Met a friend the other day who said he'd had enough of the never-ending lines of automobiles, the constant congestion, the stop-and-go traffic, the bonehead plays executed by badly trained drivers. He couldn't take it any more. He'd fought the urge for years but now he had to escape the madness and find a more manageable motoring scene.
He was moving downtown.
Yep, that's right. Downtown.
Such a switch would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The suburbs were an auto-friendly oasis. Hell, they existed because of the automobile. The ability to drive everywhere, to work, to the store, to the hockey rink, to the video store, to the bathroom, was the reason sleeper communities sprang up. What's the first thing the average suburbanite did after having his morning coffee, bacon and eggs? Put on his porkpie hat and got in his car and took a pleasant drive on the "freeway."
That was then. Today, the suburbs are home to some of the worst driving conditions on the planet and it's as bad, if not worse, than you find downtown.
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Here are some of the suburban pleasures drivers can expect:
- Half-kilometre lineups waiting to make left-hand turns at the advance greens that only last a few seconds. It's often so jammed up that if you're smart you drive through the intersection and cut through an adjoining parking lot.
- Almost being T-boned by a vehicle driven by a guy who thinks three lanes means street racing is legal and begins accelerating 500 metres from the intersection. Once the light turns a bright red, he blazes through at 90 km/h in a 50 km/h zone.
- Getting a ticket for doing 45 km/h in a 40-km/h zone at one of the many suburban speed traps.
- Stop signs blocking every street, no matter how sleepy.
- Cops waiting to ticket you if you don't come to a full stop at said stop signs. If they arrest three people, they get a free game!
- Three or four streets with almost the same name that sounds as if it was dreamt up by KC and the Sunshine Band. Shady Lawn Lane, Shady Lawn Drive, Shady Lawn Court, Shady Lawn Crescent, ad hoc genre….
- School zones designed for a time when kids were thin enough to walk to school, turned into impromptu parking lots filled with Type-A moms bumping Hummers and SUVs as they drop their equally jumbo-sized offspring at extended French.
- Big-box store parking lots so enormous you have to re-park your car to go from the Costco to the Winners outlet. Once you've bought your three-kilogram block of American cheese, you have to drive two minutes so you can pick up your "Buy Eight Get One Free" tube socks.
How much does that new car cost?
And what scenery do you pass on your way to suffer these indignities? Why, our dark satanic malls. Block after never-ending block of big-box outlets offering you discount prices on crap ranging from bed-in-a-bags to lawn mowers to male thongs.
Lining the way are recession-weary car dealerships with desperate signs out front proclaiming, "LEASES AT -4% INTEREST ON ALL 2010s. WE PAY EVERYTHING AND GIVE FREE BACK RUB. IT'S PAYBACK TIME! NOW'S YOUR CHANCE TO EXACT REVENGE!
This being the suburbs, there are plenty of gas stations extolling the virtues of "blaster" car washes and the fortifying qualities of a power drink and candy bar combo. Never far from view are dozens of steaming, sulfurous fast-food joints. After all, why not clog your arteries while you clog the roads?
We shouldn't be surprised. Suburban congestion was inevitable. They were designed to accommodate cars and succeeded too well. After all, if you leave cheese lying around your house should you be surprised when the mice show up?
Today you can't go anywhere in the suburbs without a car. Public transit? That's a cruel myth. You want a carton of milk or a bag of chips, you get in your car and drive to the "corner store." Want a coffee? Get in your car and head to a drive-thru.
Sure, you sometimes see people riding bikes in the suburbs but they look so crazy and out of place it seems as if they are shooting a "manic episode" director's cut scene from Requiem for a Dream. Ditto anyone walking. Nothing says "losing it" more than a dude riding the shoe-lace express in the suburbs. Was that King Lear I just saw walking in the rain along Britannia near Mavis? Yes, yes it was.
Does the driving downtown suck? Yes, absolutely but if you live downtown at least you're there already. If you live in the suburbs and don't work from home, you're looking at your "commute."
You have to love the innocuous ring of the word "commuting." It sounds like you're just popping by for tea and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. What are you up to, Andrew? "Oh, nothing much, just partaking of my commute." I suppose city planners thought "your life-draining, waking nightmare repeated twice daily" was too on-the-nose.
Suburban decay has been a part of our consciousness ever since John Cheever put pen to paper. The aching despair hidden beneath the freshly mown lawns. But at least we could imagine Cheever's swimmer Neddy Merrill going for a nice long drive through Westchester County after he toweled off. And now? Resistance is futile. In the suburbs, mobility is for devices, not people.