Automobile Poverty - Part 2

Cubist clock tower in the center of Stevenage New Town in the UK, a dreadful automobile-dominated place

   A substantial number of Americans will soon be forced to live in poverty conditions because they live in sprawl, and this number will expand as fuel costs continue to rise even more. Here’s why:

Time Costs

   Yesterday’s post looked at the direct financial costs of cars in sprawl, but money isn’t the only way cars are impoverishing us. By the time you get to work and back, and then run all those other errands you have to do in your car when you live in sprawl, it’s likely you may be spending two hours or more per day behind the wheel in most places. Just getting to work in the morning can take well over an hour if you live in Kendall but work in Miami, for example... and that’s without a wreck or road construction.

traffic rushing under interstate bridges in Montgomery, Alabama

   If you ask around, most people will tell you that as short as they are on money, they’re even shorter on time. So what are we doing spending up to two (or more) of our waking hours each day spending quality time with our steering wheels? A space alien landing on earth for the first time might logically conclude that our steering wheels are more important to us than our family and friends.

   But you don’t really have any choice in sprawl. At home and wanna go to work? Gotta drive. At work and wanna go to lunch? Gotta drive (can you say “lunch-hour rush-hour”?) Taking the kids to school? Gotta drive. Wanna go shopping? Gotta drive. Wanna go play ball? Gotta drive. You get the picture. It’s a phenomenon I call Compulsory Commuting, and it happens because walking between any of these places would be insane... you likely wouldn’t make it there alive.

cars parked outside convenience store in Pike Road, Alabama

   But here’s a very serious question: what happens when the price of gas spikes to $20/gallon and you can’t afford to drive to all these places? When that happens in a few years, there likely will be a lot of other people who can’t afford to drive there, either. What are you going to do then? If there aren’t nearly so many cars on the road, it might be a little safer. But have you ever looked at how long it would take to walk between all these places? If you commute an ordinary distance to work and leave on foot after breakfast, good luck getting there by quitting time!

Health Costs

There’s a third form of Automobile Poverty, and this one hits closest to home: it’s the raft of effects that sprawl has on the health of our own bodies. I could go on forever with fact after fact, but many others have already documented the clear effects. I’ll just tell one story:

Steve Mouzon before moving to South Beach

   When I moved to South Beach almost eight years ago, I was a tired old man at 43, as you can see in this picture. I was also badly overweight... probably obese, actually. But when I moved to South Beach, I found something I’d never experienced before: a place where it was actually fun to walk. And so Wanda and I found an office within walking distance of our condo. Next, we found a grocery store within a few blocks of home, and three more within a couple blocks of the office.

10th and Washington intersection on South Beach

   We then picked out a bank and a doctor within walking distance. And a great bookstore. And then the Apple Store opened within walking distance. Bottom line is that today, our two primary reasons for driving are to fly or to worship. Other than those, we’re on foot or on a bike. I illustrated all this recently in the Web of Daily Life.

Steve Mouzon after living in South Beach

   So what happened to the tired old man? I came to South Beach at a portly (to be kind) 245 pounds. Before I’d finished losing, I was down to 185. I occasionally get back up to 205, but then I get busy again and get back down to a healthy weight. This is me now... and the difference between now and then illustrates one of the great advantages of walkable places over sprawl.

Hamburger Heaven in Hoover, Alabama

   I don’t know what the figures are, but there’s no doubt that America spends billions of dollars a year on weight loss, and also on the medical carnage of obesity. Who can afford that least? Those on the brink of poverty, of course. They’re at risk on at least two counts: First, if you’re poor, you’re less likely to be able to afford better food. Instead, you load up on the cheap calories of processed carbs, which increase obesity. And now, as the affluent are rediscovering the coolness of urbanity and moving back into the city, we are beginning to undergo an historic flip that will end up leaving the less well-to-do in the suburbs. That’s right... those least able to eat well will now also be those least able to walk because they’ll be stranded in places that were never designed for walkability. We haven’t even begun to understand how costly and unhealthy suburbia is really going to be.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 09:37 PM

Kaid @ NRDC

Great post, Steve!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 09:03 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Kaid! And if anyone else reading this doesn't know about Kaid's blog, it's one of my favorites. Check it out!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 05:43 PM

Megan Carr

Great personal testimonial for reducing auto dependence! Thanks for sharing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 03:20 AM


A more effective South Beach Diet!! Too bad the book would be very short.

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