Driving in circles: Society's reliance on cars takes away from traditional residential planning

Monday, December 17, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:22 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Rose Nolen

I could only sympathize with friends who had to travel on business during the recent ice storm. I know most people wouldn’t turn loose of their steering wheel for any amount of money. Frankly, though, I’d give anything to be able to travel by bus or train rather than risk life and limb driving over ice and bankruptcy trying to buy enough gas to go the distance. Of course, those more in tune with contemporary life don’t seem to mind much at all. They view such things as challenges. And then there are those who refuse to allow anything to stop them from doing whatever they want to do.

But as far as getting to and from is concerned, air travel is not a good choice, either. When you finally get to the airport, there’s no telling when your plane will take off. Extensive delays seem to be the rule rather than the exception these days, and the shortage of air controllers to direct traffic is a major concern. I hope that the government would not wait until there are major accidents before they intervene in that situation.

You don’t hear people even talking much about mass transportation anymore. In light of the energy crisis and mounting costs for highway and bridge repair, states especially ought to be looking at ways that we could travel more efficiently. Over the next few years, we’ll probably be bumper to bumper throughout the entire United States.

This is one of those areas where we seem to be going backward rather than forward. Developers don’t seem to include placing people closer to goods and services as part of their planning process. The whole concept of what constitutes a neighborhood seems to have undergone a change. That a neighborhood should include a school, a shopping area and a health clinic never seems to occur to planners. In fact, one could get the impression that in some neighborhoods, the sight of a human being could lower the cost of the houses. Furthermore, most people working in the city several decades ago made it a point to try to live near public transportation in case their automobile needed repair or there were weather emergencies. I don’t think people do that anymore.

Individuals might complain about the price of gas, but there are very few indications that we take the energy crisis seriously. Driving bigger cars, building new schools farther from neighborhoods and putting shopping malls outside of towns are endeavors that prove our lack of interest. For some reason, we not only seem to want to isolate ourselves from each other these days, but also we want to keep the things we need at a distance. Apparently, we enjoy driving a lot.

Even if some should choose to walk or ride bicycles to transport themselves, many areas are unsafe from muggers or speeding traffic. In other words, our lifestyles seem to center around car ownership. This, of course, is another concession to the youth culture since no consideration is given to how older adults will get around when health and age prevent them from driving. I know people who are unable to leave their homes more than once or twice a week because they don’t own cars and don’t have friends or family to drive them around. The fact that people are living longer, healthier lives hardly seems to matter to city planners.

Our dependence on foreign oil doesn’t seem to matter at all. That we have to rely almost totally on 18-wheelers to transport the supplies we need for our daily lives should prompt governors and legislators to develop a course of action concerning the development of an alternative fuel source. This should have happened years ago, and we should already have the kind of motor vehicles needed for the alternative fuel.

Each individual’s desire to drive his or her own car is just another way our freedoms are expressing themselves. Even some, for whom carpooling would make getting to work less expensive, aren’t willing to give in to sharing space with other people. Most people have some excuse — they are not going straight home or they have to go out of their way to pick someone else up — for driving their own vehicles. I doubt that, unless forced to by law, some people would carpool, and I can only imagine the lawsuits tying up the courts that would occur as a result of trying to make people conserve energy.

All summer, I watched people fill up the tanks of their recreation vehicles, their boats and the tanks of their 4x4s all at once, while the price of gas continued to soar. I know families that have as many as five cars for one household. If the problems in the mortgage industry have a devastating effect on the rest of the economy and people have to cut back on expenses, I feel strongly that the automobile will be the last thing to go for a lot of folks.

I wonder how much fuel could be conserved if every driver in America voluntarily gave up one day of driving. Well, if somebody doesn’t get a handle on this matter, individuals might be forced to take action on their own behalf.

Would that be so bad?

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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