Friday, July 27, 2012

Am I a Moocher Cause I Don't Own a Car?

I was riding the light rail in Seattle's transit tunnel on Monday, and saw a series of insurance ads on a station wall that followed a "my dream" theme. One read, "my dream has that new car smell." Isn't it weird how often car-oriented businesses advertise in public transit spaces?

For many people, car ownership is only a dream. Owning a car is very expensive. I recently interviewed a woman who told me that she spent more money on her car than on anything else. She had no plans to get rid of it, though; this was just a fact of life.

Why is the image of car ownership so powerful? Well, for one thing, if you don't have your own car and find yourself in a position where you take a ride from someone who does have a car, you can easily be labeled a "mooch." And being a mooch is very much at odds with our American belief in self-reliance.

For many years, especially in suburban areas, if you couldn't afford a gas-powered self-reliance symbol, you might as well not have existed. I read a comment thread online this morning that reminded me that this attitude is very much entrenched, even in urban dwellers. The statement that really hit home for me was, "in LA [driving is] ESSENTIAL. I would not date someone without a car, despite the fact that I take the train 5 days a week to work. You need a car for everything else and if you don't have one, you are a mooch. Simple as that." This comment was made by someone who identified as living in transit-rich Silver Lake.

I think this is the target of ads like the one I saw this week: people who are willing to ride buses and trains, but have a lot of money or dreams invested in differentiating themselves from the people around them who don't have cars waiting at home. What do these people think of the carfree crowd? We're not responsible/adult enough to be considered potential mates.

As an anthropologist, I've read a lot of theory about culture as an unconscious thing. We may not be able to articulate why we do or don't do certain things, but we are very likely to feel bothered when something is outside the norm. One source of conflict between people who drive and people who choose other modes of transport is that we have different ideas about what is normal transportation.

This is what I see expressed, sometimes indirectly, in a lot of American culture:
car ownership = adulthood
car ownership = independence
car ownership = work ethic
car ownership = rational

It follows, then that:
no car = immaturity
no car = dependence
no car = lazy
no car = irrational

Here are some different ideas that I see expressed in my corner of American culture:
car ownership = oil-dependence
car ownership = antisocial
car ownership = destroying our life systems
car ownership = irrational

From these different ideas follow a different side of the coin:
carfree = independence
carfree = social benefit
carfree = supporting our life systems
carfree = rational

Do you see how "rational" shows up all over the place here? That is because our transportation choices, influenced by so many cultural beliefs that we can't even articulate, are not coming from a rational place. I hope that someday soon we can start to talk about transportation in more direct terms, based not on underlying contempt for socially disempowered individuals, but on the very real effects our transportation choices have on the world around us.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bike Flânerie in Rainier Valley

I needed a bike ride to clear my head, and I needed to jump start a stalled research project. So I figured out, after months of wondering about it, how to ride from my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Rainier Beach. Here's the route I used, and some observations from along the way.

View Transport Biking in Rainier Valley in a larger map

1. The Chief Sealth Trail made me feel small and big at the same time. Small because I'm tiny next to enormous energy infrastructure. Big because I was soaring up and down hills pretty much by myself. A few friendly people were out walking and jogging.

2. The Whistle Stop Bike Co-op and Café next to the Othello light rail station is a good place to sit for people watching. And the cat-eyed barista made me quite a nice iced Americano.

3. There is an interesting little block of experimental traffic infrastructure at 45th and Cloverdale. Things would be so complicated if we had to share the road with houses and giants too, like this sign suggests.

4. The bike lane on Henderson ends just before the busy intersection at Rainier. That's always disappointing, when the bike infrastructure peters out right where it would be most helpful.

5. I didn't actually bike on Rainier, I was walking so I could absorb more details at a slower pace. It's funny, I thought that on a warm summer day I wouldn't feel bothered by passing the spot where I witnessed an attempted assault in February, but I did get some creeps.

6. No drivers cut dangerously close to me on Seward Park Avenue or on Lake Washington Boulevard, which were the longest stretches of unmarked shared road I used on this route. And by "unmarked shared road" I mean there weren't any sharrows or bike lanes.

Riding through Seattle neighborhoods has a quiet, whispering feeling. Maybe it's because the hills create corridors of wind.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Greenwashing Development in Capitol Hill

I've gotten to know my neighborhood much better in the last week and a half. My cat is missing, and according to the Missing Pet Partnership, she could be hiding close by, under a house or in some jungly backyard. I thought I knew my neighborhood pretty well, since I walk and bike around here all the time. I didn't know the half of it! Undiscovered alleys, paths between buildings, rambling old homes subdivided into apartments, derelict houses, and quite a "cat"alogue of local beasts have been added to my mental map.

One derelict house I discovered has since been demolished. I was surprised to find an unused property in my neighborhood, which is fashionable and increasingly expensive, so I wasn't surprised when I walked past on Saturday and saw that a bulldozer had leveled the old home. The pace of change here makes it hard to feel like I have much of a say in this neighborhood. I've never owned a home, but I know the feeling of ownership because I used to live in an intentional community. It was a place that encouraged creative reuse, too, so our vision of sustainability had much more to do with recycling than with buying "eco friendly" products. I've started to realize that Seattle does not promote this view of sustainability; it's more into engineering and development as solutions to social problems.

On my cat prowl this morning, I saw this sign on a telephone pole:

This sign follows others that people have posted this summer regarding zoning changes or exceptions in the neighborhood. The first round I saw encouraged neighbors to denounce proposed changes that would allow more commercial uses of residential areas. Ha, NIMBYs, I thought to myself. Who wouldn't love a corner store? Of course, as do many issues in this neighborhood which serves as unofficial parking for the nightclub zone a few blocks over, the struggle boiled down to parking. More stores = more people = more cars. I guess it's assumed that the subhumans like me who don't drive never shop.

The sign I saw this morning, though, has a more insidious claim. It suggests that high rise development is the only way to make a neighborhood more dense and sustainable. This seems very typically Seattle to me. Instead of organizing at a community level to promote more ecologically responsible practices, people continue to refuse eye contact at the street level and post signs that ask me to trust some developers on high to fix our problems. Not that developers have ever had anything but the public good in mind...

The thing is, the same high rise development can be two things: many more units and units with a view. The first aspect seems like a good thing, because us eco people know that densification is a good thing, right? It's easy to greenwash a project that will make one lot into multiple units (more units = more buyers = more money for the seller). It can seem like a nice marriage, where a kind of "greed is good" mentality can align with in-fill, except that those new units will most likely not be affordable family housing.

"Affordable" can mean a lot of things. This neighborhood has been seeing a lot of "affordable" SRO development, basically dorm-style housing for aspirational people who still believe that they have the Hulk-like strength to yank their bootstraps up hard enough to become Bill Gates (who grew up wealthy in Seattle, by the way), so it's ok to have a little no-kitchen action along the way. Builds character! I'm pretty skeptical about claims that new development will bring affordable family housing. And if it's market-rate housing, who benefits? Last time I checked, rich people can live wherever they want, they're not forced to stay in the suburbs because of a dire housing shortage in trendy urban neighborhoods.

The other aspect, that high rise buildings will have views, means your view isn't going anywhere, it's just not going to be yours anymore. To me, this is the weirdest feature of private ownership of urban land: the thing that gives these lots value is not the dirt under them, but their surroundings. It's the views, the amenities, the easy access to freeways, transit, whatever. The places that people build through their everyday lives, the interesting ways they use their homes and yards, the details I've been absorbing on my cat prowls, are valueless in this system. So this sign that asks neighbors to own their privilege and stop blocking development that will block their views is basically asking people to give up the things they love about their neighborhood so that private developers can sell those nice things to the highest bidder. More units + buyers who will pay more for views = even more money for seller.