IT IS THE RARE person who would hope to see gas prices skyrocket to $11 per gallon in the coming year, but such is the wish of Michael Barrett. The Madison-based urban geographer recently told ISTHMUS, a local weekly paper, that what would ensue would be a “cascade of Very Good Things”:
First, we might finally see the lazy asses get out of their cars and walk it off. (Their attitudes and asses, that is.) Second, those rivers of death — a.k.a. highways — would become streams of life, full of people biking, rollerblading, walking, skateboarding and cross-country skiing. Third, we could all finally breathe.”
While I may not be so extreme as to hope for a cripplingly high price of gas (the chain reaction would create a surge in energy costs and would mean prohibitive prices for air travel), I get what Barrett is saying; he’s certainly got recent evidence for the “rivers of death” claim, and I’ve often fantasized about how lovely it would be if highways were transformed into thriving bikeways.
Barrett works for Urban Thoreau, a firm that looks to shift urban infrastructure so that it fosters human interaction – that long forgotten art. One of the company’s biggest projects is pushing a “Parking Cashout” policy, which enables employees to receive a cash stipend for the cost of their company-subsidized parking space if they choose not to drive to work. Modeled after a 1992 California law that has been loosely enforced, Urban Thoreau is trying to implement the practice locally, with some success, in an effort to get people out of their cars and into fresh air.
My last trip home I realized how stifled I felt after a couple weeks of driving on a regular basis from my suburban hometown to downtown Seattle. My moments of stillness in the outdoors were the ones that made me appreciate where I was. In the same vein with Barrett’s wish, I hope that as a society we would take a collective pause and reevaluate where we’re going – and how we’re getting there.
There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work whether of the head or the hands. I love a broad margin in my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in the undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”
– Henry David Thoreau