Let’s get frank about the current pressures on the US lifestyle and environment as it’s been constructed up to now: A lot of people are getting squeezed.
We currently have an environment and infrastructure based on cheap transportation and fuel costs. However, that’s slowly eroding as the US catches up to the what the majority of the western world has had for quite some time: true market-based energy prices. Energy is expensive, and going to be ever-more so until we redesign the infrastructure. So, who’s first to start this change? Well…you can switch light bulbs, turn down the thermostat and drive a little less, but these are nowhere near the size of change that needs to happen. They’re a good start, yes, but we need to think bigger, and work together to affect real change.
We live in a demand-based economy. Legislation doesn’t go anywhere quickly and quietly. So if the governmental “they” can’t fix the infrastructure easily, how does the average American citizen make a difference? What opportunities exist in this bleak landscape of ever-rising energy prices and the cascade of energy-scarcity inflationary pressures? Where do we start?
Well, thinking about car-based culture and its costs, lets start with cold turkey. For a lot of the places we’ve built housing (read: suburbia) we’re not ready for bikes, pedestrians and functional walks. So - create them: participate in the greening of your neighborhood. Walk to the 5 nearest stores: groceries, movies, restaurants, drug store, whatever. Along the way, record - yes, write down - everything that you’d improve. Not enough trees? Missing sidewalks? Any crosswalks? Convenient, well-timed stoplights for getting through traffic? Could you pull a wagon with 2 little kids to these places safely? Would you ride a bike there daily?
Now talk to your local neighborhood association, city council, etc. Invite your local police representative, and a city traffic planner. Propose ideas. Continue up the chain of authority through the civil process. Get involved! Testify! Speak up! You want this to change! Organize a walk with folks that shows them what’s wrong. Document problem areas with photos and post them online. There is money floating to spend on things, and with a little ground swell, it will be diverted to projects with the constituents’ backing. Propose ideas without watering them down, ask for the ideal scenario, but realize that change generally also requires compromise.
Repeat the process for a bike ride. Get online and organize a ride. Notice where car-culture has simply taken over and is just about the only safe way to navigate an area. Ever get that strange feeling while walking across a large intersection that you’re alone in arena full of dangerous animals? Are you standing in a concrete jungle, not a tree, flower, or plant to be found? Are you trying to cross a double-yellow without a light or stop sign in easy sight? These are prime targets for redesign. Talk to city planners about publishing a walking or riding map - this can be a sobering experience for areas that think a freeway offramp is a symbol of “modern living”. Don’t settle for “lack of interest” as a reason for missing investment. Ask for proactive, insightful, real change instead of reactionary concepts. Get local businesses involved - ask them if they’d offer outdoor seating if the roadside wasn’t dust-strewn solar oven.
If there are parks or other green spaces through your neighborhood, think of making them useful as functional pathways for travel. Are there entries/exits to parks that facilitate their use as a route for shopping, for getting to the post office, commuting, etc? While there, pay attention to your surroundings. What kinds of birds, plants, animals live in your parks? It is just grass and litter? Participate in discussions that push parks to put habitat awareness into their planning: bird ponds, felled trees, open streams, wild meadows. These are the types of places that kindle the imagination about our roots, our history as its connected to the planet and build a sense of custodianship to this naturally changing, intriguing place.
There are thousands of people that already follow these steps in many cites, perhaps even yours - look for them. They care, and they care just enough to take action if organized. You may not need to be the organizer, but every voice, every push of momentum helps. If you don’t know where to start, concentrate on the number one need of this new infrastructure: It’s built for people, not just their vehicles. This means a slow but steady change to allow people to travel via walking, skating, biking, jogging, etc. Imagine wheelchairs, wagons, pets, kids, hand-holding lovers and the elderly using streets without turning a car key, even if just for the occasional trip. This is the experience that needs to be kick started, communicated, and endlessly refined. You can do this!
Support zoning laws that place small retail centers, at the 1-per-block size, everywhere. Allow the corner store to open back up. By acting as a local inventory for supplies the corner store may have higher costs to run than a big-box store, but in terms of distribution it lessens the “last-mile” pressure on the infrastructure. A single truck delivering supplies once a week to your entire neighborhood is much easier than daily road trips for 30-70% of each household. If the super-market is close enough to get to on foot, mass transit, or by bike, then lucky you. When the cost of driving to that supermarket for just a few items is more than buying from the corner store, most people will either wait until a larger trip is necessary or will just pay the premium. Either way, the number of cars circling the parking lots every night, hunting for a hurried trip to the frozen-food isle, is lowered.
And all of this is non-work related. You don’t have to switch jobs, move, sell your car, or tear up your driveway. But perhaps we’ll visit those topics when gas hits $7/gallon 😉
photo courtesy of chuck4chuck2000