Last weekend my wife and I enjoyed a quick overnight trip to one of our favorite cities, Philadelphia, PA. In an effort to avoid toll roads, we took Route 15 for much of the way through the Keystone State, marveling at the beautiful rolling hills while skirting the Susquehanna River.
But in many places along the way, Route 15 transitions into Big Box Store Islands. One such place is in Shamokin Dam, home to massive parking lots servicing Best Buys and AutoZones, featuring every restaurant chain from McDonalds and Burger King to Pizza Hut, Chipotle, Denny’s, Red Robin, Applebee’s and more. What caught my eye on this particular journey through the minimum-wage wasteland was the total lack of sidewalks.
Let’s unpack this for a moment. We have a sea of low paying retail jobs that literally cannot be reached on foot or by bike. If you can’t afford a car, you don’t get a job here and you don’t get to shop here, plain and simple.
Furthermore, and this is my favorite… not only do they not have sidewalks, the local signage actually forbids pedestrians!
And beyond that, I tried to see if there might be a public transit option so that residents of nearby Selinsgrove, for example, might be able to access this area without owning a car. Spoiler alert, there is no public transit option.
A similar collection of big box retailers and chain restaurants exists south of Rochester, New York in the suburb of Henrietta. And while the land use and development strategies in this area are hideously car-centric and exclusive, at least it has sidewalks on both sides of the road and regular transit access.
Shamokin Dam, on the other hand, is an island of minimum wage jobs that is only accessible by the most expensive form of transportation. Pennsylvania’s citizens living in this area must own a car and all the incredible costs that come with it in order to access these retail opportunities, either as an employee or as a customer. This is a perfect example of how flawed and shortsighted our U.S. development patterns and land use constructs truly are.
I bought my first bike at a local pawn shop when I was nine, after finding a fresh $100 bill on the floor of a K-Mart earlier that day. Obviously I “invested” the rest (i.e. putting it in the Garfield cup in my room that held my fortunes). As a kid, my experience with biking was minimal, taking short rides around my neighborhood and learning how to ride “no hands” because I thought it looked cool.
I didn’t ride bikes again until 2018, when I spontaneously decided that I wanted to “get into road bikes” as a hobby. I dove head-first into learning as much as I could about the biking world, including different bikes and the local “bike scene” in Rochester. Inevitably, that meant that I ended up visiting – I kid you not – every single bike shop in Rochester to learn from the experts and enthusiasts what bikes made the most sense for what endeavors, and I even got “fitted” for a bike, which at the time felt like the most legitimate thing you could do as a cyclist, especially a novice one.
During my three-week escapade of research, I learned that the local cycling scene in Rochester was robust and the community here is not only knowledgeable, but welcoming and genuinely amazing. People really love to bike, and I think I grew to love it simply from my conversations with people about everything from the best gear to the best trails and the local meetups that happen each weekend.
“I biked for leisure, I biked to work (most of the time), I biked to see the city I’ve lived in for over a decade with fresh eyes.”
I eventually landed on my “entry level” road bike, with plans to work my way up in expertise. Once I made my purchase, my commitment to hitting the road remained consistent and spirited. Biking around Rochester became my official summer activity. I biked for leisure, I biked to work (most of the time), I biked to see the city I’ve lived in for over a decade with fresh eyes. During that time, I had never really considered the gaps in safety for cyclists that exist here because, frankly, the fear for my own safety didn’t ever cross my mind. I felt so free on the road and I took the necessary safety precautions as a cyclist, so what could go wrong?
In September 2019, the occasional thoughts regarding safety suddenly became very real and necessary, when a casual ride down East Ave turned into a not-so-casual ride to the ER after getting clipped and catching my fall with my face, which was thankfully protected by a helmet (wear your helmets, people!!). I honestly don’t recall many details of the incident before I found myself monologuing for hours on end in the ER and entertaining the nurses on the night shift. (Unfortunately there is no evidence of what could have been a GREAT Netflix comedy special, but there is evidence of me trying to walk to my friend’s car like a newborn deer.
What I do know is that the crash happened on the busy stretch of East Ave that doesn’t have a bike lane, which forces bicyclists to cozy up to the curb in order to avoid cars passing by on the road. *Note to cyclists and non-cyclists alike – this is NOT the “right” way to ride in the road, and was not typically my riding behavior. Call it a perfect storm, call it fate. Either way, my face smashed into the pavement and it has changed the way I think about riding and cyclist visibility/ awareness. Along with some semi-permanent changes to my physiology…but that’s a whole other blog post entirely.
“Call it a perfect storm, call it fate. Either way, my face smashed into the pavement and it has changed the way I think about riding and cyclist visibility/ awareness.”
Here’s the thing: My experience with biking in Rochester had always felt quite safe and unhindered despite the sometimes noticeable limited infrastructure in and around the city. Despite these gaps, I never felt concerned, namely because of my own safety measures and the fact that my cycling habits were usually during “off hours” and thus lower commute times. That being said, my crash happened on the one strip of East Ave that of course DOESN’T have a bike lane, during a high traffic time – a Friday night during a summer festival. In other words, a time of mayhem.
I have yet to really know how my own cycling behaviors will be influenced by my crash on the road, but I don’t have any intention of stopping. That is, once I build up the courage to get back on my bike (estimated Summer 2021 after nearly two years of recovery). Despite my unfortunate encounter with a giant moving metal object at rapid speed, I STILL think biking is a safe and enjoyable activity and method of transportation. We are a city of bike enthusiasts and have low-to-no road rage here compared to many other cities! I call that a win.
“We are a city of bike enthusiasts and have low-to-no road rage here compared to many other cities! I call that a win.”
Do I think more bike lanes need to be strategically placed around the city? Perhaps. It couldn’t hurt. But “good cycling” on the road often means that you are in the street. My biggest issue as a cyclist is that the burden of safety is always placed on cyclists, the most vulnerable in a collision circumstance, just like in “rape culture” the burden of safety or responsibility is placed on women.
If you do a quick internet search on cycling safety, you will see important things like wearing brightly colored gear, lights, a helmet, riding with the flow of traffic, and traffic signals. However, if you were to survey a randomly selected group of drivers, how many of them know how to safely engage with a cyclist on the road? How many of them know what a straight arm out versus a bent arm means when you see a cyclist doing it? How many times have you seen drivers not looking both ways (with cyclists in mind) when turning onto a street? If the safety measures diligently taken and used by cyclists mean nothing to the drivers who share the road, there will always be disproportionately increased risk.
Might there be ways to increase visibility, and more importantly awareness about cyclists, that aren’t just about creating bike lanes?
The first car I recall riding in as a child was my mother’s Chevette Scooter, a horribly made car for the family on a budget. Poor quality, no comfort, no AC, a heater that took half an hour to kick in and a crappy radio.
The Ford Escort that followed was honestly not much of an upgrade, and neither was the car that ended up being my first to drive, the Plymouth Colt (which didn’t even have a radio).
Yes, these were bargain basement rides built for my mother’s extremely tight self-employed-music-teacher budget. There were far more luxurious cars in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. But none of these were anywhere near our price range. Thus, we were stuck with cars that just weren’t great to be in for more than short stints at a time. Commutes were a struggle, especially in bad weather. Comfort was something we simply could not afford.
In contrast, let’s look at the 2021 Toyota Corolla. Features include AC, power everything, a touch-screen audio control system with “Amazon Alexa Compatibility” as well as “Android Auto” and “Apple Car Play” standard. You can even get “Sirius XM” satellite radio. The look and feel of the interior resembles something from the future, with painstaking detail to ensure comfort and convenience. Top that off with the fact that the new Corolla has 139 horsepower, nearly double that of the popular Escort mentioned above. And let’s remember, the Corolla is the base-model of Toyota’s fleet. This is the new entry-level car of the budget-minded American today.
When we talk about the “driving forces” (forgive the pun) of American population sprawl away from urban centers and even job clusters, we often cite wider roads, more highways, cheaper rural property, crime rates, employment redistribution and other factors as motivators and facilitators. We rarely talk about the fact that being in a car for long periods of time isn’t quite as awful anymore.
The upgrades with regard to comfort, power, tech, audio, safety, all-weather handling, and a host of other creature comforts have made the prospect of a longer commute much more palatable… even inviting. Cars have shifted from uncomfortable, unsafe and unappealing to flashy, exciting and luxurious, even at the base-model-level.
And Americans are willing to spend a greater percentage of their income on this luxury. If you were the average American and wanted to purchase the most popular car in the United States in 1985, you would commit 26% of your annual income to that purchase. If you wanted to do the same today (and purchase the Toyota Camry) you would have to spend 35% of your income.
Car companies have had their finger on the pulse of American psychology for some time. A decade ago, when car sales began to drastically slip with young Americans, the auto industry knew they needed to make a change. Gone would be the days of selling a car based on boring traits like vehicle quality and longevity… instead, a new era of vehicular manufacturing and marketing was built around something young people can’t get enough of: Tech.
From computer-monitored climate control systems to Bluetooth and voice-command applications that tie in with your phone, tech advances in cars have ushered in a new dimension of appeal to the young American motorist. Car interiors have been fitted with futuristic cockpits featuring screens, cameras, colorful lights and flashy graphics. Very few commercials speak to the construction of the vehicle with regard to crash safety anymore… instead they tout the automatic braking systems and auto-piloting features as tech that keep passengers from crashing in the first place.
The ability for a car to sync with a smartphone via voice command is particularly vital. The shifting symbol of freedom in the U.S. is important to note here, as more and more young Americans favor digital rather than (or at least in steep competition with) physical connectivity. Before recent advances in car tech, the automobile was a place where people were legally prohibited any interaction with tech while driving. Taking a bus or a train, however, left the traveler the chance to immerse herself/himself in the digital world while moving about. It is at least somewhat likely that the uptick in transit usage and the downturn in miles driven a decade ago was motivated by the fact that transit allows users to continue their smartphone connectivity throughout their local and regional travels, while cars do not.
Even prior to Covid, this trend had been steadily reversing. As cars added ways for Americans to stay digitally connected and feel surrounded by luxurious tech, public transit, in most cases, failed to adapt by building on their modest gains. Now that Covid has dealt a cataclysmic blow to transit ridership, the auto industry has never been more vigilant in marketing their product as a vehicle that keeps you connected while giving you a space that is “safe,” warm, comforting and above all, fun.
Pay close attention to car ads today. How many of them really talk about old-school measures like how long the car will last or how the car drives? Instead, look at the attention to tech additives and creature comforts. Today’s cars aren’t being marketed as transportation solutions… they are being branded as blissful islands of escape, with technology and serenity at the center of a newfound automobile obsession.
As urbanists battle against community design that prioritizes automobile utilization above all else, we should all be mindful of the fact that these aren’t the only factors that motivate car sales today. The fact is, cars today are more fun than they ever have been. Even entry-level models boast tech, audio and comfort that bathe the driver in a world apart from the anxiety-inducing reality we live in today.
As we look toward a light at the end of a dark tunnel, we must start planning for the public transportation of tomorrow. One of the considerations we must have is how to compete with the serenity-inducing experience of the car. Public transit’s next step needs to not only focus on how to efficiently move people, but how to do it in a way that pacifies our desire for comfort and need for space in a world that continues to overwhelm us all.
by Jesse Peers, Cycling Coordinator at Reconnect Rochester
When I saw the trailer for Why We Cycle years ago, I instantly knew how special this film was. Finally someone had made a gorgeous film about the myriad of reasons why people all over the world choose to traverse their communities by bike. I’m glad we were able to screen the documentary for a Rochester Street Films event in September 2020 and use it as a springboard to discuss local values and goals.
If you haven’t seen the film or weren’t able to take part in our panel discussion, watch them here.
As our moderator, Mona Seghatoleslami, wrapped up the great discussion that evening, she said, rightly so, that “this is just the beginning of a lot of things.” Let’s examine several takeaways from the film itself, the chat amongst viewers, and our panel discussion, and where we go from here.
Culture at Large
Some participants felt our screening of this Dutch film was too lofty and dreamy. In terms of culture-at-large, we agree. Comparing the Netherlands and ROC is apples to oranges. Dutch culture is indeed vastly different! The Netherlands prides itself on having an egalitarian society, in which they strive for everyone to be shown respect. If you haven’t noticed, the U.S. has much room to improve in this regard to say the least. But that doesn’t mean we have to overturn societal values before we can become a more equitable community in terms of mobility, though that won’t keep us from trying. Other cities of all sizes surpassing Rochester in the national bike rankings proves this.
Being Vigilant and Showing Up
Our panelists made clear that to attain better bike infrastructure, it takes being involved in the process, showing up at meetings (even virtual ones these days) and organizing ourselves. As the old adage goes, “if you don’t do politics, politics will do you.” If the bike community was under the impression that after the adoption of the 2034 Plan, which encourages implementation of “complete streets” designs that accommodate ALL modes of travel, that this would happen overnight with no need for continued advocacy, we were mistaken (see State Street).
One of the words that was spoken over and over during our panel discussion, particularly from Brighton’s Robin Wilt, was “demand.” Just as the Dutch rose up in the 1970s to demand safer road conditions and greater accountability, the active mobility community is going to have to demand safer streets that are designed for all modes of travel, not just cars. We have to keep our leaders accountable to the 2034 Plan, remind them of their values and goals, and when opportunities arise, vote for leaders who stand behind this progressive, multimodal vision.
The Rochester Cycling Alliance (RCA) does our best to get the word out about public input sessions and other advocacy opportunities. Please make sure you’re on our mailing list and take those opportunities to provide input.
Rochester’s not a bad biking city!
There were varying opinions held by viewers about Rochester’s bikeability — some negative, some positive. Let’s look at the bright side first and identify some of Rochester’s advantages participants took note of in the chat: We are blessed to have the Genesee Riverway Trail, Erie Canal Trail, and an abundance of water and stellar public parks in our community. People pay a lot of money to come from all over the world to Cycle the Erie and we have free access nearby! Overall Rochester is pretty flat, which makes getting somewhere by bike less arduous. And the average city resident has a 4.1-mile commute to work, a journey that can be done by bike at a casual pace in less than 25 minutes.
As several people pointed out in the chat, Rochester has an impressive bike culture for a city of our size. There’s a wide variety of groups with different riding styles, and open-invite group rides take place most evenings during the riding season.
Rochester was awarded a bronze level status as a Bike-Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists in 2012, 2016 and 2020. That’s not bad! A bronze status means we’re on the right track. Yes, there is a lot to be improved if we want to reach silver or gold, but we are a decent biking city already. In fact, I firmly believe Rochester could become the best biking city in the Great Lakes. It’s more within reach for us than other cities due to the advantages noted above. I know many people who are already of the opinion that Rochester is one of the #BikeLife’s greatest secrets. There are affordable neighborhoods within a 15-minute ride of downtown where car-free living is absolutely attainable. If biking on busy, main thoroughfares isn’t your thing (we don’t blame you!), often there are parallel side streets through residential neighborhoods that will get you to your destination in a timely, less stressful way. If you want to get more comfortable on your bike, consider signing up for one of our on-bike classes sometime.
Our Biggest Weakness: Not Zooming Out
Yes, Rochester is making progress in expanding our bike infrastructure. But there was a consensus on participants in the chat that the current process doesn’t work. As it is now, bike infrastructure is installed “where possible” along small, segment-by-segment stretches. Each self-contained project is overseen by a different design firm and it’s apparent there is no overall network vision guiding this process along predetermined priority routes. Because of this, we get a piecemeal, patchwork result where you can bike on one street for several miles and encounter bike lanes, sharrows or nothing at all.
Even the gorgeous cycletrack along Union Street got knocked pretty hard during our chat: It sure is pretty, but what’s it supposed to do? It doesn’t go anywhere and, as bidirectional cycletracks on one side of the street often do, it creates awkward transitions for those on bike.
“There’s a consensus emerging in the bike world that it’s more about quality of bike infrastructure than quantity (how many miles of bike lanes doesn’t matter as much as how safe & stress-free those miles are).” ~Brent Toderian
Furthermore, though the City is chipping away at its Bike Master Plan, albeit in small, often disconnected pieces, the suburbs for the most part have yet to get on board. Cyclists might be somewhat comfortable on some city streets with bike infrastructure and lower speed limits, but once they cross the city line into surrounding towns, that infrastructure disappears too much of the time.
Instead of a city full of bike lanes which are uncomfortable for most residents, we need to focus on less mileage but higher quality (protected!) bike lanes along strategic routes. Rochester and Monroe County could also use a more top-down “let it be!” approach when it comes to a usable bike network.
“The fast implementation of projects proved to be far more effective than the traditional model of attempting to achieve near unanimity on projects even when you already have consensus that the status quo doesn’t work. Efforts to reach an idealized consensus have resulted in years of indecision, inaction, and paralysis-by-analysis.” ~Streetfight (Sadik-Khan and Solomonow)
Getting local leaders out of their cars
This next topic brought up by participants is probably unrealistic, but holy moly would it move the needle like nothing else! (And it was discussed on September 12th): Getting elected officials, engineers and planners out of their cars. I suspect that many people in our governments and design firms who design and approve bike infrastructure, may never use that bike infrastructure themselves. If officials had to bike solo in rush hour through every segment of infrastructure they approved, we’d likely see very different bike infrastructure.
“In my perfect world, anyone working on bicycle infrastructure or planning should be handed a bicycle and told to ride it in their city for a month…That would certainly force the issue in the minds of the inexperienced or skeptical. We have been thinking car-first for decades, and that worked out pretty well for motorists and the engineers who cater to them. Now it’s time to switch it up.” ~Copenhagenize (Colville-Andersen)
“When I look around the world at the growing list of cities that are once again taking the bicycle seriously, I can identify one primary factor: political leadership. Advocates and activists continue to do their part, pushing from the bottom upward. At the end of the day, though, it seems that policymakers exercising top-down leadership are the catalysts for real change…Politicians may notice…a personal brand boost when they take matters to the next level.” ~Copenhagenize (Colville-Andersen)
Finally, panelist Mitch Gruber urged Rochester’s active mobility and bike community to do a better job of outreach to neighborhoods that don’t look like us – of listening to people who use their bikes in different ways than we do. This is something Reconnect Rochester is committed to working on. Our recent signing of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group’s statement that Racism is a Public Health Crisis was only a start.
Going into 2021, join us in being vocal about the benefits of biking to elected officials, stay tuned for advocacy opportunities, and join us for one of our workshops and cyclist gatherings in 2021.
Next time you walk, ride or roll along Parsells, Lyell or Monroe Avenues, you’ll notice a bright new addition to the streetscape. This month, cubes made from fiberglass were installed at 5 bus stops along each of these corridors, offering RTS riders a respectable place to sit while they wait.
The City of Rochester and RTS have been tremendous partners on this project. Thanks especially to DES Commissioner Norm Jones and City Councilmember Mitch Gruber for championing the effort, along with City staff across many departments who worked hand-in-hand with us to see this to fruition. We also couldn’t have done it without our neighborhood partners in Beechwood, Lyell-Otis and Upper Monroe, or the funders that stepped up to contribute.
Cubes for Your Community
This is just the beginning! We hope the pilot project will lead to bus stop cubes in more Rochester neighborhoods and beyond. Reconnect Rochester will continue to work with RTS, local municipalities and community organizations throughout Monroe County to identify bus stops in the system that are well utilized but lack seating.
Would you like to see cubes at bus stops in YOUR neighborhood or community?Contact us and we’ll do our best to work with you to secure funding and make it happen.
Are you from outside the Monroe County area and interested in purchasing bus stop cubes for your town or city?Contact us and we’ll put you in touch with the manufacturer. Reconnect Rochester receives a sales commission that helps fuel our effort to put more bus stop cubes on the ground locally.
Why Are We Doing This Anyway?
Anyone who has ever used public transportation in Rochester is painfully aware of two things: At some point you will have to wait for your bus, and when you do, you will probably be standing.
For senior citizens, people with disabilities, and parents with young children, being made to stand for any length of time can be less than ideal. Even for those passengers who are physically capable of standing, having no place to sit while waiting on the side of a busy roadway can cause anxiety and discomfort.
Why is our bus system the only transportation mode that requires its passengers to stand while waiting for the service? The single biggest issue is the sheer scale of the system. There are thousands of bus stops in the RTS network, and the resources of the transit authority are already spread thin.
If this issue could be remedied, not only would we make the lives of current riders a little easier, but we might also encourage more people to use public transportation. This is why Reconnect Rochester has decided to make bus stop seating a priority for our community.
How Did This Project Come About?
In 2017, after 3 years piloting seasonal bus stop cubes made from high-pressured wood, Reconnect Rochester set out to find a permanent, year-round amenity for bus riders. In our research, we came upon a local manufacturer of fiberglass — a nearly indestructible, weather resistant material that was perfect for the job! It took about three years of stops-and-starts to design and manufacture the fiberglass model that you see today.
To go further back in history and learn more about how the bus cube concept came to be, check out the Bus Cube Birth Story on our website.
“Dude, get out of the road,” you yell in an enraged state fueled by someone’s blatant disregard for the fact that you woke up late and are traveling 10mph over the speed limit only to encounter a man “jaywalking” across the road in front of you. Your displaced anger bubbles over as you find yourself inconvenienced for a whole 9 seconds.
We’ve all been there… getting behind a car that’s traveling 10mph under the speed limit, trying to pass a cyclist with no shoulder, or yelling at a pedestrian who crosses the road outside of a crosswalk with no regard for your time.
Let’s step back in time to 1906. Jaywalking, or the illegal crossing of a street in a non-designated crosswalk, was 20 years from being a thing. The automobile was just beginning to assert itself as a semi-regular addition to city streets that accommodated a multi-modal construct. Can’t imagine what this looks like? Let’s look at this amazing digitally remastered video of a 1906 San Francisco street car ride.
The most important thing to note in this video is how diverse the street traffic is. Horse and buggy, trolley, automobile, bicycle, pedestrian… they all move at approximately the same speed. The well-to-do owner of the car travels at a speed that is similar to the pedestrian and cyclist. While the driver may be able to enjoy an independent, stress-free commute, he or she is subject to the street congestion caused by many different forms of mobility. And while this low-speed chaos would likely be psychologically catastrophic to the car commuter today, it presents some incredibly meaningful lessons with regard to our streets and their effect on society.
Multiple Modes of Mobility
Trolleys, carriages, bikes, cars and pedestrians… count the number of different forms of mobility in this video. The streets were truly for everyone, regardless of speed, size or socioeconomic status.
Equitable transportation is rooted in the idea that anyone can access jobs and resources equally, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In this piece of video, pedestrians, mass transit and cars move at a similar speed. The difference in velocity between the most exclusive form of transportation and the most humble form of transportation is negligible. Today, the average 15 minute commute by car is likely to be over an hour by bus. The prioritization of the automobile has completely eradicated equitable access to jobs and resources.
Density and Community
Slower, more equitable mobility leads to greater, more efficient urban density. Suburban sprawl has created an inequitable construct based on “pay-to-play” access of upwardly mobile resources. When multi-modal transportation is encouraged, more efficient and equitable communities are possible.
In the video above, the fastest form of transportation, the cars, are moving about 2-3 times the speed of pedestrians. Sure, that difference might be a great deal more on an open road, but the top speed of between 30 and 50 miles per hour for the average Ford… not to mention you needed oil every 250 miles, and the fact that highways were just a glimmer in the hopeful eye of an urban enemy. A humorous note, just two years earlier, a driver was given the first speeding ticket in Dayton Ohio for going 12mph in a 5mph zone.
At such low speeds, the prospect of “sprawl” was horribly impractical. As a result, cities remained unquestionable centers of equity, efficiency and productivity. Because cars were just a slightly faster mode of transportation in a sea of other mobility options, 15-20 mile car commutes were simply not possible.
But cars became faster. Car and oil companies became the dominant lobbyists in the United States. Highways were built to allow for greater sprawl, all subsidizing people’s desire to create exclusive communities outside their city centers.
I shared this video with a number of friends. The comments back marveled at the clothing, the trolleys, the horses, the man sweeping horse droppings, and the maddening chaos of multi-modal traffic. But when I look at videos like this, I see what cities were like when mobility was far more equitable. Sure, our cities were dirty, crowded, smelly and sometimes scary. Sanitary amenities, cleaner energy and a host of other legal and environmental issues were still hurdles for cities 1906.
But the power of the city as the social, economic and equitable hub of humanity was far greater than it is in the U.S. today. Architecture hasn’t changed all that much, save the skyscraper. Street layout is pretty much the same. The big difference is the fact that the formally diverse streets featuring slow traffic have been replaced with exclusive automobile access, allowing those who own cars to speed to their destinations while those who must rely on public transit are subject to maddeningly underfunded networks, long wait times and inefficient commutes.
The video above shows what streets were meant to be. They were havens for diverse mobility instead of space that is solely dedicated to speed and exclusivity. Our cities have paid the price for this massive mistake, and as a result, equity and upward mobility continue to lag compared to much of the rest of the industrialized world.
I saw something today that blew my mind. The average new road vehicle retails for $37,876. Can we say that again? Americans are purchasing cars, trucks and SUVs to the tune of $38,000. In a time when we are asking questions of equity and “pay-to-play” constructs in our American culture, is there anything more exclusive than the automobile?
Most of our focus in life revolves around three basic things… our home, our work and how we connect the two. After World War II, the Federal Government subsidized the construction and purchase of homes outside of city limits in areas now referred to as “the suburbs.” But that wasn’t enough… with major employers still entrenched in urban cores as a matter of practical business, the same administrations facilitated the creation of automobile expressways that allowed white Americans, who could afford cars to access jobs while living in racially exclusive suburbs, to commute efficiently to their employment epicenters. And as no surprise, these highways doubled as a way of demolishing “blighted” black neighborhoods, segregating white from black, and rich from poor in our cities.
Redlining and racial property covenants (among a host of other elements of institutionalized racism) ensured that people of color could not transcend their circumstance, creating an un-traversable economic fissure between wealthy white and struggling black citizens in highly polarized and segregated counties.
Car, oil and rubber companies furthered the plight of inner city America by lobbying for wider roads, campaigning for “jay-walking” to become a public offense and famously purchasing the private city street car companies, only to immediately disband them. All this to ensure that the most expensive and exclusive mode of transportation was virtually the only mode of transportation. And of course, this was all done to the tune of billions of dollars in subsidies for auto-related manufacturers and the building of automobile infrastructure that a huge percentage of the country simply could not afford.
How do you disenfranchise an entire group of people? Simple. Tell them they can only live in one place, (which we as a country did) then incentivize everyone else (and thus American jobs) to move away from that place… and for the final touch, make it too expensive for the disenfranchised population to access good jobs, public resources and any hope of upward mobility. The perfect purposeful recipe for racial, cultural, economic and social isolation.
Let’s go back to the cost of the average new vehicle, $37,876. The average Black household in the U.S. earns $41,511 (2018), less than $4,000 more than the cost of the average American automobile.
Can Americans purchase a used car for much cheaper? Absolutely. But a huge percentage of disenfranchised communities still struggle with high interest rates and all the “extras” that go along with car ownership (insurance, fuel, maintenance, registration fees, etc.). When the process of conveniently commuting requires 40% of your income, something is seriously wrong.
“The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. … Those who can purchase and maintain a car win…everyone else loses.“
As someone who purchased a used car 6 years ago for $7,500 and still occasionally uses that car today, I am in absolute awe of the amount of money my friends spend on cars, trucks and SUVs that I would consider “luxurious.” The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. The amount that middle class American families are willing to spend for the convenience of two SUVs is staggering. But the myth that this choice is a necessity is one of the most racially and socially exclusive economic and psychological constructs in American culture. I would argue that the toxic level of “pay to play” exclusivity in this country is and always has been the veiled mirage of the automobile as the only means of convenient transportation. Those who can purchase and maintain a car win… everyone else loses.
When the average cars costs $38,000, equity is not possible. When the average commute of 23 minutes by car is an hour and twenty minutes by bus, equity is not possible. In a nation where Black Americans were disallowed to thrive in our urban cores, this same social and economic rift occurs today with regard to transportation and the convenient access of jobs and services.
Redlining derailed black neighborhoods by placing a financial ceiling on their communities. Property covenants and other restrictions disallowed people of color from moving to other neighborhoods. The war on drugs targeted black males in a conscious effort to disrupt black families. Today, in a world where mobility is such a strong determinant for success, the century-long subsidization of the most expensive and exclusive form of transportation continues to add yet another wrinkle in the fabric of blatantly racist agendas that our country has supported.
“Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone.”
It’s time to realize that the American automobile, and the immense infrastructure that facilitates its transportation dominance, might be one of the most toxically racial tools this country has ever seen. Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone. Support walkability and infrastructure projects that limit automobile speed and prioritize pedestrians, especially in traditionally minority-based neighborhoods. Support urban density that considers the needs and desires of Black Americans. The American car/truck/SUV has pummeled the core of U.S. urban density… let’s realize this as a mistake and get aggressive about building a more equitable future of mobility in our urban centers!
A few related notes and resources from Reconnect Rochester. . .
We appreciate this excellent piece by Arian at The Urban Phoenix that makes new and insightful connections between mobility and racial & economic justice.
Over the past five years, Reconnect Rochester has been part of an effort to examine the relationship between transportation and poverty in our community, to better understand the problem so we can identify possible solutions, and act on them. Resources this effort has generated can be found here on Reconnect’s website and include:
Our efforts continue through the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI)’s transportation work group. In collaboration with many community partners around the table, we work to translate the report learnings into systemic policy recommendations and actions that can create real change.