Happy Car Free Day! The District celebrated Car Free Day (http://www.carfreemetrodc.com/Home/tabid/54/Default.aspx) this year on the first day of fall, September 22nd. And, ironically, I was in a car. Normally, everyday is car free for me, so it was a bit odd to be rolling along in South Jersey in a spanking new Nissan Altima (where do they get those names?) so advanced it had no actual key. All you had to do was think about driving and the engine turned on...well, I exaggerate a bit. But I was perfectly happy to surrender it to its loyal keepers at the airport, pat it on the bumper, thank it for a swell weekend and know that was the extent of our relationship.
We are a distinct minority, the car free, but we clump and gravitate to areas where the calculus of car ownership has flipped all the way from desire to disinterest. I neither need nor want one. In the Orwellian language of the auto industry and its advertising minions a car of one’s own represents freedom. Say it often enough and it will be as if true: “Americans love their cars.” But we really know better: true freedom is dropping off the rental and walking away. Freedom is tuning out the myriad traffic reports of jack-knifed tractor trailers. Freedom is thinking of the Occoquan only as a river and imagining the Springfield mixing bowl as a suburban bakery. Freedom is moving around the city without regard to one-way streets and without engaging in an exegesis of posted parking regulations. Freedom is not knowing what day your street gets swept. Freedom is no car payments, no car insurance, no repair bills, no nail-biting monitoring of gas prices, and not conflating geopolitical crises with your own personal inconveniences. Freedom is declaring yourself a conscientious objector to shopping mall culture, (and I use the latter term in its broadest ethnological sense) and refusing to spend the precious hours of the only life we have on this earth strapped into a couple thousand pounds of metal in a line of like prisoners. Urbanites of the world arise: you have nothing to lose but your car keys…and you’ve already done that at least once.
Of course, if the rhetoric of liberation doesn’t move you, how about the rhetoric of self-improvement? Save money, lose weight, improve your cardio-vascular health, make your neighborhood a better place, and help save the planet. Who can resist such a blunt appeal to naked self-interest with a delicate altruistic finish? It’s easy to become a habitual pedestrian. Too bad being pedestrian is usually considered undesirable. The word has such banal connotations: quotidian, everyday, dull, and uninspired. Perhaps we need our own organization... the Pedestrian Anti-defamation League, henceforth know as PAL, to monitor the media for degrading uses of our adjective. The pedestrian must reposition itself in the language of marketing, and we should reposition ourselves right in the center of the city. Urban sustainability begins at the feet. A single generous sidewalk, trees, an occasional bench for rest and conversation—these are the fundamentals of green and livable communities. Call me pedestrian, but it really is that simple.