Oct 27, 2010

Living in the city

Atrios has an interesting thought on urban life:
Walking around my urban hellhole today I'm reminded of how not owning a car really changes the way you think about the world. Obviously cars are useful things in that they let you basically go "anywhere" at relatively low perceived marginal cost (one problem with the way we pay for cars is that a lot of things which are really marginal costs are perceived as fixed costs by people). I think I've been car free for about 6 years now, and where I can go reasonably is dictated by where I can walk, where there's decent public transportation access, where is accessible by a cab ride I'm willing to pay for, or what's accessible by a carshare car that I'm willing to pay for. While there isn't a perfect mapping, carshare costs make perceived fixed costs (insurance, maintenance, car payments) into marginal costs to some degree. All that makes the accessible world quite a bit smaller. Not saying that's good or bad, just that it is.
This is undoubtedly true—when I living in New York, I scarcely left Manhattan for eight months. But what I remember most about the lack of a car was that I no longer feared the police. Living in a rural area practically every interaction I had had with police was either seeing them in their cars or getting pulled over. It's a fact of life—and police will admit this—that there are so many rules regulating driving around that everyone is constantly making small illegal actions all the time.  Practically all of these are entirely inconsequential, but a cop with sufficient reason can basically choose who to pull over.  Seeing a cop while I'm in a vehicle is an immediate stress; I instinctively clench up and think quickly of anything I might be doing wrong.

In New York, though, I would see beat cops walking around the Heights and feel rather comforted.  I even talked to them on occasion.  For me, it was a strange and wholly welcome reversal.  There are far, far fewer laws to be broken just walking around than driving a two-ton hunk of steel at high speed.


  1. While I certainly understand the argument, I think that it largely depends on where you live. Living in rural Utah and Colorado, I have no access to public transportation. The nearest grocery store is half an hour by car, and to find good produce it's an hour and a half. It's interesting that I live in what is widely considered an extremely advanced country, and yet, there is no way I could get to the store without a car.

  2. Well, public transport is necessarily a function of density. It's a great deal more expensive to provide that kind of services to a rural area, though here in South Africa I do have bus service six days a week even to my tiny village 100 km from the nearest town. But that service is heavily subsidized by the government, and there are places so rural even here that there is no public transport at all.