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Car culture runs over life

Published June 4, 2006

There is one unsung heroine in New York City to whom I want to dedicate this column: the first woman to put on running shoes with her business suit.

I don't know who this demoiselle is, but the day she decided to throw convention, fashion and good taste to the wind in exchange for a little comfort was a day almost as momentously liberating as when a group of patriots decided to dump tea into Boston Harbor.

During the years I lived in New York City and endeavored in a variety of law-related jobs, I would don my matching jacket and skirt, tie my scarf in a bow where a man's tie would normally be, put my black pumps in my oversized purse and lace up my Nikes for the couple-mile hike to work.

Hoofing it every morning and evening gave me a chance to observe the city and its people and interact with its quirkier inhabitants (whether I wanted to or not). It was often the best part of the day.

Most Americans don't have the luxury of walking to work. We have chosen to live farther and farther from our jobs so we can have bigger homes.

In exchange for an extra bedroom in a cookie-cutter house that from the sidewalk looks like one big garage, in a development named Pheasant Run that hasn't seen a live pheasant since the trees were clear-cut, we Americans have bought ourselves a life of driving.

On average, people in this country commute 25 minutes each way to work, up 18 percent from 20 years ago. While that might not seem outrageous, there are more than 10-million of us who now drive more than an hour to work - up 50 percent from 1990. Then there's the growing numbers of us who commute at least an hour and a half to work each way. According to the Census Bureau, megacommuters have increased 95 percent since 1990, to 3.4-million workers.

And it's all about the house.

When people are weighing the pros and cons of buying a larger house 40 miles from work, or buying closer in and making due without an eat-in kitchen, I don't think they realize exactly what those 800 additional square feet are costing in human terms.

There are few activities of modern life as soul-crushing as sitting in traffic. Yet, since 1982, the amount of time Americans have spent in it has increased 236 percent. The experts say that excess commuting is related to higher blood pressure, increased hostility, punctuality problems and musculoskeletal disorders. But it doesn't take a medical study to tell you how frustrating it is to sit in a car, inching along, with nothing but miles of cars in front of you.

We sit in our isolated Corinthian-leather world and seethe with hostility toward everyone around us. If only they weren't on the road, I'd be there by now, is the unconscious tape playing in our heads.

In my view, increased traffic congestion and commuting time is the biggest contributor to people feeling their lives are overstressed. According to Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor of public policy and author of Bowling Alone, every 10 minutes spent commuting is 10 minutes lost in community and family activities. Our life on the road has replaced our life.

America's car culture, once axiomatically associated with freedom and fulfillment, is the very thing that is leading to our national anomie. Where once, half a century ago, there were 59-million cars and trucks on America's roads, now they are clogged with 226-million. Like Ovid's tale of Midas and his golden touch, the desired, coveted car has so multiplied that it is now making us poorer, less healthy and less free. Georgia Tech researchers found that your risk of becoming obese increases 3 percent for every 30 minutes a day spent driving.

Putting aside the macroeconomic impact of consuming about 400-million gallons of gasoline a day, the pollution that it causes, the global warming it engenders and the way irrational and antidemocratic regimes are made rich beyond words, this nation has been designed ugly, because of the car.

Highways mar the landscape, slicing through older neighborhoods. Massive parking lots make architecture for retail establishments irrelevant. All we can see from the street or sidewalk are the rows upon rows of cars. Inviting pedestrian thoroughfares are rare. It's soulless.

I'm not sure how all this can be reversed, or even slowed. The exurbs are the nation's hottest housing markets. I only wish buyers would appreciate that what they are getting along with hermetic developments and oversized great rooms is a life spent behind the wheel, going nowhere fast, while one's tennis shoes molder in the closet.

[Last modified June 2, 2006, 12:09:48]

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