The Suburbs

The first album we listened to after getting home from Spain was The Suburbs by Arcade Fire — because, as I explained, all of America is the suburbs. This came home to me as we stepped on board the CTA Blue Line after spending a week riding the Madrid and Barcelona Metro. I love the CTA, and I’ve heavily relied on it for well over a decade of not owning a car. Coming back from Europe, it seemed dirty, clunky, and non-functional. And it was immediately brought home to me how much the train, even in one of the most transit-rich cities in the country, is a consession and an afterthought. Our tracks passed over multiple huge expressways before settling into its route literally between the two sides of an 8- to 10-lane highway. To walk to the stops, you have to cross an expressway interchange and then cross a bridge four lanes of traffic wide. In other lines (and other parts of the Blue Line), stops are more integrated into their neighborhoods, but this kind of pedestrian-hostile design represents a strong pluarlity if not a majority of stops.

And the cars themselves! So many cars! Walking around in a European city, even right in the city center, big multi-lane roads were the exception, but here they are very much a norm. The first time I crossed Ida B. Wells (formerly Congress) when I got back, I realized that I had never crossed such a wide road on foot in Spain — much less one filled with drivers who have just made an abrupt transition from expressway to urban driving (I-290 becomes Ida B. when it ends). Nor indeed had I ever seen a large surface parking lot, though there were plenty of underground garages scattered throughout the city. People definitely did drive, but the city wasn’t built from the ground up around cars like American cities outside of Manhattan are.

Compared to a real functioning city built around actual human beings, America is all the suburbs. I have found a place I can live as a carless person, but even here I am very much a minority and a novelty. And for most people in most parts of the country, my lifestyle is not only unimaginable but literally, physically impossible — indeed, illegal, as zoning laws forbid the inclusion of stores and businesses in residential neighborhoods. Hence when you suggest to people that we could live without cars, they picture our current infrastructure and conclude, quite rightly, that they would be isolated and trapped without their cars. The thought of rebuilding that infrastructure to be more human-centered never occurs to them, even though entire new neighborhoods are constantly being built, even though the roads and highways basically have to be rebuilt from scratch every few years.

What’s especially frustrating is that this sense of fatalism is so ahistorical. America used to have real, walkable cities, but they tore it all out for the sake of the almighty car. The car-based lifestyle was a policy choice, which is now accepted as an implacable fate. And so I remain a stranger in my own land, looking out at the expressways and subdivisions that my fellow citizens find normal and inevitable and declaring: This is all wrong, none of this should exist.

2 thoughts on “The Suburbs

  1. This exact realization has been hounding me for the last two months. I would very much like to replace an old car with a sturdy cargo bicycle, but with a house in the (inner) burbs and a young child it is not feasible. And I look at my fellow citizens all complain about gas prices and I howl and weep.

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