Earth, Wind & Water

Ramblings of an Earthling, Laserite and small boat sailor

Friday, March 5, 2010

Stuck in suburban gulags

When I was a child, I lived for two years in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. When I think back to those times, I'm often struck by how small a world it was we lived in. I don't mean the world in the sense of the planet - my native South Africa seemed a million miles away - but in the sense of how far afield my friends and I could roam under our own steam. We lived in a small subdivision of 64 houses (I just counted on Google maps) abutted on the west by a four lane road without sidewalks. It was like a moat, a conduit we could traverse or travel down only by car. South of our development was an open field and then some woods with a stream running through it. To the east and north were farm fields, but in what seemed like a daring act of trespass, we would sometimes cut along the edge of the field to make it to the next subdivision, that was similarly isolated.

Today the weather was nice enough for me to cycle for the first time in months, and I wanted to do some errands while I was out. Going to the library was no problem, but the bank was just out of reach. For the lack of a safe way of traveling down a quarter mile of four lane, 45 mph road at rush hour, I just couldn't make it! There was no alternative route because this is the only road for miles that crosses the DuPage river. And no surprises, the next road that does is also a busy four-laner flanked by curbs rather than shoulders. I could see the bank, but I couldn't get there for the lack of a car. As I cycled home so that I could drive there instead, I was struck by the madness of the way we confine ourselves to suburban gulags, imprisoned by the barriers of major roads, impassable to all but cars.

The pedestrian and cyclist are really second class citizens here in the US. Late at night when the seating area was closed, I was once denied service at a McDonald's drive-through because I wasn't in a car. I was livid, and felt discriminated against by a policy utterly lacking in common sense. I've lived in subdivisions in Illinois and Alabama that didn't even have sidewalks! What were the plan commissions thinking, that in the future we'd chop off our legs at birth and ride around on Segways?

I'm trying to come up with the best term to describe this suburban isolation imposed on pedestrians and cyclists. "Archipelagos" is maybe more descriptive, but it lacks the ominous, overbearing and entrapped connotation of "gulags". Any ideas?


  1. That picture is so apropos. This is a topic about which James Howard Kunstler has written a great deal. He's not my favorite author on such issues, but he has been prolific and I'm surprised he hasn't coined the term you are looking for.

    Locks? Like canal locks, the 'burbs control one's movements from one section to another.
    Hopefully, better minds than mine will contribute to this post.

  2. I came up with "Carchipelegos" after I wrote the post. I considered "ghettos", in the old-fashioned sense of being confined to part of an urban area, but it's now such a loaded and sensational word.

    I checked out some of James Howard Kunstler's stuff. He seems quite strident in his beliefs.

  3. Macdonald's 24h drive-through is really a pain without a car. The ordering booth is triggered only by a car, my bicycle is too small to set it off. What I do, I wait for a car and ask them to come over which triggers the booth. I then order and stroll my bike to pick up window - the amazing Macdonald's burgers are already packed so they have little choice but to sell them to me. The drivers of the cars that trigger the ordering booth get really confused, because after they trigger it and after I order, the operator assumes the order is done. The cars then need to move back and forward to trigger the booth again ;-)

  4. Very cunning, Valas. My mistake was trying to order at the pickup window because I couldn't trip the sensor at the ordering booth. When I wrote that post, I had the McD's on Hemphill in mind. Maybe you did too...