Picture this: it’s nearly eight o’clock in the evening and your wife calls to say she’s having car trouble. The problem is, she’s in Austin and you’re 80 miles down the road in San Antonio. What do you do?
During regular business hours, the protocol is fairly straight forward. Call roadside assistance to have them send a tow truck. Call a rental car company that will pick you up where your car left off. Assuming you have the emergency funds to cover these things, the system works moderately well. But after repair shops and rental companies close for the evening, that’s where things quickly fall apart.
Tow companies start discussing storing your car overnight at some unknown location. The only rental cars available are at the airport, and those guys aren’t coming to get you. Suddenly you’re on the side of the road with almost no options. And, for a woman to take a cab alone at night is not exactly ideal.
Ultimately, I drove from San Antonio to pick up my stranded wife when this happened to her. It took more than two-and-a-half hours to address a problem that ultimately lies with the broader transportation system. We’ve built our environment such that we rely so exclusively on the private automobile, we are quite handicapped when the car quits. In fact, even if distance were not an issue, my wife couldn’t have walked home because our apartment is only accessible from the freeway.
Yet, communities fight against comprehensive transit systems and against organized ridesharing. They fight against development at densities that reduce our total dependency on vehicle ownership. People fail to fight for the utility that a broad car sharing network ultimately brings, even insisting that the driverless car will be the thing that saves us (I hate to burst your bubble, but it won’t).
Often I see arguments against shared transportation shrouded in the term freedom. I’m told time and again that having your own car gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. But is spending a third to half of your income on transportation really freedom? Is it really freedom to spend your hard-earned money to insure something that won’t always ensure a reliable means of getting around? Is it really freedom to be tied down to annual inspections, vehicle registrations, standing at gas pumps, sitting in dingy repair shops, or sitting in traffic? Is it really freedom when you’re bound to months of physical therapy after getting rear-ended? Is it really freedom when you lose a loved one to a car wreck?
My wife was not feeling free last night as she waited for a tow truck to pick up our trusty Honda. She didn’t feel free standing in the dark waiting for me to drive in from out of town to give her a ride. And we certainly won’t feel free when the repair shop swipes our card to pay for whatever is wrong with the car.
Sure, my wife and I learned from this experience that it’s important to have a clear contingency plan for situations like this. But, to a greater degree I hope we all learn the value in building lives—and places—that don’t fail us when our vehicles do. Knowing we might one day be able to get around any way we’d like to: now that is freedom.
Over this past year I’ve grown more concerned with the use of terminology like “preserving neighborhood character” or “quality of life” in neighborhood plans. Sure, they sound well meaning and play to our sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. But, as I’m coming to learn, these vague notions are often held by community members as shields against the types of development they feel threatened by.
Put more bluntly, I worry that we as planners and civic leaders have allowed the use of these ambiguities as convenient covers for bigotry. When neighbors oppose things like granny flats (accessory dwelling units), on-street parking, or apartments, they essentially assert a belief that the “right” to ever-increasing property values for homeowners trumps equitable access to a community. Sure, they may show up to city council meetings and warn us about the impending gridlock a new duplex will cause to their street, but what they’re really against isn’t the traffic, but the people who make up the traffic.
Some neighborhood groups are clever in their approach to NIMBYism. I’ve heard such complaints under the guise of concerns about garbage bins in the street, safety for kids playing outside, and damage to the environment. Others seek to instill fear in their neighbors by insisting that multifamily housing or transit will bring crime.
One Austin neighborhood was a bit less covert: they specifically outlined the sorts of properties believed to be incompatible with the neighborhood. Together on that list were apartments and “AIDS houses.” I’m not sure how the two are comparable, or why so-called AIDS houses were named in the first place, but I’d like to know how this ever flew past an attorney’s radar before being adopted by the local council.
If we hope to ever make progress in overcoming bigotry as a society, or at least working to foster more inclusive neighborhoods, we need to throw out the nebulous language and require citizens to be specific about what is important to them. The built environment is tangible; the guidelines supporting its development should be tangible as well.
If “neighborhood character” means ensuring that homes are no taller than two stories, for whatever reason, then let’s be clear about that. Want more trees to shade the sidewalks or decorative streetlights so you can feel safer walking your dog in the evening? Then say so. But, if your unspoken intent is to keep the very people out of your neighborhood who keep it functioning—emergency response workers, teachers, service-sector employees, garbage collectors, single parents with school-aged children, students, minorities, and anyone else—it’s time we put that language (and that mindset) back into the 1950s where it belongs.