuine sociability goes. The dining room table is more a revolving platform than a nuclear family idyll as one parent arrives home late while the other finishes the rounds of pickups at piano lessons and Scouts. In her book The Overworked American, Juliet Schor allotted a seventy- and eighty-hour workweek for the adults serving as the economic mainstay of the American household. She did not separate the automobile component, but considered the car factor in her categories for "care of the sick and elderly," "acquisition of goods and services," social and recreation time, and churchgoing hours. Go beyond these time drains to include the specific "transportation of people." Add "car maintenance and repair," from the normal oil change or inspection to registration. Then ponder the hours for the random accidents of a broken window, run-down battery, snowstorm, or overheated engine. The breadwinner-cum-buyer behind the wheel has lost not just leisure but life.
The Automotive Playpen
When autonomy depends on the automobile, all suffer. And those served--the children in the backseat--are as deprived as those who serve. Transported every which way from childhood through adolescence, young people lose their independence. They fail to expand their horizons, to see new surroundings, or to acquire independence and liberty on their own. The outside world dominated by the road bores, and television or computer games beckon. A study comparing ten-year-olds in a small, walkable Vermont town and youngsters in a new Orange County suburb showed a marked difference. The Vermont children had three times the mobility, i.e., the distance and places they could get to on their own, while those in Orange County watched four times as much television. To paraphrase the architectural verity, we shape the land and the land shapes us.
Given our far-flung, single-family, single-use suburban environment that purges pedestrians, given our urban environment drained of life by flight, given landscapes lacking sidewalks and multilane roads that terrorize parents and children alike, impaired mobility is more than inevitable. It is a social tragedy. "I am writing this while seated on the stoop of my house in one of Boston's inner suburbs," historian Clay McShane observes in his Down the Asphalt Path. "I am watching a parent two houses up the street teach his eighteen-month-old toddler, who is not yet toilet trained, how to walk. Every time she steps off the curb, he swats her.... In motor age America, children require street discipline at an early age. They have since the coming of traffic," he writes. Children are "probably the biggest losers."
Our auto-dependent mobility denies the child's. Across America children and young people are the victims of declining transit services, suffering not only from the debasement of walking and bicycling by the car but also from its depletion of public transportation. This deprivation extends throughout adolescence. In all but a dozen or so cities, the streetcar or bus taking the teenager to a lively urban core beyond the limits of the everyday has atrophied or disappeared. Walkers or even bicyclists who traveled freely to school, sports, or friends in times past can no longer make their way without peril. Sidewalks are few, cars many; even the mall is asphalt wrapped. We fear for children of all ages. From the toddler wobbling off the curb at his or her peril to the teenager on a bicycle forced to vie for space with the speeding internal combustion machine, our children's roadwarped lives fill us with dread.
Teenagers drive while parents shudder. The media records the death and mutilation of the gun culture, but the car culture is statistically more threatening. According to figures from the Federal Highway Administration and the Justice Department, an adolescent suburban male is more likely to be killed by an automobile than his urban peer by a gun. Teenagers, of course, relish the rite of passage to freedom. Our communal memories hold the anxiety, then the pleasure of securing a license, the first glide alone and out the driveway on one's own. We seem to forget that the "freedom" is reduced by the servitude of a car-bound society that denies movement any other way. Forced to own an automobile to see friends or get around, teenagers are hostage to paying for it by working at low-wage jobs, forsaking studies and even socializing to flip burgers in a mall--in order to move around in the suburbs--to the mall.
A reporter from the Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, doesn't accept my negative view. He has called to discuss the positive side of life in the sanctuary of the driver's seat. "People have told me it's their only time to themselves," he said, describing an article he was writing on its joys. Yes, I said. Yes, I understand the lure of the road, the stillness of this chamber of isolation. I acknowledge--I remember--the world of mom happy to finally find a few moments to catch up with her small passengers or dad, at last able to exchange a word or two en route to soccer practice. Isn't it life on the road that busies their days, that deprives them of healthier moments of peace and privacy, prohibits neighborly interaction and denies eye-to-eye contact, though?
Trashed Mass Transit
The alternate, of course, is not so easy. A few summers ago, in a rash moment of research frenzy, I decided to make my way a hundred or so miles from Massachusetts to Maine: first to Portland, then to a Casco Bay island by public transportation. If I had been taking a Trip to Bountiful on A Streetcar Named Desire, my friends couldn't have clucked more. The trip involved a bus, a ferry, and a van, in sequence. All of these worked well enough, but even the director of Maine's Campaign for Sensible Transportation gave me the feeling that I wasn't altogether--well--sensible.
Returning to her native New England from Europe, writer Alice Furlaud shared my experience as a nondriver. A trip from Boston to Cape Cod took as long as the trip across the Atlantic, she reported. "On the telephone, the Plymouth and Brockton bus company had given us three different versions of their schedule. All official, none correct. We waited, standing up, for an hour in the Peter Pan bus terminal.... It was cold." The same sense of rural America as a place where people without cars have a shadowy, shamefaced existence pervaded her arrival. "In that Cape Cod village, where the bus finally let us off, the post office is three-eighths of a mile from the house where we were staying." Laden with a shopping bag, doused by the rain, she made her way on foot, ignored on the packed highway.
Driving into Old Age
Autonomy depends on the automobile. And in an aging population, this dependence is no small matter. "I do not like to drive past pretty houses in the lovely New England countryside," writes Paula Boyer Rougny in Maine's TrainRider, "with the knowledge that within the walls sits an elderly person of wit and compassion who, due to slight physical frailty, is denied a driver's license. I approve the state's denying her a license; I deplore the national tragedy of drive-fly-or-rot that turns vital human beings into prisoners with no one to talk to and nowhere to go." In rural America, where nearly half the elderly are in poor health and 60 percent are not licensed to drive, there are many such prisoners. At least half the rural elderly live in areas with no public transportation, but the urban and suburban elderly, for all the better facilities, have problems too.
The average American now age sixty-five will live to be eighty-two, five more years than the predicted life span two decades ago, and the number is rising. More Americans will live into their eighties; the number of ninety-year-olds will increase. Throughout the country the very elderly comprise the fastest growing portion, with some 3.3 million people over age eighty-five, and their number will rise sevenfold in the next quarter century, according to the Bureau of the Census. Of course, these citizens are healthier, livelier. But putting more miles on their cars will produce more accidents. Nondrivers will proliferate. So will difficulties for them.
"Neck stiff from arthritis?" asked one article. "Use your mirrors more carefully to check traffic," it quoted an instructor of the senior set. "Deteriorating vision? Avoid driving at night," the instructor recommended. That word "avoid" again. Nevertheless, accidents happen. One spring such accidents seemed to collide with one another. There was the seventy-four-year-old motorist who skidded into Washington Square Park in New York City, slaying five people; soon after, in the same city an eighty-seven-year-old man hit seven people, leaving one dead. It was a bad month but not unique.
The Driving Skills Timeline of the American Automobile Association is enough to make a pedestrian take cover. A sixteen-year-old male leads their chart of risk versus experience in his tendency to take chances beyond knowledge. On the other end of the lose-lose situation, drivers over age sixty imperil themselves and others when they overestimate their physical abilities. Visual acuity drops from the age of thirty, and drivers grow sensitive to glare, it reports. Night vision begins to decline at age forty. From age fifty-five, more than half of all people need glasses. The majority of those over age seventy cannot focus thirty-one inches from their eyes. And, by that point, the AAA chart says dourly, "night vision almost vanishes."
In response, traffic safety officials want to set age limits, requiring tests and relicensing. But such solutions penalize as much as one-third of the driving population. Autonomy demands mobility and mobility demands a car. Even before America got grayer, we can all recall the personal incidents of older Americans killed by chance or incompetence on the road. The memory of my mother-in-law's elderly friend, fatally wounded by the guardrail that pierced her car on the Merritt Parkway and killed her two grandchildren as well, clings to my mind twenty-five years later when I ride that route. Middle-aged sons and daughters shake their heads at parents who keep their cars garaged even as old age incapacitates them. Drive or not, they cling to their automobiles and pay the insurance, excise taxes, and parking fees, since selling them symbolizes captivity and social death.
"I know my vision is impaired but I still have good reflexes," says a World War II vet, not yet seventy, who forfeited driving to take the train. "Also," he goes on, a bit defensive about this vanishing symbol of manhood, "three hours driving with my knee collecting fluid...." Still, he confesses, apologizing for his machismo, "I didn't want not to do it." Why should he apologize? It is a society whose driving policy is cruelly calculated to deny alternatives that should apologize.
The Gray Panthers, the venerable activists for the rights of senior citizens, have attacked the federal government for creating "severe accessibility disadvantage" in highway-dependent development. By funding freeway growth that stimulated sprawl and diminished public transit, Washington discriminated against millions of Americans, the Panthers declared in 1992. Nonmotorists must get equal treatment. Those concerned with the "graying of America" plan only for life on the road. "Fifty-Five Alive" and "Mature Drivers" courses grow. Suggestions evolve. Create larger signage. Change colors and directions, advocates suggest. Road strips have widened from four inches to six. These are palliatives, however. The prescriptions never include looking at the source of the problems: the single-minded way of mobility--the private car.
Why not instead prescribe the creation of housing within a walk of
the old corner store? Or ensure public transit by bus or van to
downtown? Rarely do the prescriptions call for a public expedient like
installing elevators or making escalators work in impoverished public
transit stations. Seldom do we hear anyone suggest easing pedestrian
street crossings or incorporating services within a walk or public transit
ride--not any of the approaches that defined movement humanely in
the youths of many of those now elderly.
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