Everyone knows this.
Most suburban areas are famously unwalkable. You can’t perform any errands on foot. Maybe the odd errand to a nearby spot, but that’s it. Biking isn’t a reliable answer either. Your destinations are just too far away and far apart.
This is the definition of the suburbs. Your bank is two miles away. The dry cleaners is three miles in the other direction. The supermarket may be in the same strip mall as the cleaners, but how will you get the groceries home? The frozen food will melt.
Even if you can spend the day Johnny Appleseeding all over creation, there are logistical barriers. You’ll need to cross a four-lane road with a concrete median. You’ll walk in terrain that’s absolutely not intended for a trodding human; three-foot weeds and carpets of broken bottles make this clear. Drivers no longer expect to see pedestrians walking on the sides of suburban roads; Bill Bixby would’ve been killed within four episodes if he had tried to shoot The Incredible Hulk today.
Of course, the unwalkability of the suburbs was one reason Americans invaded them after World War II. Back then, the roach-infested city you hoped to escape from was highly walkable. The holes in your shoes proved it. The juvenile delinquents on the corner lived within walking distance. The rats eating your garbage were all hardy walkers, too.
If only novelty lasted. Unwalkability, like the stillness of a mausoleum by sundown, became just another mundane reality of suburban existence. Neither appreciated or noticed.
Except if you spent the last 14 years in a city and you’re back in the suburbs for a year to write a book.
Then it’s noticed.
You notice a few other things, too.
1. Recreational walking strikes you as asinine.
There are walking trails in some suburban parks. Occasionally around man-made lakes. People seldom use them. To you, the activity feels like driving down to the circle near the bowling alley and going around and around. Because it’s good for the car.
2. You chafe at being forced1 to have a car.
Because you cannot walk anywhere, prosecuting some form of livable existence means that you’re forced to own, maintain or look after the wellbeing of an automobile. Which is like being forced to own a five-hundred-pound mentally-challenged chimpanzee that’s prone to unpredictable outbursts of rage.
I say this as a former car dude. I’ve known the joy of fine-tuning the timing on a straight six engine and spending an entire summer day installing a crappy radio with a tape deck. I’ve smelled transmission fluid with suspicion and wonder. My car was my chariot, steed, fifth limb. Me with Bondo and Son-of-a-Gunned wheels. A sanctuary that occasionally welcomed Don McLean. And I never missed driving. Not once. Fourteen years without owning a car fucking ruled.
3. You chafe at being forced to drive.
Because you must navigate an automobile if you want to avoid turning into an insolvent version of Howard Hughes circa 1970, you are compelled to regularly engage in an activity that’s exceedingly likely to cause your death.
You’ve moved to Smokesville in the state of Light’emup in the proud nation of 1951. Want to leave your house? Kill a carton.
4. You chafe at being forced to drink in moderation.
It isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a man, but it’s soul killing. A bit like being forced to wear a shock collar even though you have no intention of jumping the fence and fucking the neighbor’s collie.
5. You refuse to walk when you easily could.
Because no one ever walks in the suburbs—save a few suspect people who may be derelicts-in-waiting—you soon develop an aversion to walking.
This happens at the individual and community level.
You begin to regard walking any distance beyond 600 feet as an alien act of folly. This hastens general deconditioning, even if you workout regularly. You’ll find yourself recoiling in horror when the opportunity or, Christ forbid, necessity to walk arises. Especially to a destination that’s within reasonable ambling distance for any human that isn’t wearing leg braces or pulling an oxygen tank.
Let’s say the car isn’t available and your medication is sitting in a Walgreen’s eight blocks away. This predicament will trigger a cascade of mental calculations:
“I could walk it. I mean, I could. Up and back. How sore will I be? I can do three miles on the treadmill, but that’s inside while I’m watching TV. What if I twist my ankle? I could have a heart attack. What if it starts to rain? What if a drunk driver hits me when I’m crossing route 68? I could run into a group of thugs from the next town. Or a rabid dog. Am I even immunized for that? What if a cop pulls over and asks me just what the hell I think I’m doing? Doesn’t that pharmacy deliver? I could call her and have her pick up the medication…but she’ll need my insurance card. Fuck! What do I do?”
6. You become more obese faster.
City living charges you a microscopic energy toll any time you do anything. If you want a slice of pizza or coffee, or diapers or Scotch tape or stamps, you will almost certainly need to walk at least a couple hundred steps more than if you were only making round trips to a parked car.
On any given trip, the calorie expenditure from these extra steps is trivial. But as it accumulates2 over months and years, it probably prevents one additional shit-ton of fat from getting stuffed into your gut sack.
Which doesn’t make you thin. Just somewhat less obese.
Conserving those calories by driving is like throwing five extra pennies into a jar after every trip. And that’s above your usual nightly surplus of small change, remember.
After a year, you’ll have a lot of fucking pennies. You won’t have precisely five for every trip; tortuous processes of biology siphon off handfuls while you sleep and sweat and shit. But every month, there are always more. In five years, the fuckers are filling closets. You’re drowning in pennies. You give off that weird smell of bleach, shoe polish and semen wherever you go.
You occasionally get pissed off and decide you’re going to shovel out enough ingots to see light through a second-story window.
Then you learn that if you’re committed and work hard, you will be permitted take one roll of fifty to the bank per day.
7. You no longer buy crap about “walkable communities.”
According to the constant “best places to live” lists, this has been a civic planning trend for twenty-five years. Except in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and any other state in the union you’ve ever been to. New developments continually sprout on the wrong side of untraversable highways that are unwalkable distances from new strip malls with new parking lots the size of Kuwait.
8. You realize the suburbs need cabs.
Taxis are one of the banes and salvations of city life. After you fork over your cash and slide off the wet seat, the Crown Victoria chugs away. You disgustedly pay ten or twenty or thirty dollars more than the trip was worth and then once again forget automobiles exist.
Taxis encourage walking. You’ll walk in your intended direction as you try to flag one down because it gives you the ridiculous notion that you’re making progress toward your destination.
You also frequently start walking because you know you can puss out and hail a taxi if you get tired.
In the suburbs, the puss-out option is the only choice. And you gotta buy the Crown Victoria.
Thinking about what a workable3 cab network in the suburbs might look like can make for lively conversation, as well as a nifty demonstration of the bike shed effect. Services and ride-sharing startups like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft are showing promise. Most are still confined to a handful of cities and densely populated areas—and thus don’t help millions of carless suburbanites, at least yet—but they show how a smartphone app, GPS and credit cards or PayPal could make an obscene number of empty back seats inch closer to justifying their existence.*
Luckily, technology makes more cockamamie shit plausible every year. If some scaleable ride-sharing scheme finally sprouts in a thousand Mayberrys across the nation, or some other form of suburban taxi service likewise congeals out of the ether, maybe it’ll be a chaotic orgy of rape, robbery and dropped popsicles. Or maybe it’ll work. It might become another mundane reality of the suburbs that nudges people to at least consider walking somewhere, sometime, because they know they can change their minds.
If you see me hitchhiking, for God’s sake, stop?
1I’m not using “forced” in the libertarian sense of having a bayonet in your back. I’m using it to mean “there’s no other option to accomplish the desired goal that’s reasonably comparable in cost, effort or time required.” In addition to sneakers and bikes, these criteria knock out buses, mopeds and Segways.
2I hate money experts and fitness dweebs who throw out “little things add up” examples as if the concept was compelling. Most miss a key point. You will not be eating cat food in your old age because you’re wasting $4 on a latte every day. You’ll be eating cat food because you are the type of person who wastes $4 on a latte every day without seeing the need to save enough money to buy future lattes or any consumable produced outside a Purina plant.
Similarly, nobody is obese because they live in the suburbs.
3The current taxi services in the suburbs are not useful for anything other than the incidental airport ride or the rare “even I know I’m too fucked up to drive” occurrence. Having to phone for a taxi, wait 40 minutes and pay a minimum of $30 to go anywhere worth going renders it useless for routine needs.
*This piece, including this paragraph and the next, were written when Uber was still in the “think it’ll really work?” stage, well before it became the brilliantly decent answer to bitch number 8. Now, in May 2015, Uber is quickly entering the ubiquitous, dominating and de-facto stage among teens to thirty-somethings, and thus poised for its first wave of negging and scorn. Myself, I like it, but naturally one bad ride will turn me.