Car Talk

Commuter talk.

Thoughts from a small town turned city turned suburban turned city girl.

Mr. A and I became a one-car family about three years ago. Before that, we lived in one suburb and both commuted to other, separate suburbs. I was reporting, and my job required me to have a car and at times I lived in the damn thing. He pretty much drove to work, ran errands, and drove home. But when we moved back to civilization, to a ‘hood of bike paths and parking restrictions, and I got ticket after ticket for forgetting to move my stupid automobile when I was supposed to move it or to the wrong place or some other fucking thing, and he started taking the train to work downtown every day, we really looked at it and said, do we need two cars?

We agreed to get rid of mine (which had a bazillion miles on it, a cracked engine block and had been a lemon from the day I purchased it) and just “see how it went.” I thought we’d be back to two cars in a month. I was completely wrong.

There were times when he needed to travel to some far-flung suburb on a day I had to work. No problem, car rental right up the street, work reimbursed him for it. There were times one of us would go out of town. Not much of a problem, even in February: six cab companies competing for business plus the train plus my bike. There were times both of us wanted to go somewhere on the same day. Eh, whatever, you go first, honey, I’ll sleep in and leave when you get back. It was a pain in the ass at times because I couldn’t just say, while stuck late at work, “Oh, could you run out and get that yourself?” Because I was the driver, I became the car maintenance person, the one who checks the oil and tire pressure, and fetches the milk. It was also a pain in the ass because it became neogtiation, it added a level of having to communicate and cooperate and be disappointed sometimes that, for two Type A Instant Gratification Crack Squirrel personalities, could be difficult. But we missed the car a lot less than I thought we would. The maintenance costs alone were killing us, the payments, the insurance, the gas … One car rental for one day every two months was nothing compared to that.

But I recognize that the circumstances that allowed us to do that are pretty unique. Chicago’s public transit systems aren’t bad, if you want to do one thing: go from the suburbs to the city (and vice versa, of course). Because Mr. A worked in the city he could take the L. If he worked in another suburb, chances are he’d have been driving it, because most suburban trains stop at parking lots far from the office parks and factories where people actually work in the ‘burbs. Suburb-to-suburb commuting is a problem because the burbs and their train lines were built on the assumption that you’d live out and go in, instead of living out and going out and pretty much never going downtown unless it’s to see a play and bitch about how much a meal costs. The suburban bus system runs too few buses to too few places and takes too long for it to truly replace cars in terms of efficiency.

And having covered suburban land use issues for both dailies where I’ve worked, part of the problem was all the competing systems of government. One town I covered got constant shit from its residents about how narrow the main road was and how it was a total traffic nightmare and oh, my god, do something. Well, it was a county road, and wasn’t nothing the town could do but complain, which it had been doing, but which was tough to explain to the army of pissed off people who didn’t want to understand that there are about sixteen dozen little pissant taxing bodies in Illinois and they all want a piece of you and they all take care of different things and there’s no way to make one town cooperate with another, so they go build a shopping mall and suddenly you can’t get out your door anymore. The whole thing’s a matter of making 50 different suburban mayors, half of whom hate each other and most of whom hate Chicago, plan their development in reasonable ways. Which, in this lifetime, is never going to happen unless somebody develops a vaccine for grudges and self-interest and puts it in the water supply.

(This isn’t a post to hate on suburbs, really. It’s not my lifestyle, but I can see where it works for lots of people. If we’d had kids I think we’d have liked the outer-outer-burb we lived in a for a while. Place was designed to keep kids happy: parks, community programs, schools that looked like palaces. But I was 22 and bored witless.)

What’s the answer? I think it’s not just transportation boards and trains and bus lines. It’s making people in a region behave as if what’s happening to their neighbor is happening to them, and that’s a tall order. Start talking public transit and you’ll find yourself talking a whole lot of coded racist shit about “those people” and “we moved out here to get away from all that” and people overreacting because it’s their houses and their kids. Absent gas shooting up to $10 per gallon, which as Atrios notes would only fuck the poor hardest, the only way to get people to care about other people’s problems is to show them that those problems affect them, too, and create overwhelming public sentiment in favor. Make having six cars for four people shameful. It’s cultural as well as physical, it’s about what you’re comfortable with as your community.

I work from home now, and Mr. A still takes the train, and sometimes our car goes for days without use. In the summer, weeks: we can ride our bikes almost anywhere we need to go, without fear of being mowed down, because we’re not the only bikes on the road in our neighborhood. We’re not the only ones balancing bags of groceries off the handlebars or trying to finish a conversation started in the pub while pedaling. The car gets used to go out of town, or go for a really big load of groceries, and you know, I really don’t miss it.