Sunday, July 31, 2011

What side of the tracks are you on?

Environment shapes choices, for all the rhetoric about how people can rise above their means, the reality is that geography often governs the choices we have.

This clearly the case in this sad story of the tragic death of a child in this NPR story. The mother Raquel Nelson did what people do all the time and jay walked to save some time. She crossed a four lane highway and unfortunately was at the wrong place at the wrong time and her son was killed by a drunk driver. The twist in the story was the mother was also charged with reckless endangerment of a minor for crossing there.

She was crossing since the bus stop was right across from her apartment complex and to go to the crosswalk was a third of a mile away. This is about ten minutes with children to get to the crosswalk and ten to the apartment complex. A pretty large time penalty.

Goldberg tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that these new residents are "using the bus, they're walking, but they're in places that are entirely hostile to people on foot."

Goldberg says the bus stop where the accident took place primarily services Nelson's apartment complex, yet there is no crosswalk at the stop, forcing riders to walk far out of their way just to cross the street at a traffic light and get to it. He says that neither state nor local transportation officials have addressed the safety issues posed by the accident because of the potential for litigation.

For all practical purposes, the United States is built with cars as an assumption of citizenship and not having a car is almost a poll tax on participation in our society. Transit has always defined class lines in most societies. The car is a sign of arrival (whatever that means) in China and India where having a car is a signifier that you are upper class. The two properties that a car confers are privacy or exclusivity and time. Exclusivity, in that we don't have to experience others. And time in that we don't have to wait for our transport (but ironically, in China, since no one has to wait for their car, they have to wait in their cars instead). The power of locomotion over time facilitated people living in the suburbs and on hills. In the past, people use to talk about people who were not of the right class as living on the "other side of the tracks" Transportation defines class, and the lack of effective public transportation is a form or redlining, as much as any political action. That seems to be the case in Atlanta where this tragedy occurred.

What's interesting is our most vibrant cities, the wealthy frequently use mass transit. One of the things that can raise the value of a house in New York City is it's proximity to a subway stop. In fact the A, B and C subway lines stop in some of the most desired addresses of Central Park West. So transit can be an equalizing force, because it's a vehicle for understanding, for seeing how the other side lives.

In closing, in our escalation of class separation, if you think this phenomenon is limited to cars, check out this story in the New York Times about how private planes are now the preferred way to get your kids to camp.

Was Missing Persons right, "Only a nobody walks in L.A.?"


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