Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Am Not My Car


(My car, freshman year in college)

Yes, I was in love with cars once. We had seven good years together, but it couldn’t last.
At the age of fourteen, I began to lose my eyesight to macular degeneration and it has declined ever since. It was hardly noticeable when I first got my driver’s license at sixteen. I was set to be a driver like my father before me.
Now my vision is worse than 20/400 in both eyes. It’s probably more like 20/600. Legally blind is defined as 20/200.
I am legally blind, but I can still see quite a lot. In fact, I see more than I can’t, only my central vision is gone. It is what is commonly known as “a blind spot.”
Take an old pair of sunglasses and tape a dime to the middle of each lens. Put them on and try walking around. I see more than that, but you will get the idea.
The problem is what I can't see - and that what I can’t see is critical to things like reading, identifying someone at a distance, or driving.
I have great peripheral vision, but when I look at something directly my eyes fail me completely. Not only that, they play tricks on me. In place of normal vision, my blind spots crackle with chaotic activity.
It’s a 24-hour Pink Floyd planetarium laser show right in front of me. It’s similar to the lightshow that you might experience at the beginning of a migraine headache, only very concentrated in the center. Vibrating, pulsing, purple, yellow, and blue lights swirl around each other like hundreds of fluorescent atoms..
No matter where I cast my eyes, it’s there. It never stops. It interferes with my intentions like a chaperone on prom night. I can’t fix it. I can’t get around it. A crucial part of me is gone forever.
So, I am a pedestrian. I didn’t choose this lifestyle, but I am beginning to think that it agrees with me after all. My love for the automobile has been fully severed. But I have seen and learned a great deal as a pedestrian.
Geography is important to pedestrians and they tend to gather in places where owning a car is not necessary. We like our neighborhoods compact, self-sufficient and connected to transit. Proximity is everything. We like living where the occasional emergency cab ride doesn’t cost a small fortune.
That I ended-up in Silver Spring is no accident. When my wife Kathleen and I started looking for somewhere to raise a family, this place met a lot of the criteria – good schools, representation in Congress, close to Metro, and cheap.
Silver Spring was the logical choice for a blind guy to find some independence. Here the population is actually more pedestrian than the national average. Surely, local government recognized this and took steps to accommodate pedestrians.
One might expect Silver Spring to have some of the best pedestrian infrastructure anywhere – but they would be dead wrong. I don’t have difficulty getting around because I am disabled – it is the terrible pedestrian infrastructure and non- enforcement of laws to protect us that get in my way.
Even though Silver Spring should be the perfect place for pedestrians, the infrastructure is lousy and the State and County approach to pedestrians is even worse.
My discontent started with a stroller back in 1995. I remember trying to get to the library from my apartment by walking up Colesville Road, AKA Route 29. By either name, this is a very busy thoroughfare.
A portable chain-link fence had been set-up around a construction site meaning that I had to push the stroller in the road for about fifty-feet to get by. I watched in horror as dozens of people walked on the road with traffic racing by only inches away. This was in my nascent pedestrian days; I would never do something like that now.
When I tried to call the local Silver Spring government and let someone know what was happening I got a sarcastic and indifferent response. As if to say, “You’re kidding, right?”
I have been pursuing satisfaction on this issue ever since. Once again, my fate is decided by my blindness and my battles have included fighting for decent sidewalks in particular and a new approach to pedestrianism in general. But what is wrong with the current approach? I’ll tell you; the current approach is car-centric, and built for drivers by drivers.
Racing around in a car all the time does something to the human brain. I am convinced that speed has a hypnotic effect, and turns people into insensitive, rude, gluttonous, frantic maniacs. We spill oil all over ourselves to keep this frenzied motorized orgy going full speed. Our children are obese and stare into screens all day playing Grand Theft Auto. Our roads are getting wider and we don’t feel safe sending our kids outside to play. More and more the world is built for vehicles, not people. SHA and DOT count cars, but they are still having trouble seeing pedestrians. Our culture has embraced the idea that we are our cars, and no one without a car deserves much consideration.
I too was in love with cars once, but those days are over. My hands often smelled like gasoline. I paid several thousand dollars each year to maintain one. I got tickets and had accidents, and a large part of my life revolved around my car.Now I am free. I guess I needed to lose my sight to see that I am not my car.

Now, if I can just get others to see that, too. Especially those responsible for education, engineering,and enforcement on our rights-of-way. If this is you, perhaps you should try living without a car for a while.

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