I can see myself living in Atlanta long-term. There are still a few crumbling Victorians in Grant Park to restore. The city would be a workable home whether I stay single or have a family. There is room for me to keep a large dog. The parts I see are endearingly unkempt. Food and music are everywhere. Locals are nice except behind the wheel. If I stay, I will always miss the dark months, long nights, snow. However, a new, inexplicable love of cars makes me appreciate mild winters, unsalted roads.
Wheels are the crux of it. As I rumbled down Moreland in one of the long, venerable, American sedans trawling the surface streets on a recent morning, autistics stuck in the no-man’s-land between help and self-sufficiency were still on my mind. Something occurred to me: all other things being equal, I would probably not consider making a life here feasible if I was uncomfortable handling a car. A recent article in Creative Loafing notwithstanding, I doubt I would want my workplace determined by proximity to a faltering public transit system. If I had too much trouble with visual-spatial issues to drive, cycling might not be a viable alternative.
Thoughts like these worry me. Most of the people The Arc of Georgia serves, many autistics, and large swaths of the wider disability community cannot drive. If I fell into that category, even if everything else about me were the same, I would have fewer choices. Whether people in this position stay, accept Atlanta lite, or go is their personal preference. Either way, they loose out on the opportunities I have.
The pathetic transportation planning in Georgia is one of the reasons I’m actually sort of glad that I—a Georgia native who’d lived in the state for twenty-nine years—moved all the way out to the metro Boston area when offered a job there.
And I’m absolutely loving it here in comparison.
Sure, the MBTA has its own share of issues. The Green Line seems to never run on schedule (and you’ll have eight other trains pass you by before you ever see the branch that you need). And sometimes my bus to work runs 15-20 minutes late, not unlike the routes I rode regularly back in the Peach State. (To be fair, they do have one thing in their favor: they run a lot more often than the ones where I lived in Georgia, which makes things like grocery trips much easier to handle in comparison.)
But even aside from transit, the environment up here just feels more amenable to non-drivers. Sort of like Midtown Atlanta writ large, even once you get beyond the core of the city into the inner suburbs like Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, and my new home, Arlington. Everything’s much more compact, with much more that one can walk to; other than a few highways here and there, the roads typically have sidewalks that are relatively continuous, and crosswalks that aren’t spaced a mile apart.
On the other hand, I can’t deny that there are pedestrian-unfriendly suburbs around here as well. Heck, I work in one of them (Burlington). It’s not all that different from what I saw around, say, Marietta or Duluth: a sprawly place that straddles the perimeter highway, with a huge mall right there in the middle. (If you’ve seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop, you’ve seen the Burlington Mall. Yes, it really does have a Rainforest Cafe inside.) And I would not walk on many of the streets in Burlington if my life depended on it— there’s one highway, in particular, that has a lot of awesome-looking stores on it, but that looks like an absolute death trap for pedestrians.
But even then, Burlington has something going for it that none of the Atlanta suburbs with such a heavy info-tech sprawl seemed to have. Namely: the city buses actually run to Burlington, or at least parts thereof. My trip to and from work every day is covered on the same monthly transit pass that covers all the rest of metro Boston. And even for the suburbs further out that are served by their own private bus companies, the MBTA’s web site offers very readable schedules and maps that are far more easily readable than anything I saw for the Atlanta suburbs.
Oh, yes, and another thing. People actually give directions to places by means of rail lines and bus routes. Prominently, even. I rarely, if ever, remember seeing that to any significant degree in Georgia, except for major tourist hot spots. (And even then, it wasn’t a guarantee.)
I want this to be a city that takes care of its own, especially people who are vulnerable to marginalization. I want us to make room for people with disabilities, the poor, and our own grandparents. That means alternatives to cars. I want to be able to tell people I live in an inclusive community, not one whose criteria for full membership is so arbitrary. If age or injury takes my ability to make decisions at our outrageous road speeds, I want options. The transit issue bubbled up and simmered down late this past summer with these people barely mentioned. I remember one article on people for whom MARTA is a necessity. The rest of the discussion only acknowledged the young, cool, car-free by choice. I almost understand that. Despite personal distaste for hipsters, I would welcome them if they brought tax dollars. Our schools, water system, anti-homelessness efforts, and roads need them.
This is something else I never understood: people’s absolute ignorance of the experience of non-drivers—especially, those who were non-drivers not by choice, but by necessity.
People can’t even imagine what it’s like to live without a car—or, for that matter, how utterly fatal the roads they’ve built are for pedestrians—and yet, this was something I experienced every week, if not every day, of my life.
I got asked why I didn’t drive on a fairly regular basis, like it really was just some choice I was making. (And really, I totally would’ve driven if I could have! It’s just that I was so terrible at it, on all the occasions when I practiced, that I did not trust myself even remotely behind the wheel of a car alone. My horrible sense of distance and space, my tendency to go into a state of sensory overload and not notice things that were right in front of me… yeah, I had far too many close calls to feel anywhere close to safe without a passenger there at all times.)
And yet I’m the one who was said to lack empathy…
You read that right. I enjoy all sixteen plus feet and six cylinders of my car. I love driving. My interest in our collective prosperity is that I want surface streets repaved for the sake of my white wall tires. However, I recognize that these are not everyone’s concerns. There are needs besides mine. Excluding people from full life in the community because they cannot manage multiple tons of steel moving at speeds nature did not prepare us to attain is wrong. It is ridiculous. It harms the people it limits. It harms everyone else by reducing their ability to contribute. During our last conversation about public transportation, no one talked about people who need it. Our silence is a disconcerting statement on our values. I hope we start talking again. All other things being equal, I would probably leave if I could not drive. Is anyone else who can drive consciously aware of this dependence? Are non-drivers so invisible that most Atlantans cannot imagine themselves in that position? This is a moral issue touching on equality, fairness, inclusion, empathy, and compassion. Does anyone else see that?
Sadly, based on my experiences in Georgia… non-drivers really are that invisible to drivers.
People didn’t even realize, when I brought it up to them while I was at UGA, that there were some major roads in Athens where there was a three-mile span between places that one could safely cross the street.
People didn’t realize that I was forced to walk in the shoulder, or even the gutter, on many of the most traveled roads in town, because there wasn’t even a sidewalk.
People didn’t realize the ridiculousness of being forced to walk through a football-field-sized parking lot with barely any clear traffic patterns just to get to a store’s front door from the bus stop. Nor did people realize that some of the up-and-coming parts of town were around a three-mile walk from the nearest bus stop.
And it’s not like I didn’t try to assert my existence every day by just walking on these roads. But drivers, more often than not, would just as soon have run me over as noticed I was there, just trying my best to get to the other side.