Car-centric cities keep Americans lonely

Illustration by Bryce Griego.

Lily Pawliczak, Contributing Writer

I am originally from Westchester County in New York, so it has been ingrained in me to know how to drive well. I can parallel park in one go, merge onto a busy street in the city and get across three lanes of traffic to my exit all without really paying attention. Driving well has come in handy when I have to drive to the nearest coffee shop in town or go home from school. 

Since I’ve been living in France, I have not needed to drive for three months, and instead have walked or taken the bus to almost everything I do. Most of the streets in Aix-en-Provence are not even big enough to fit a small French car through. To some, that may sound like a nightmare — they may be asking, “Where’s the convenience in that?” 

Car-centric cities may be convenient for quick travel, but people-centric cities are made for human convenience. A car-centric city is one whose design and infrastructure mainly serve private vehicles. Everyone’s day-to-day life is, in turn, based on the use of cars, making them something people rely on. 

What makes these cities so reliant on cars is their urban sprawl design, meaning their residential and commercial centers are spread out from each other, which further pushes the dependency on cars. 

People-centric cities, on the other hand, prioritize pedestrian spaces, public spaces and public transportation. It becomes a safer place for people to live and walk around. Overall, people connect with each other in more ways than before. A lack of walkability and limited public spaces take away from local businesses and lower neighborhood interactions, completely missing the sense of community.

In Aix-en-Provence, there are hardly any cars in the city center, but there are buses to take you around its borders, and it’s easy to walk through — about 20 minutes from one end to the other. Being able to do this has completely skewed my sense of distance — a 20-minute walk in my hometown would have me getting in my car and driving there — not to mention that I don’t even have sidewalks in my neighborhood, so I would be walking on the shoulder of the road anyways. 

In France I can walk — on sidewalks — to my friends’ apartments, to school, to get dinner and to the town markets. I can walk everywhere, and I have never felt more appreciative of that fact. 

I used to hate walking — I thought it took too long — but now I enjoy a walk to the grocery store with my friends after class or meeting up at the park. In some ways, it is easier than driving. 

Going back to the United States after getting used to this is going to be a huge adjustment. That is why college becomes a thing of nostalgia once you leave. College is the high point of community life — at least for Americans. Campuses are human-scale, and allow for such things called “spontaneous encounters.” Because of this and their walkability, these campuses meet the needs of those looking for a community in ways that many cities and towns in the U.S. cannot. 

There are many countries and cities that consciously make a change to their infrastructure to make their city more people-centric, and from that, have seen positive results. The U.K. and the Netherlands both have national legislations banning the construction of suburban shopping centers, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have long-term planning to protect natural areas to encourage compact urban development and Madrid and Vancouver have had massive investments in transport infrastructure. These are all things that are applicable in the U.S. 

The wide roads and large parking lots in the U.S. spread everything out and make walking anywhere virtually impossible. The way our urban areas are laid out makes it very difficult to access shared spaces and build friendships and communities. 

The U.S. used to be more people-centric. Larger cities were built for walkability. Neighborhood kids would even be playing in the streets. After cars gained popularity, suburban neighborhoods spread and people grew further away from each other. 

Developing new infrastructure in the U.S. would be time-consuming, difficult and expensive — but not impossible. We have the potential to expand our public transportation through buses, metro systems and railways, as the U.S. continues its expansion and development

Instead of spread-out neighborhoods, large street-road hybrids known as “stroads” and extensive miles of highways, there could be neighborhoods built closer together — the density achieved here makes walkable neighborhoods a very realistic goal

Through objectives like these, European cities have achieved a way of life that benefits their people and their communities. Just because the U.S. is large does not mean we have to take advantage of that. If I could walk home, to a friend’s house or to get coffee, I would have so many more opportunities to connect with others and spend time in spaces outside of my own. Even the ability to take the bus or the train to more places than what is available now takes away from the isolation of driving in my car alone. 

Instead of investing in the profitability of private transportation, like cars, the U.S. could invest in its people. Hopefully, there will come a day when walking to a friend’s house or coffee shop seems like the easiest thing to do. While we wait, maybe start small — block parties always made me feel closer to my neighbors.

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