Driving Should Be an Option—And So Should Walking

The American built environment encourages driving (and frustrating traffic jams), and driving should be an option, but are there ways to change our cities so we can have the choice to drive less and walk more?

| February 2015

  • San Diego traffic
    San Diego traffic
    Photo by F. Kaid Benfield
  • Virginia traffic
    US Route 29 in Virginia
    Photo by F. Kaid Benfield
  • Denver development
    This Denver development has well-connected streets
    Rendering courtesy of Perry Rose
  • People Habitat
    “People Habitat” by F. Kaid Benfield delves into various aspects of current American cities, finding weak points and setbacks, then gives hope and fresh ideas to remedy them.
    Photo courtesy People Habitat Communications

  • San Diego traffic
  • Virginia traffic
  • Denver development
  • People Habitat

The way our cities and suburbs are structured hampers healthy lifestyles. In People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities (People Habitat Communications, 2014), F. Kaid Benfield outlines aspects of our current environment, infrastructure and culture that we can change to encourage healthier and greener living, while pointing out discrepancies to pay attention to, from the cathartic overuse of “green” to gloss over environmentally destructive products or places to foster walkability. The following excerpt is from Chapter 16, “Driving Should Be an Option.”

Americans’ high driving rates contribute mightily to economic waste and environmental degradation. Yet we have built a country in which most people have few alternatives. What can we do in our built environment to turn things around? Fortunately, research provides some clear answers.

Driving Should Be an Option

I like cars and I like driving. Those who know me well know I’m telling the truth and, if you’re looking for a purist manifesto, you’ve found the wrong book. In fact, maybe it’s my 1960s North Carolina upbringing, but I like nice cars and have always managed to have one, thank you very much.

What I would not like, though, is being dependent on a car for every single thing I need or want to do. I also like public transit when it’s working well—I’ve literally met some of my best friends while on public transportation—and I frequently use it for commuting. I love walking places, especially city places, and generally manage my daily chores other than commuting on foot. And I’m passionate about bicycling, too, though I ride for fitness, not everyday transportation. I guess you could say that I’m a multi-modal kind of guy, and I feel lucky that my living conditions allow me to practice a life of transportation-by-choice.

I know most Americans aren’t so fortunate. Ours is an overwhelmingly auto-oriented landscape, except in a few big city downtowns and older neighborhoods, many populated mostly by residents without kids. Most people have to drive to get to work or school, to go out to eat, to take their laundry and dry cleaning for service, to shop for groceries. If they have children, chances are they are also spending a lot of time shuttling the kids around from one event to another. It’s normal, I think, by today’s standards. But it’s not much fun.

I’m old enough to remember when driving was fun. If you can tell a lot about a society’s culture from its popular music lyrics, the 1960s were surely the golden age of the American automobile. On July 4, 1964, a new single became the first number one song by that most American of bands, the Beach Boys. Performed with a driving beat and Brian Wilson’s soaring harmonies, “I Get Around” celebrated the unequivocal freedom and exuberance that cars provided, particularly on the group’s home turf of southern California:

2/27/2015 11:02:16 AM

If you live in the country you have no option but to drive. There is a grocery store a mile away from me, walkable except that I live on a highway. In the nearest large city, Topeka, Kansas, living near downtown means nothing. There are no grocery stores in the area or other necessities. We need to go back to neighborhood stores in order to be able to walk anywhere. Crime also is an issue. Is it safe anymore to walk the mile or so to get anywhere? I would love to be able to walk places. I used to walk to work when younger and then took the bus before I had a car.

2/10/2015 3:01:46 PM

I have compiled a comprehensive list and analysis of green (hybrid, electric, mini-cars, high mileage, hydrogen fuel cell) cars. If any one is interested. It is several pages long so I don't know is I could download it here or if I can email it.I also have compiled instructions for using a Prius as a generator for home electricity. If someone is interested sent me your email address, dollhausen@att.net.

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