We're entering Moosburg, a small town of about 15,000 people, located in southern Germany just outside Munich. It's 1986. My wife and I will live here for the next five years.
In the near distance we can see the two towers of the church, the orginal structure of which dates back over a thousand years. The church stands next to the town square, the Stadtzentrum, and as we move in this direction we'll pass a butcher shop, a bakery, clothing and shoe stores, pubs, restaurants, and a tiny hotel. Down a side street we'd find a photography store, a flower shop, a small grocery store, an apothecary, an optometrist, a library, even a single screen movie theater--everything we might need for day-to-day living.
A few clues, some more obvious than others, tell us that the picture above is not of the average small American town. Aside from the church towers and the style of the buildings, we notice... sidewalks. We also notice only one parked car, oddly positioned off the main road. There's no streetside parking. We'd find parking places and parking lots on side streets, and there we'd also see bicycle racks. (The train station on the outskirts of town has rows and rows of racks, for the daily bicycle-to-train-to-work commuters.) Moosburg is a bustling, mobile town, visibly full of life in the mornings and evenings and on the weekends, but a great deal of it is not due to automobile traffic.
It's a bit of a shock moving to such a small town (a village, as one of our German friends calls Moosburg, an old-fashioned term we hardly ever hear applied to American towns). We live in a small apartment building not far from the church, and my wife goes shopping almost every day, for the food and other staples that we don't have room to store in our tiny living space. She carries a wicker basket as she walks from store to store, just as her neighbors do, but all the shopkeepers know her as die Amerikanerin--as with many small towns, outsiders can remain outsiders for decades. Still, it's a life we get used to, one we will look back on with nostalgia years later.
Today we live in North Carolina, outside the state capital, Raleigh. The town nearest our house is Garner, which happens to be about the same size as Moosburg, in both population and area. While we don't live in Garner proper, we visit once in a while, and it's easy to see that small-town living there is quite different from our German experience. We need to drive everywhere, for everything, all of the products and services I mentioned above. The roads leading into and around Garner aren't like the relatively low-speed German street at the top of this post; they're four-lane limited access roads with speed limits between 45 and 55 miles per hour. One way to see the difference is from a bird's-eye view. The Google satellite image on the left is of Moosburg, the right of Garner, at the same scale. The two maps show about the same number of streets and roads, but they're more evenly distributed, less dense in the Garner map. There are also far more cul-de-sacs in the Garner map, corresponding to residential areas. If we were to zoom in, we'd notice a great deal more space devoted to parking lots and paved surfaces than in the Moosburg map.
This turns out to match the general desires and expectations of the American public. American culture is pervaded by imagery of the independence and freedom associated with wide-open spaces; when populist politicians praise "the heartland" and "country living" and "small-town values" and "real America", they're not talking about mixed-use architecture and landscaping. A desire for open space is hardly the only factor that has driven population shifts from urban to suburban and rural areas, but it remains part of the general American attitude today. A lot of us like to get away from it all, to live away from it all. That means that everything gets spread out. If we want to get places quickly, we need high speed traffic. And once we get somewhere, we need to park. Further, we don't want this traffic right outside our front doors, so we have lots of stop signs and dead-end streets in our neighborhoods, with just a few outlets onto faster roads.
All this has worked for decades. We have a car culture, and our landscape has been shaped to an enormous extent by vehicular technology.
Of course, this is only a bit of pop sociology to explain some complex patterns in American living. It could be wrong. My point isn't to account for our attitudes toward mobility in any detail. Rather, I'm giving just enough background to make two suggestions.
First, sustainable mobility has a few obvious components: stronger dependence on local rather than distant resources, and reliance on more efficient and perhaps simpler transportation means. Progress toward this goal, however, will require a great deal more than encouraging people to walk and ride bicycles. I live about five miles from my office, and I'd love to ride a bicycle to work, but I'm not comfortable riding on a country road with no shoulder alongside cars driving 55 miles per hour. In many American towns, bicycle lanes (and sometimes even sidewalks!) appear to be a luxury. Infrastructure development is needed, and this means a great deal more than simply investing in public transportation--how expensive do you think it would be to reshape Garner's road system until it looks more like Moosburg's? What are the continuing costs if we don't try?
This brings us to a second point: attitude. Our American respect for independence has served us well through most of our history. When public transportation is described as being socialist, though; when almost 90% of Americans who drive to work drive alone; when it's taken for granted that living in wide-open country is more American than living in cities... We need to see change. Not only in capabilities, but in thoughts and ideas. In particular, I think that we need interdependence as a counter-balance for independence.