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Drive, He said
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I played a parlor game with some friends recently that caused me a great deal of embarrassment — each of the guests was given a question to respond to, and after a few moments of reflection, the answers were to be given sequentially, by all the participants. The question was, simply, "Name something that you have never done that might be surprising to most people." Fortunately, my friends gathered for the night were decent, civilized folks so there wasn't any of that creepy, leering, sex-and-debauchery talk that so often destroys the genial atmosphere of an after-dinner party. Most folks took the question to heart, and the answers that they gave were genuinely interesting and surprising.
One guest had never left Indiana. One guest had never had a drink. One guest had never watched a football game. Another guest had never missed a Sunday church service. One guest had never seen a second of "American Idol." One particularly brainy participant allowed that he had never been to college. And on and on. Each response seemed astonishing to everyone else, which just goes to prove that even in your own circle of friends, people can be much more layered and incomprehensible than you ever imagined.
When it came to my turn, I thought about playing it safe and saying that I had never travelled overseas, that even as a notoriously snobby, "worldly" sort I had never set foot outside of North America. I thought this would placate my friends and fulfill my requirement for the evening, but in my heart of hearts I knew that I was chickening out. I had another "never done" in my history that was much more surprising, something that would certainly set me apart from everyone in the room. After a bit of hesitation I decided what the hell, and told everybody about my shameful past.
And now I'll tell you, dear reader, the awful truth. I've never bought a car. Ever. That landmark moment, that growing up thing, that "now I'm an adult thing?" I've never done it. I've never haggled, I've never gone to a car dealership, I've never gotten the loan, I've never looked at Bluebook or Carfax, I've never hunted down that aged Honda driven by that little old lady who only drove on weekends, etc. The thing that seemingly every able-bodied person that I've ever met has done, that rite of passage, I've yet to do it.
Now, to be clear, I've certainly "had" cars, almost continuously, since I was able to drive. But actually having to sign my name on the line, to fork out the monthly payments, well, that I've managed to avoid. Why this is, it's difficult to explain, except to admit that I'm an eternal adolescent who's been fortunate enough to ally himself with responsible, tolerant folks who've taken care of the things that I should have learned to do for myself by now. It's a charmed life, I admit, but in my defense let me say I've also learned some pretty valuable lessons about the nature of humility. Hard to have a bunch of unwieldy, male pride when you haven't bought your own car.
Of course, there's another way to look at it--maybe I'm not just an irresponsible free-loader, maybe I'm simply ahead of the curve. Due to a number of far-reaching social forces, including a massively-changing demographic, car ownership rates have plummeted in the past decade, and the total number of miles driven by Americans continues to dwindle. Nearly a quarter of American teenagers simply refuse to get their driver's licenses now, and American twenty-somethings have reduced their driving time dramatically since the late 90s. Zipcar, the car sharing company that has established itself in many metropolitan areas, has shown remarkable growth since it's debut in 2000, and it now claims over 700,000 members. As sociologist Richard Florida noted in "The Great Car Reset": "Younger people today no longer see the car as a necessary expense or a source of personal freedom. In fact, it is increasingly just the opposite: not owning a car and not owning a home are seen by more and more as a path to greater flexibility, choice, and personal autonomy." So maybe that's what I was thinking. I was all about the personal autonomy.
As Jeff Speck points out in his fascinating book, Walkable City, this weaning-away from the American automobile is directly related to the cultural shift away from the suburbs and towards the nation's cities. People have simply had it with "sprawl" and endless commutes and are returning to the great cities--New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, even ridiculed places like Buffalo and Detroit are showing a resurgence in their downtown areas.
The concept of "walkability" has become a real estate buzzword--people want to be able to live and breathe in areas where they don't have to be trapped behind the wheel of their car, and a city's inherent "walkability" capacity becomes one of the main draws for home buyers and young professionals. It's a curious reversal from the 70s, when people left the city for the suburbs. Now the suburbs are in danger of becoming, as writer Christopher Leinberger puts it, "the next slum."
If you're curious, Fort Wayne's "walkability" score isn't too great--Walk Score, the website devoted to the subject, gave Fort Wayne a "car dependent" score of 39, which is a little below the nation's average. (Similar to Louisville, KY, and Memphis, Tennessee. For comparison's sake, New York City and San Francisco, the most "walkable cities, score in the 80s. The website also breaks down the cities by neighborhoods, and it's not surprising that West Central scores the highest in Fort Wayne, with a strong "highly walkable" 72.) It should be noted that the recent improvements to the River Greenway and the additional bike lanes will certainly improve the city's score in the future, though it's hard to imagine that Fort Wayne will ever abandon its decades-honored tradition of driving everywhere. No matter what the trends tell us, it's impossible not to have a car in this city. Even if you didn't buy it yourself.