As I�ve mentioned before, I was born the visual impairment that causes my eyes to wiggle, thus reducing my visual acuity and preventing me from getting a drivers� license. Some cities are well equipped for people like me � cities like New York or San Francisco with functional metro and regional transit networks where many people who can afford to own cars chose not to.
But most cities are not. According to the Brookings Institution's Robert Puentes, 54 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. lack both a rail or subway system and a functional bus system.
As someone who can�t legally drive, I agree with Urbanophile�s recent assessment that not owning a car in such a city is isolating, and I concur with his assessment that residents of such cities who live in the downtown area and choose not to own cars are willfully segregating themselves from the suburban members of their larger regional civic community.
However, for many folks, car ownership isn�t a choice. Not only for the disabled, but low-income families, undocumented immigrants, youth and the elderly often are left to navigate America�s vast suburban and semi-urban wasteland without the protective cocoon of a personal automobile. According to the 2001 National Household Transportation Study, nearly a third of our population doesn�t have drivers� licenses (total population 2.77 million, total drivers� licenses 1.9 million).
The isolation caused by not owning a car was something I experienced acutely while living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and working for a certain (unmentionable) presidential candidate. The campaign was headquartered in Southern Village � a suburban enclave south of Chapel Hill. As I�ve discussed earlier, the problem with Southern Village was its only transit connection to downtown Chapel Hill and the rest of the Triangle area�s sprawling suburbs was a six-lane highway.
Chapel Hill did offer a free shuttle service around the core downtown area surrounding the University of North Carolina, and on weekdays until 8 pm, the NS bus ran once every hour between Southern Village and downtown. However, if you couldn�t sneak out of work till 9 or 10 pm, and then needed to get to the drug store before it closed and back in front of your computer in less than an hour, the free shuttle service wouldn�t get you there. Nor would it, at 11 pm, shuttle you downtown to grab a quick drink with co-workers. And if you needed to go anywhere on the weekend, you�d better wear comfortable shoes. None of the bus routes to Southern Village ran on Saturdays, and, God bless the South, the bus system shut down completely every Sunday.
One dark and rainy Tuesday evening late in January, when moral on the obviously failing campaign was particularly depressed, I�d caught the NS downtown to run an errand thinking I�d finish in time to catch the last bus back to the "Village." The checkout line was longer than I�d hoped, and I�d had to sprint the final block to the bus stop only to see the bus taillights disappear down the hill. Cursing, I was standing at the bus stop, catching my breath and steeling myself to walk home when a CCX bus pulled up at the stop.
The CCX, short for the Chatham County Express, ran later than the NS and, though it wasn�t technically supposed to make a stop at Southern Village, it passed right by it on it�s way to the Chatham County Park 'n Ride a few miles down Highway 15-501.
The doors opened. I weighed the risks � if the conductor refused, I�d end up down the highway five miles south of Southern Village. But if the conductor would make an unscheduled stop, I�d be home in a hot shower in 10 minutes.
I got on the bus. As we merged onto the highway, I walked to the front of the bus and asked if the bus driver could drop me off at the Southern Village exit.
"You know this bus don�t stop there," she said.
"I thought it could stop at night," I lied.
"Well, it don�t," she said. Silence. We were approaching Southern Village. I started to cry, and I wasn�t faking it. I was exhausted and miserable at the thought of jogging five miles in the rain back up the dark country highway.
"What are you gonna do?" she asked.
"Guess I�ll have to walk back up the highway," I replied.
"Well, what are you gonna give me?" I was confused. Was she asking for a bribe? I didn�t have any cash on me. There were just two other passengers on the bus and they were watching our exchange with interest now.
"A gold star in heaven," I said, watching as my bus stop approached. The South is getting to me, I thought, now I�m invoking religious guilt to get home. The bus slowed.
"Don�t tell anyone I did this, okay?" the driver said. "I�ll get in trouble."
"I won�t tell anyone. Thank you so much," I mumbled, pushing through the doors into the damp suburban quiet.
I survived North Carolina carless for another month, and then, after the campaign finally imploded, I moved back to New Haven to live with my partner. Now I had the Metro-North commuter train to get to and from my job in New York, and I could rely on my partner to drive me to the suburban Stop 'n Shop to pick up groceries on the weekends.
If I hadn't had my husband to drive me, navigating New Haven's suburbs on foot or by bus wouldn't have been much easier than North Carolina, which brings me back to the point of how we, as a society, can assure that people without drivers' licenses have some degree of mobility outside of major metropolitan areas.
Of course, ideally the zoning density and transit systems in small and mid-sized American cities would improve to the point that cars wouldn't be the only really practical modes of transport, but this isn't going to happen overnight.
If we're willing to blantantly subsidize car ownership with federal tax dollars, perhaps there could be a parallel "cab voucher" program for those unable to obtain driver's licenses. Such a program would not only make transportation more accessible to those without cars, but it would also create demand for cab and car service providers to expand in smaller urban and suburban communities.