By JOHN BUTERBAUGH
America as a whole is an automobile-dependent nation. With the development of new roads and the Interstate Highway System, the average American has seen the automobile as one of the only means of getting around. Millions of Americans commute to work by car, eat out with a car, pick up groceries with a car, go to the gym with a car, go shopping with a car, go shopping for a car with a car. Just about every errand we need to do seems to involve hopping into a car and driving it.
Just about every American looks forward to their Sweet Sixteen (or other age depending on the state), the age at which they can legally drive. To many, owning a car is not just a rite of passage, but a staple of freedom. No longer does the young person need to ask mom and dad to drive them somewhere. No longer does the young person need to take a bus that will drop them off at a spot that may or may not be their final destination. No longer does the young person need to walk two miles just to get a Slurpee at 7-11.
And this is a problem. Automobiles contribute to pollution and global warming because it uses gasoline. However, we have not found a viable alternative to gasoline fuel and electric cars derive 40% of their electricity from coal. The idea here is not to simply use different, but to use less. Growing up in the Village of Skaneateles, I remember being able to walk to school everyday. I remember being able to walk to some restaurants nearby to grab a bite to eat. I remember being able to walk to the park or walk to the Y for fun. I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to refuel my car. I didn’t have to wait for a bus or train to drop me off at its will. I had more freedom over where I was going. That is what makes the village such a great community. We value walkability.
And most New York City residents would agree. New Yorkers can walk just about everywhere, and if they don’t feel like walking, they can take a taxi or a bus or a train. At an absolute level, New York City emits the greatest amount of greenhouse gases of any major city. However, at a per capita level, New York City emits the lowest amount of greenhouse gases of any major city. You tell a New Yorker that, and they’ll be surprised. But it’s true! And it’s because a New Yorker doesn’t need to own a car or even have a driver’s license!
Europe has been doing what America should have been doing for years. Not only does Europe develop densely populated cities with public transit and sidewalks, bicycle use is ingrained into the culture in many countries. Owning a bike is as important in much of Europe as owning a car is in the U.S. Plus, Europe actually has an extensive network of high-speed rail lines. We’re still waiting for California and the rest of the U.S. to match European train speed standards. This keeps air fares cheap because more modes of transportation equals more competition which begets more competitive prices.
This is not just an environmental issue. This is also a public health issue. People who do not have access to sidewalks in their neighborhood lack a means of jogging safely. People who live in cities with an extensive network of sidewalks are often fitter than people who live in rural areas with no sidewalks. It’s not a coincidence. Have sidewalk, will run. There are exceptions, but yes, if you give people the option of a sidewalk, you are not taking a liberty away from them. You’re giving them another choice. And it’s a choice that will pay off in the end not just for the earth, not just for our pocketbooks, but also for the personal well-being of present and future generations.
We have to look at how sidewalks have discouraged car use and encouraged walking and exercising. Sidewalks connect our communities. Sidewalks bring our neighbors closer together. When you start to see detached neighborhoods or a place with no pedestrians, that is where the sidewalk ends. We can bicker all we want about how global warming is caused or if it even exists, but you can’t deny all the wonderful things sidewalks do for us.