Last Christmas, I had a lengthy and interesting debate with my mom about car dependence and the value of living in walkable places. Given her age and various health challenges, my mom was understandably suspicious about the idea of living without her trusty minivan. So I was surprised when she began sending me text messages this summer containing photos and detailed notes about her latest hobby: taking walks around the subdivision where she lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
One includes photos of a park: “Discovered a labyrinth today!” One Friday night, my phone lights up with a photo of her smartwatch: “Walked six miles today!” She’s also been exploring public transit, so another photo features a smiling selfie of her sitting on a bench as she waits for the bus. In our phone calls, she tells me about businesses she’s discovered and new routes she has planned for the fall when the weather is cooler.
I’m proud of my mom for pushing back against car-dependence, but I’m also frustrated by the paradoxical nature of her experience. It’s similar to my experience as someone who relies mostly on a bike to get around here in Waco, Texas. On one hand, we’re both discovering liberation from not having to rely on a car for everything. But on the other hand, our ability to participate in the city has been severely limited. Mom can only go a certain distance and can only access certain businesses. I can’t get to certain neighborhoods and biking to social events at night is off-limits because there are no lanes or lights to protect me from Waco’s notorious late-night drag racers.
That full participation in the life of the city is restricted only to drivers strikes me as inequitable. I know it’s fashionable these days to describe dozens of urban issues as “inequitable.” Fortunately, with transit, it’s a bit easier to envision. If equity is essentially about fairness, then a city that approaches transit in an equitable manner is a city that strives to ensure that its citizens—no matter their age, physical condition, or income level—have fair access to participate in the civic, political, and economic processes that shape the city.
One might contend that this doesn’t matter that much, as participation is being digitized. But despite the growth of virtual community, movement and mobility remain at the core of meaningful participation. Humans are inherently transient, social beings. We need to get out of our homes and associate with each other. We need to see other people. Moving through our cities is a large part of how we bond with them and gathering together is how we bond civically to each other. No matter how much life we move online, there will always be limit to how much participation can meaningfully happen from the living room couch.
But once we’ve established that movement is (and, consequently, mobility and transit are) central to participation, the question remains: Don’t cars solve this problem? After all, everyone with a car can drive to whatever form of participation matters most to them, right? It may seem so, but the pervasiveness of driving in American cities obscures the extent to which car-centricity makes participation very difficult, if not impossible, for millions of citizens.
Let’s look at four populations for whom the requirement to drive is a participatory barrier.