A Fresh Look at American Sprawl

WelcometoConcrete.jpgThere’s only one Concrete, WA, but concrete and asphalt are the welcome mats for towns across America. Image: Gord McKenna/Flickr.

American advocates for livable streets know that our addiction to the automobile is almost without peer. We know that we’ve given our land to driving lanes and parking lots and our air to exhaust fumes. Nevertheless, it can be hard to step outside of the car culture we’ve spent our lives marinating in and see the country with a new perspective.

That’s why this letter we received from two British tourists is so refreshing. It’s both a stark admonishment of how much we’ve given up for the car, sometimes barely noticing it, and a heartening reminder that what often seems normal to us need not be: 

We are visitors to the States from England. Our main reason for coming was to visit friends, however upon researching into transport options we were horrified to discover that the only viable option to get from NY to LA via many small towns was by car. Many of our friends have tried to justify this saying that ‘America is simply too big to have public transport’. To us, this is purely INSANE. Surely a huge country should offer the best public transport in the world! Bullet trains could cover the driving distances in no time.

We are feeling quite ashamed of ourselves as we write this but inevitably we did end up driving across America. We have found the American people to be welcoming and friendly and the landscape beautiful but we have not yet seen a single ‘town’ in the US that we, as Europeans would class as a town. I would class them more as motorway service stations. Buildings designed for cars. People waiting in line for a drive through. People competing for car parking spaces at gyms! These are not communities as we would recognise – market squares, parks, rivers, cafes, stations, public art, gardens etc. ‘Towns’ are simply not towns! We feel saddened that many Americans are not afforded the community lifestyle that we enjoy in Europe.

Our purpose of writing is not to attack your country and we do apologise if we have offended. I am writing to urge you, beg with you, plead with you to keep up the fantastic work that you are doing. Despite the wonderful time that we have had in the US I simply cannot wait to get home in order to walk from my flat and pick up a newspaper and a pint of milk, on my journey I shall say hello to everyone I meet, take note of the weather and breathe some fresh air.