The movement of middle class whites from city centers to suburbs in the 1950s and beyond is one of the many effects cars and their infrastructure have wrought on social organization and landscape. Those of us born in the baby boom and after (most of us at this point in history) have a difficult time imagining any other possible way of living besides climbing in the car every day and driving where we go. A handful of U.S. cities have significant enough public transportation to enable some to forego owning car, and I know a few die-hards who try to ride bicycles everywhere, even in the winter.
Jim Kunstler has a phrase he repeats from time to time for the acute blindness most of us share regarding the inevitable changes to the economics of owning and operating automobiles: happy motoring. We act as though the era before cars — the one we can’t remember or fully imagine — is permanently behind us and the availability of cheap energy, whether gasoline, ethanol, or electricity, will never disappear. Peak oil experts tell a different story, and because of that, Kunstler has prophesied that the suburb is already dead but we don’t yet realize it. All that remains to be seen, of course. What’s clear right now at least is that we’ve put all of our eggs in this one particular basket, and until the basket is irrevocably ruined, we’ll continue to act like there will be no end to happy motoring.
In the meantime, a couple curious behaviors related to car culture have caught my attention. In Chicago, we get a couple heavy snows each winter that pretty much grind traffic to a halt. Many people park on the street, and when they dig their cars out, all sorts of things appear on the street to claim the cleared spot: lawn chairs, broken furniture, orange hazard cones, milk crates and boards, etc. The unspoken contract seems to be “I cleared this spot, now you respect my labor and don’t park here.” It can’t possibly be legal to stake out a parking place, and it only happens in the winter after a snow, but it seems pretty clear that one would have to be pretty foolish to remove the lawn furniture, park in the spot, and then leave one’s vehicle worth several thousands (at the least) unattended and vulnerable to whatever vandalism the person(s) who cleared the snow might inflict.
Personally, I would never stake out a spot, though I’ve been disappointed a few times to lose one I cleared, and if I did stake one out, I’d never go the extra step and vandalize the car of someone who moved my lawn furniture out of the way to park. Do I expect others to exercise that restraint? Not on your life. I’m undecided whether this tradition is basically harmless or an instance of hoarding in scarcity. Since I have a dedicated parking spot, I guess I don’t have to decide.
The other behavior having partly to do with car culture is the line of vehicles on the shoulder of the highway into O’Hare International Airport. It’s obvious, I think, that folks are waiting in their vehicles 1-2 miles away from the airport for a phone call from the person they’re picking up rather than circling the terminal or parking and walking to meet their party. It seems like a reasonable approach until one considers that these cars are waiting on the shoulder alongside a highway where people routinely travel 60-80 mph. Blocking the shoulder may not be much of a problem, but merging into traffic from a dead stop is not a maneuver I trust most people to execute either respectfully or safely.
I don’t attend to the local media closely enough to learn that police are ticketing drivers waiting along the highway or that City Hall declared a moratorium on claiming parking spots after snow removal. Perhaps these behaviors pose no particular issue for most. Of course, I’m wondering what will happen when the price of oil spikes and few can afford to rack up 25k+ miles per year. If it’s anything like the horribly stupid movie Blood Car, it won’t be pretty.