How escaping the confines of your car can save the world

How escaping the confines of your car can save the world
(J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Whether you are walking Pennsylvania or Eastern or North Avenues or Washington Boulevard or Charles Street, you engage with people's worlds far more intimately than when you speed through them wrapped in steel and glass and plastic. You hear different music and slang, smell different weed burning on the corners. You hear the music coming out of the cars (for god's sake take out your headphones or you might as well be in your car). We wonder when the cyborgs are coming but we are already them. We are car-people and we think like cars rather than bipeds. The car-view window is the view of developers and that view creates and breaks our world.

We can't think outside of the confines of cars.


My mother was born in a car. I was born in a hospital but I was in a car before I was ever in a house. It was the second place I ever was. My dad was an auto insurance claims adjuster, so the very food I ate and the shelter over my head came from the accidents of others. I had some of my earliest sex in cars, lived in a van for a while, and proposed to my wife on a cross country drive.

Cars are so deeply ingrained in our fabric we can't see them. They are the very lens through which we learn to see.

On the anniversary of Freddie Gray's arrest on April 12, I walked up Pennsylvania Avenue from Franklin Street to North Avenue. I'd been up and down Pennsylvania in cars or under it in the subway dozens of times and had marched with other people, but there is something revelatory about taking any long walk alone in the city, because you notice the micro-neighborhoods and environments you pass through and briefly become a part of them. The people around you are no longer images passing across a screen, they are people, like you. Walking in the city can be a radical act.

At car-speed, buildings simply seem "dilapidated" and people "loitering" or "hanging around." But when you are walking, you negotiate anew on every block what your relation to it is, you greet people or you do not, as seems appropriate to what they are doing. You nod, you smile, you look away. You might be cruising or seeking pleasure or drugs. You might be robbed or robbing. Or you might just be strolling, watching and listening as your legs move.

As I walked up Pennsie, two different police cars slowly trailed behind me before speeding up and passing by. Because I was white did they think I needed protection? Did they think I was looking for drugs? Were they subconsciously enforcing the hyper segregation of the city? Or is it a tendency to distrust pedestrians? The same thing happened a few weeks later as I walked down Washington Boulevard from downtown to Dubois Textiles to find a suit. Car rolling slow, checking me out before speeding onward.

Cars have done as much as anything to construct the city's segregation—MLK, the Road to Nowhere, White Flight—and getting out of them may be one way to remedy it because it places us, physically, though certainly not socially, somewhere closer to the same level. Although, because of the political and social structures of the world, whatever I experience walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I can only imagine the way a young black man must feel walking alone in some of the city's whitest neighborhoods. Freddie Gray was arrested in his own neighborhood—imagine if he had been in Roland Park.

But it's strange that new policing policies may be the only place this side of Jane Jacobs or James Kunstler that we're actually talking about the vanguard of thinking about walking versus driving.

A month before Gray was arrested for walking in a high crime area, then-commissioner Anthony Batts introduced a new initiative to get all officers out of their cars for part of their shifts. "We're pushing every police officer to get out of their cars for 30 minutes no matter if it's in a residential area, commercial area, to engage in the community," Batts said, noting that foot patrols help "officers to feel comfortable interacting with individuals with a wide array of backgrounds."

Everybody is talking about diversity and intersectionality, but no one wants to actually get out of their comfort zones, especially as the fucking safety Facebook groups for so many neighborhoods stoke fear so that people don't want to walk around in their own neighborhoods, much less anyone else's. But the more we walk around, the safer it is.

Proposals like Batts' are among the only context in which we are having a large public discussion of the ways that automobiles prohibit an in-depth understanding of our world.

Guy Davenport says that "Ulysses" is so beautiful because it represents the last moment of the European city before the automotive invasion. And one of the things that makes the novel great is that it is structured largely around accidental encounters. They are the fabric of carless urban life.

But when the car comes in, accidents become terrible things. And we used to not call them that at all. In the early days of the auto, when they were mostly driven by rich bastards, people protested against "automotive assaults and homicides."

People become maniacs when they are behind the wheel. You are focused on the world within your car, which moves along with you at an entirely different rate of speed than the world around, the world which you are merely passing through. The world becomes phenomenologically unreal to you, as if a video game: other drivers become enemies, pedestrians obstacles.

It's been more than five years now since I had a car. Ours got totaled shortly after we moved into the city from PG County. We were driving up Park Avenue and at Saratoga Street someone busted through the red light and hit us. Both cars went spinning. That intersection is full of pedestrians and jay-walkers—a crime invented to penalize walkers in favor of cars—and it's amazing that no one was hit. Actually, one guy came up to our car and said "the rich lady hit you," as I got out, stunned. "She hit me, too," he said and grabbed his back as if in pain. Everyone seemed to laugh.


No one was seriously hurt and we just didn't get another car.

A couple years after the "accident," I saw the person who crashed us at an event. Edward Glaeser was talking about his book "The Triumph of the City" in which he argues that, because of automobiles, we have subsidized the suburbs at the expense of the city. He argued, if I recall, that all roads should be toll roads in order to allow the true cost of an automotive life to become clear.

I'm down with that and when I saw the person who crashed us I totally wanted to go and thank her for crashing our car. It was a fancy event and I had interviewed Glaeser for "Urbanite" and I think they sponsored the event or something so there was wine and cheese and shit and I was sitting there eating it and running through the scenario in my head and I just couldn't think of a way to say it where I didn't sound like an asshole. And, in this case, I didn't want to be an asshole. It was sincere. But there was no way I could say it and so I walked away. The intersection of Park and Saratoga remains one of my favorite parts of the city to walk in to this day. Because it, like Pennsylvania Avenue, is full of street life—full of people who aren't bound by automotive exoskeletons.

After I walked up Pennsylvania I walked down Mount, ultimately to the Western District and then back to North. I was thinking about the last year, the uprising, the murders, the disastrous election. The tour buses coming through and all the plans, as if seen through a windshield, to "fix" Baltimore.

One guy stuck his head out of the corner store.


"Hey white boy, you good?"

I was good. Like the cop, he may have thought I either needed drugs or help, but because we were both on foot, we could settle the question with a couple words and a smile. It was easy enough.

Then as I walked east on North Avenue toward Red Emma's, I was suddenly in that horrendously automotive area where the road feeds into and exits out of 83. There is nothing human or inviting about that section of the street as you pass under and over the bridges. Pedestrians are an afterthought to the automotive imperative. It affects interactions. Unless they are robbing or murdering one another, pedestrians pretty much never yell at each other. I've never seen walkers flip each other off. But something about this barren stretch of street replicates for the walker the hostility that is second nature for the driver. It almost makes you feel like flipping off your fellow walkers—just because.

But it also keeps Penn North and Sandtown isolated from the "vibrancy" of the "arts district" that MICA and Hopkins are pouring money into. This automotive desert is the embodiment of our separation.

If we kept cars out of cities—or charged drivers the true cost in terms of pollution, construction, parking, and congestion—we would be better in every measurable way. But not only collectively. There is nothing better you can do for yourself than to get out and walk.