Everybody needs some power I’m told
To shield them from the darkness and the cold
Some may see a way to take control when it’s bought and sold.
From “Power,” Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), 1979
Yesterday was trash day in Hamden. As I rode my bike through the streets, I saw things piled up next to driveways, ready for the trash trucks to haul away. I saw tables and desks. I saw suitcases. I saw children’s play kitchens, car seats, toys. As I rode around, I got to thinking: Is this really trash? I’ve written before about my trips to Goodwill, here and here. So when I see a radio, a play stove, a suitcase, I have to ask myself—is this really trash?
And then I got to thinking. We live in a mass of ephemera. I’ll bet that almost everyone has a suitcase. But how often do you use that suitcase? I’ll wager that almost every homeowner has a washer and drier, and that—if you are a homeowner, and your family is like mine, you use that washer and drier one day a week (or actually, a few hours a week).
Do we really need that kind of stuff? In an ideal world, built from scratch, maybe there’d be a rental service. You’d realize you need a suitcase for a week, so you’d go to the community rental and get a suitcase, subject to a deposit, for two weeks (just to cover). If you were going somewhere to stay, your community rental would contact the community rental at your destination, and you’d be expected to return the suitcase there.
A community center on each block (as appropriate—I’m thinking of my urban neighborhood of single-family houses; burbs and condominiums would be different) could be equipped with banks of washers and driers so that no one house would need to take the square footage to store appliances used so rarely. Use of the communal equipment could be scheduled, or it could be on-demand. Yes, there might be some time conflicts.
So here I am, thinking of the ideal community, part commune, part private home (there’s enough diversity in cooking that kitchens are probably best non-communal, and people tend to cook every day, so it’s worth having that stove and refrigerator. Honestly, though, there’s not that much variation in laundry) when it hits me that we’re talking centralization/decentralization. And then I look around at all the cars.
Each house in my neighborhood has at least one car associated with it, and I’m willing to bet that the average is greater than two.
Now. What if there were no cars?
…Wait for it…
Not just no cars for you but no cars at all.
First—how would you get to the drugstore? How would you get to the supermarket? How would you get to school?
In my community neighborhood, there’s a drugstore about 1/4 mile away. The next closest one (in the same chain) is less than three miles away. But there are several other drugstores in-between. But let’s say the average distance is (.25 + 3)/2 = 1.63 miles. OK. So it would be over a three mile walk to get to and from a drugstore. Not too bad, actually. That’s about 45 minutes by foot, and much less by bike.
There’s no full-service grocery closer than two miles. But, dang, it’s a full-service grocery, with a health clinic, a pharmacy, a bank. It’s big! Speaking of banks, there are enough within easy walking distance (i.e., one mile) that robbing them could reasonably constitute a career. And then, of course, there are ATMs.
You can see where I’m going with this. People talk about the need for walkable neighborhoods in cities but—at least here in Connecticut—we’re already there. Oh, it could be better. Stores could be more decentralized, so instead of going to Stop’n’Shop or Shoprite or Pricerite or one of those, you’d stop by the neighborhood store for your bread, milk, and eggs. And if you could do that, especially if you could do that on your way home from work? You might even be able to get by with a smaller refrigerator.
How would you get to school? That’s more of a problem, except that—guess what?—most schools are already served by buses.
Cars aren’t necessary.
OK, let me see if I can focus on a main point here.
It’s common to think of cars as a source of freedom, at least in the United States. Once you have a car, you can shop anywhere, go to school anywhere, attend church anywhere. You’re not geographically bound. Your world is radically decentralized.
But is it, really?
You go to Target to shop, or to a mall, or to a commercial strip. Which is surrounded by parking lots.
Guess what? Cars have made the world more centralized.
Rather than commerce being distributed throughout neighborhoods—drug stores, grocery stores, that sort of thing—it’s concentrated in enormous marketplaces that are often distant from any housing whatsoever. What’s more, the cost of getting to those commercial centers is imposed on you and me. That’s right—in addition to the price of a loaf of bread (for example) we pay for the gasoline to move a two-ton hunk of glass and steel from home to the store and back. And not just the gasoline…
The insurance. The repairs & maintenance. The additional cost to housing of a garage. The pollution that emerges from these beasties. The health costs of not exercising (my boss drives to the gym at lunch time to exercise—something I find hilarious).
And then there’s parking, and the destruction of our visual landscape because it’s filled with cars. I’ll bet you can’t walk outside without seeing at least one.
And there’s another way in which cars do not promote freedom.
I graduated from high school in the summer of 1976, and immediately found work for the summer in an electronics factory. I worked at the wave-soldering machine along with an employee who had been there for about six years. He told me that he had graduated near the top of his high school class, but that he had never gone to college because the first thing he did on graduation was to buy a car. The next was to get a job, so he could pay for the car, the insurance, the gas, and so forth. And then he used the car to get to the job and so he needed to maintain it. Etc. He was a victim of car addiction.
We can escape these problems. We can use energy better and more efficiently if we centralize some things—the things we use or do rarely—and decentralize others, the things we need daily or near-daily.
Smart decentralization. Laundry might be more centralized; food shopping might be less centralized.
What if we did that? What would our world look like? This is a theme I hope to return to here, recognizing that I’ve stuffed about ten pounds into a one-pound bag in this post, without adequate development and consideration.