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The tyranny of automobiles

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POSTED: July 18, 2014 2:00 p.m.
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Government spending on infrastructure has favored automobile traffic for decades.

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In the week leading up to Independence Day, several news stories prompted us to contemplate what freedom means in 2014.
For instance, if I enter a convenience store with a firearm strapped to my belt and encounter a similarly-armed fellow customer, who refuses to show me his good guy permit, which of us has the right to draw his gun first? That’s being sorted out thanks to an incident in my South Georgia hometown.
The news wasn’t limited to our state. If your Facebook feed looked like mine, it was populated by people decrying a recent Supreme Court decision because it allows owners of “closely held” corporations to impose their religious beliefs on employees.
And people who celebrated the same decision as an important affirmation of religious freedom.
And people who said the real issue isn’t scrapbooking supplies and morning after pills at all, but is rooted in the idea that people should not be compelled by the government to purchase something they do not want to buy.
This last viewpoint is one I think about all the time. That’s because all across our country and in parts of Savannah, citizens are required to make a particular purchase if they hope to land and keep a job.
Others must buy it in order to spend time with their friends and families, to shop for basic necessities and to gather in worship with others. For some, this purchase is required if they simply wish to leave their own homes.
No matter what our political leanings or religious beliefs (or lack thereof), many of us are required to possess automobiles if we wish to fully participate in society.
“Not so fast,” you might say. “The government isn’t forcing anyone to buy a car.”
That’s true. At least not directly.
Yet for decades local, state and federal governments have created transportation infrastructure designed for cars, frequently to the exclusion of people. Combined with land use policies that encourage sprawl, the result is a built environment that requires automobile use for almost every trip, almost every day.
An unblinking focus on increasing private automobile speed, capacity and convenience has manifested in absurd and self-defeating ways.
Think about office workers who must get in their cars and drive to lunch at restaurants they can see from the windows of their workplaces. Even though the lunch spot is just across the street or down the block, it’s simply too scary to walk amidst the speeding cars and trucks.
Think about parents who must load up their minivans with bicycles, scooters, skateboards, snacks and drinks, then drive all the way across town to find a place they feel safe exercising with their children.
Think about a suburban neighborhood that is like an island, though it is miles inland from the coast. While residents don’t need boats to get off this island, they must get behind the wheel to navigate the single outlet that leads to the collector road and the outside world beyond. Without cars they’re marooned.
And then there’s an actual island that is overwhelmed by automobile traffic during the summer season. Lots of people would happily pedal to Tybee and thereby reduce congestion and lessen competition for limited parking, but they are understandably unwilling to ride on a road and over bridges that are dangerous to them.
Beneath the absurdity of these situations, there’s a troubling restriction of individual liberty. Upstanding, law abiding, taxpaying citizens are denied freedom of movement by streets and roads that are hostile and too often deadly to people who walk and ride bikes.
That taxpaying part is particularly important, as evidenced by a recent letter to the editor of our daily newspaper warning that the City “should not put in more tax money into bike lanes,” especially if they could somehow slow movement on streets that are “necessary for the flow of traffic.”
This line of thinking reveals a number of common misunderstandings. The first is the notion that roads and streets are paid for entirely by fuel taxes and user fees that should not be used for nonmotorized transportation infrastructure.
In fact, these funding sources fall far short of what’s required to maintain, not to mention expand, our transportation network, which is devoted almost entirely to moving cars and trucks.
Another erroneous idea is that bicycling and walking are purely recreational activities. The truth is plenty of Savannahians rely on their feet or their bikes for transportation each day. They deserve to see their tax dollars spent to preserve and enhance their freedom to move around their community.

Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign. This column first appeared in Connect Savannah.

 

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