Let’s talk a little about the concept of freedom. It’s the essence of the American Dream, right? The freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. Yeah.
Freedom is mentioned when discussing all manner of civic and governmental affairs and this includes transportation policy. Transportation innovations, historically, have all been sold with a big side helping of freedom. After all, what greater freedom is there than freedom of movement? When first selling the idea of the automobile, manufacturers were basically selling freedom. “Go where you want to go!” they said. There was and is a certain amount of truth to that. The car lets people get where they need to go… or at least it does now, as transportation systems and entire metropolitan areas were designed and planned around the car.
Here is where that old saying “Freedom isn’t free!” comes in. A transportation network designed solely with the automobile in mind might make it easier to drive to places (at least for a while) but what happens when the speed limits keep getting higher, when the sidewalks are replaced by turn lanes, when the roads keep getting wider…. One day, we woke up and realize we designed a system where you aren’t free to walk across the street.
Indeed, at certain intersections, after realizing they’ve been made too dangerous for pedestrians (what people used to call “people”) traffic engineers simply outlawed walking across the street. So much for freedom. When you are standing on a road not 100 yards away from your destination, yet you can’t walk there… does that sound like freedom to you?
The act of walking is the most basic form of transportation. It requires no money, pollutes no air, endangers no one else and is actually good for you. (Did we ever mention how beneficial biking is as well?) Yet in certain parts of our city- and Baton Rouge is hardly unique here- people feel compelled to drive to destinations they could hit by throwing a rock. It’s the height of absurdity. It’s the epitome of irony as well; we wanted to be free to go places far away very fast, so we traded being able to walk to places located very close. We traded away our most basic transportation freedom.
I used the word “trade” so what did we get in return? More driving. How many have used the words “trapped” or “stuck” when referring to driving in a traffic jam? An average American can spend a total of 17,600 minutes (over twelve days!) stuck behind the wheel. That’s more annual vacation time than most Americans have. Is this freedom?
One word often used to describe one’s situation vis a vis financial debt is “mired.” Yes, mired in debt. Yet, many thousands of our lower-income residents feel they must own a car in order to get around, thus incurring debt to purchase an instantly and constantly depreciating piece of equipment that requires endless funds to run and maintain. A low-income family being forced to spend 25% - 50% of its income on driving cars is hardly freedom. It’s the opposite.
Freedom, true freedom, starts at the most elemental, the most basic. If we aren’t able to walk to places, if we aren’t able to simply cross the street, are we truly free? Something to think about.
Click here to tell your metro council member that you’d like more sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and… if you’re in the mood…bicycle infrastructure.
President, Bike Baton Rouge