27 January 2011

Driving Me Backwards

I have a confession to make. I am a bad driver. It seems like an almost un-American thing to admit. I've known this for some time. I was involved in three serious crashes (two of which were my fault) within two years of getting my license. No injuries resulted, thankfully, but only through sheer luck. I'm a little too easily distracted behind the wheel, and this was in the days before texting, GPS units and in-dash computer madness. After the third, I made the decision that not driving was in the best interest of myself and everybody else on the road. This wasn't too hard, I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and working downtown. As I've mentioned before, this predated there being many bikes on the roads, but Portland also has better public transit than just about any other American city of similar size. So no problem in the short term, I managed to get around quite well with my bus pass.

Later on down the metaphorical road, I had more difficulty. When I lived in San Diego, many of the jobs I was qualified for were situated far out in the suburbs with no transit access. I began to feel as though I was being penalized for making a thoroughly sensible decision. I think I'm an intelligent and capable person, and could have gotten one of these jobs easily. I could have caved and bought a car, but lucky (?) for me, I couldn't afford one. I also couldn't afford to live closer to the jobs that were available. So I lived in the urban neighborhood I could afford and I took a minimum-wage service job downtown that I could walk to. A vicious cycle, that. That, above all other factors, drove me to relocate to a city with decent transit infrastructure. I think a lot of people would like to do the same, but opt instead for getting a car to get to the job that's available to them. I've been fortunate in one sense, I haven't been at all financially successful, but I have been able to live my life on my own terms.

This has popped up again lately. Yesterday I applied for a job, the description of which sounds great. The location of which, however, is anything but. Far out in the suburbs, beyond the reach of commuter rail. Even if I had a car, I wouldn't want the fifty-mile roundtrip commute. So why did I even apply? Well, it's a good job, and I could use one of those...but it got me thinking. I've read article after article on how the younger generation of workers want to live and work in the cities. I can tell you that everything you read is true. I have friends all over the country, mostly late-20s to mid-30s, I can think of only a handful who live in the suburbs (even then, they're close-in ones like Evanston or Oakland). Those who do commute to suburbs for work unilaterally hate their commutes, if not their job itself. Even those with children have so far chosen to remain in the cities. Here in Chicago, with a good (if ailing) transit system and a nice Midwestern flatness that's conducive to biking and walking, I would venture to say that a slim majority of my friends don't own a car. I'll brag a little bit, most of my friends are pretty smart and talented people. By extrapolation, this means that setting up for business away from the urban core, you're probably missing out on some good talent.

Well, I went on a bit of a tangent there, so allow me to return to my original point. Being a bad driver hasn't precluded me from being a licensed driver, or even getting jobs requiring driving around for hours on end. After my old Oregon license finally expired, I went to get one in Illinois and I was appalled at how simple both the written and behind-the-wheel tests were. Driving a car isn't exactly rocket science, but I see people driving badly on pretty much a daily basis. The ad world's culture of fear has taught us that driving is very dangerous, due largely to human error. But thanks to the sprawl brought on by decades of federal highway subsidies and suburban tax breaks to companies willing to relocate to their god-awful industrial parks, making it more difficult to get a driver's license would unfairly prevent people from accessing good jobs.

Then again, if you've chosen to live without a car, you've already faced that disadvantage.

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