Sunday, 13 March 2005

Car Culture

The car is essential to American people and completely part of the culture. But I find Atlanta extreme. I have no car here and don't intend to hire one as I think it would be more trouble than it's worth: I would get lost in the highway jungle around here, get myself in trouble not knowing the local highway code and battle with an automatic gear box when I've only ever driven manual cars before. I also normally much prefer to discover a city on foot as I get a better feel for it. Atlanta is hard work though. They do have some public transport here and I tried it yesterday, even though I had to take a taxi to the nearest MARTA station. It works quite smoothly, even though you sometimes have to wait up to 15 minutes between trains but is limited in terms of area it serves. As a result, when I went down to Midtown and Buckhead yesterday, I felt like the only pedestrian in town, except in the area around Piedmont Park. They drive to go everywhere: the shop a few blocks away, the restaurant round the corner, the pub in the trendy area of town, etc. I would understand this in the outskirts but we're talking the centre of town here, the area where, if it were Europe, people would walk around browsing shop windows, stopping in a cafe for a drink or a restaurant for food.

What is true in the centre of Atlanta is even more marked in the outskirts like Norcross where I stay. The office where I will spend the next two weeks is just round the corner from my hotel and it would be a nice walk, if it didn't require crossing a 6 lane highway. Similarly, there is a shopping area 5 minutes away, with a few restaurants and shops. Well, when I say shopping area, I mean a big car park with shops around it, which seems to be the norm here. I can walk to it, if I don't mind doing most of the walk in the grass on the side of the same 6 lane highway.

I also now really understand what is a SUV. It is scary. If you want to know, you can have a look on SUV Online but be warned: that website has a lot of images and takes ages to load, even on a broadband connection. In fact, the website is as heavy and incomprehensible as its subject.

So, in theory, the car is the American symbol for the freedom to roam and go where they please. But that freedom is also a prison as far as I can see. They have become slaves of their cars and have lost the freedom to just go out and walk around the place where they live because everything is done for motorised vehicles. Pedestrians are second class citizens, which means that everybody who cannot drive for whatever reason is a second class citizen: children, senior citizens, disabled people, etc. And it is easy to become one of them: just break an arm.

In fact, it is very weird to say but, at the end of the day, this focus on cars reminds me of one other place I've been to: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There as well, a car is essential to go anywhere. The main difference I find is a taxi is easier to find in Riyadh, and cheaper; and Riyadh has markets in the Arabian style, where you can just wander from stall to stall.

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