Monday, January 18, 2010

Death By Auto Dependency

Most people would chalk up the death by exposure of Mrs. Martil Jovanes, 80, of Minooka, IL, as just "one of those things", a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, under the wrong conditions, not to be helped. The hand of God, some might say.

The circumstances surrounding her death are sketchy. Her address is not provided, and no survivor offered a statement.It is known only that she was returning from a dialysis treatment, and that she had left her car stalled on the railroad tracks, and had walked away from it, presumably in search of help, for it was ascertained that the auto had burned before being struck by a train, and Mrs. Jovanes was found collapsed about a quarter mile away. A post-mortem examination determined that she'd succumbed to hypothermia, or exposure to the cold.

Readers in the Joliet-Minooka area posted a few comments online, and most posters were critical of local law enforcement for not responding to a report of a fire at the rail crossing. But no one remarking on the tragedy questioned the living arrangements that require an octogenarian resident of a small town to drive many miles on desolate roads in the bitter cold to fulfill a course-of-life errand, such as a necessary medical procedure or trip to the supermarket.

Because that is how most of us live these days, at least those of us who live beyond the most densely -populated precincts of the handful of American cities fortunate enough to have adequate public transportation. In all other places, including most of our larger cities, the transit is infrequent, unreliable, and either doesn't run where you need it to, or when you need it to. You might be able to get to work, but nowhere else, least of all the nearest supermarket that might be 10 miles away. You might be able to get to work, but not back home because the service stops at an early hour.

60 years ago, at the end of WW2, this tragedy might not have happened. At that time, our towns and cities were oriented to their central business districts, and in a town like Minooka, like most other small towns, businesses and residential development would have clustered around the rail stops.An elder most likely would have lived on a street not far from either the retail district nor relatives, friends, and neighbors, and if she needed help, she would have quickly gotten it. She would most likely have had relatives nearby, or at least neighbors she knew well, and the goods and services she needed would have been available within a few blocks of her residence.

However, the post-WW2 era with its frantic suburban development and super-highway building was no kinder to towns like Minooka, or for that matter, small cities like Joliet and Springfield, than it was to our larger cities, and these days, instead of cozy, stable residential neighborhoods close to a prosperous business district, what you see at the rail stops on the Amtrak lines these days are deserted retail buildings, and dirty, decrepitating residential areas made of formerly fine houses let to fall into ruin, while the town's newer neighborhoods are built like suburbs, far from the retail district and accessible only by automobiles. Like the residents of the outer suburbs of large cities - and Minooka is now considered to be an outer suburb of Chicago- the remaining residents of most small towns must drive many miles to shop for groceries, go to school, visit the dentist, or see a new film.

Worse, just as our auto dependence has caused the populations of our towns and cities, and the businesses and institutions that serve them, to disperse to low-density neighborhoods oriented to expressways rather than to local businesses and rail stops, it has also dispersed families and friends and, in rural places like Minooka, even neighbors far and wide enough that an elder might feel that she's imposing a real burden on her neighbors and loved ones by asking for a ride to the doctor on one of the coldest days of the year.

Thanks to our almost universal auto dependence, a lone elder living in a place like Minooka has the worst of both worlds, really- you have the anonymity and lack of neighborly relations of a large, bustling city without the amenity and convenience, such as a bus that stops at your door and runs 24/7, while at the same time you have the poverty of services and retail of a very small town that has been left behind by suburbanization and big box dominance, without the intimacy, neighborliness, and long-time neighborly associations and physical closeness to your relatives, that were once the saving graces of small-town life.

Well, oil has once more crossed back into $80/barrel territory, and a larger percentage of our increasingly impoverished population everday, especially those dwelling in distant auto suburbs and rural outlands, are finding themselves stranded by the side of the road, figuratively as well as literally, as the costs of car ownership collide with the escalating costs of everything else, to make their lives much more uncomfortable and perhaps downright dangerous, thanks to our heavy dependence on a dwindling resource and our refusal to consider how we could arrange our lives so that a person could at least live and perform the ordinary errands without driving a car.


consultant said...

Our culture is built around escape. We are a frontier country that no longer has a physical frontier. We just want to get away from here, where ever that is. I think that is why the car became an expression of our national character. It provides a convenient means of escape.

To me this explains the attraction of Facebook and other social networking sites. No longer having a physical frontier to escape to, we can now "explore" this new frontier using these tools. People lose themselves for hours at a time in this new 'world'. We Americans have become social networking addicts (idiots?).

I support the entire thesis of more mass transit, passenger rail and producing more stuff locally. But unfortunately for all of us, most people and our so called leaders don't want to change and adapt to new realities (peak oil). They will continue to do what they're doing until they can't. The escape stuff is in our character and only something of the magnitude of peak oil is going to change that.

I worry about what's going to happen when we can't move about freely anymore.

Fargo said...

Well said. When my grandfather was growing up in Kewanee (western IL) in the 1910s and 20s, they had a small streetcar system. This was a farm and factory town of about 15,000 people, with most housing in an area of less than 9 sq miles.

The biggest local factory was Kewanee Boiler Works. (If you have lived in an older house or apartment building in Chicago, there's a good chance that one of their boilers was keeping you warm, or possibly still is.) The boiler works went out of business during the Depression, making a huge dent in the local job market. Later, when the economy improved and more people bought cars, public transit disappeared from Kewanee.

My grandfather, like many others, came to Chicago in search of a job. He stayed here the rest of his life. Because public transit served him well, and he hated city traffic, he never owned a car after he moved here. He was perfectly happy to use public transit, his feet, his bicycle and an occasional ride from a cab or a friend.

My other grandfather grew up in Chicago and, coincidentally, also made similar transportation choices. He never owned a car and got around mostly by public transit.

Both of them chose to live in locations where public transit worked for them. While I may not have agreed with them on everything, I appreciate the common sense of their transportation choices.