Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
February 2008
by Greg Knepp

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Sprawl Meltdown

Illustration by Greg Knepp

It was with some interest that I read a letter in the December 29 Columbus Dispatch written by John Gideon. In it, Gideon, president of the Central Ohio Bicycle Advocacy Coalition, decries the decision by the Dublin City Council to move forward with a business expansion scheme while ignoring proposals to make travel in the area more accessible to cyclists and walkers. To quote Gideon, “And the new plan does not commit Dublin to creating a comprehensive action plan to make Dublin more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.”

It’s an informative letter, and I thank Mr. Gideon for it, but what did he expect? The fact is, Dubliners, like all sprawl dwellers (aka suburbanites) long ago made a decision, either actively or passively, to devote their lives to the car culture and all that it entails. The mental, emotional and – dare I pen it? – spiritual commitment to the four-wheeled lifestyle is near total in most of the cases I’ve observed. Sprawlers consider suburban living an entitlement, the fulfillment of the American Dream. The very idea that every accountant, grocery clerk, laborer and hardware store manager shouldn’t have his own mini-palace replete with a green rolling estate, central air and a two-car garage seems somehow unpatriotic. The Dublin City Council members apparently decided that simply giving lip-service to a fuzzy concept termed “multimodal [transportation] options” would be sufficient to mollify the few Dublin voices that call for a true revolution in transportation.

But is the council being negligent or merely realistic? Is it even logistically or economically feasible to transform Dublin, or any suburb for that matter, into an environment where cycling and walking can be routinely used in a purely transportational (as opposed to recreational) mode?

To answer this question one must confront the grim reality of sprawl infrastructure and how total dependence on the automobile has molded it. For, as obtuse as the suburban mindset may be, the real impediment to any meaningful change in sprawl living is its infrastructure: the morass of lawns, asphalt parking deserts, six- and eight-lane highways, strip malls, big-box stores, corporate campuses, gated housing complexes, cul-de-sacs, and…well, the list goes on. The typical sprawl dweller, long desensitized to the sterile ugliness of his environment, drives from one indoor setting – home – to another – mall or office. Wrapped in a climate-controlled metal and plastic comfort pod and whizzing down the road at 60 plus, the sprawler has little awareness of the aesthetics of his larger environment. But a cyclist or pedestrian has no such insulation from the ghastly sensory assault that is the American suburb and will be disinclined to travel it.

Then there are the sheer distances involved in suburban travel. The suburban explosion began as an indirect result of the WWII industrial boom. A goodly portion of post-war productive capacity became devoted to making cars and building ticky-tack houses on postage stamp lawns so that young couples could begin living like mini-manor lords and ladies. As the burbs expanded, the federal government, using the Nazi autobahns as its model, began constructing the Interstate Highway System. Desecrating wilderness and farmland and ripping through the hearts of cities, the highways nonetheless served the suburbanites’ transportation needs to a T. As early as the 1950s, venerable downtowns began withering as the dual cancers of slums and parking lots took their toll.

Two occurrences in the late sixties hastened the rush to the suburbs. One was sudden – the assassination of Martin Luther King and the urban riots it engendered. (The influence of racism on suburbanization will not be dealt with here, but it is enormous.) The other was gradual – the so-called Green Revolution. This trend was largely responsible for moving agricultural production from local family farms to huge corporate crop factories in the West and Midwest. Older farmland near the cities lost value and was quickly soaked up by developers. Houses became huge with larger yards, and developments were built farther and farther out in a pathetic attempt to mimic the rural settings that they had destroyed. The result was that distances became greater, and unbridgeable by any mode of transport save automotive.

Imagine, if you will, a housewife, tots in tow, huffing and puffing as she pedals ten miles to the mall; or her hubby walking six miles and back to the nearest convenience store to pick up a 12-pack for the big game. Improbable?…you bet! Yet these are typical suburban spans. Even with sidewalks and bikeways, the daily traversing of such distances sans-car would be out of the question for the typical sprawler.

Things are different in the city. Laid out before WWII when the luxury of space and distance was limited to the wealthy few, stores, restaurants, schools, government services and even factories had to be built close at hand to serve folks without motorized transport. South of Beechwold to Frank Road, and east of Sullivant Park to about Nelson Road, Columbus is ideal for cycling. Even in areas that have gone to seed – the downtown parking wasteland for example – basic layout and infrastructure remain intact, and structures can be rebuilt along culturally and historically appropriate lines. I applaud our Mayor for his forward looking proposals to make the city more bike and walker friendly, but let’s not wait for government to act; God knows how long it might take! Get out now and bike. Walk when you’re so inclined; walking is a seriously underrated form of transportation. Save the car for long trips or foul-weather transport.

As for suburbia, my advice to John Gideon and others is simple – let it go; The collapse of suburban property values – values based on “hallucinatory wealth” as James Howard Kunstler calls it – is only a symptom of the larger reality of the Peak Oil crisis. The American Dream is now meeting the American Nightmare; suburbia is unsustainable at any cost because all the cheap oil in the world has been exhausted. What’s left is going to be progressively more expensive. Without cheap oil, suburbia is a corpse. And make no mistake, there is nothing to replace petroleum: not corn ethanol, switch grass (or is it sea grass? I get mixed up) Canadian tar sands, French fry grease or Colorado shale. The hydrogen cell is a cruel joke, and the electric car is at least a decade away from mass production. Sprawl meltdown is at hand, and there isn’t a damn thing to be done except learn the lesson and learn it well.

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist


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