City transportation design makes recovery harder than it should be
A couple weeks ago I briefly wrote about my experience using the bus system and a bike for transportation in the early days of restarting my life. After reading a New York Times story about a German city designing cars out of the city, I want to return to and expand on my experience.
As a reader of this newsletter, you now know that addiction is a lens through which I will view inequities, barriers, and poor design. With limited exceptions, addiction is a condition that manifests over time and through repetition. Reversing the effects of addiction are incredibly difficult because our environment isn’t optimized for health or to make life easy — unless of course you have the things needed to navigate the environment (in which, life is never really easier, just easier).
This is how we return to transportation.
In many American cities, there is little proximity between living (home, food, entertainment) and work. We have designed our cities and even small towns to have large commercial districts circled and accessed by large 4-lane roadways.
We seem to pride ourselves on this sprawl and separation. The car is a proxy for freedom. Freedom means being able to get in that car and to drive 3, 5, or 10 miles to a shopping center or even further to get to our job.
COVID has tested our sensibilities here. Some of us have taken to working remotely and having everything ordered online and delivered to our door. Freedom!
Not so fast. Others do not have that luxury — and, it is a luxury.
In 2006, I did not have a car and did not have a driver’s license. Like everyone else, I had to work — with the small caveat that a job was also required to stay out of prison. Even though I lived in the center of the city, getting around that city on bike and bus required a degree in logistics. Almost none of the grocery stores with healthy food were near decent employment opportunities. When I did get a job at a radio station, there was a grocery store a half-mile down the road — one of the busiest 4-lane streets in the city. Taking a bike into that mess was dangerous. I happened to live across the street from a Walgreens. But Walgreens didn’t have fresh food. And I knew that if I was going to overcome addiction and depression this time, I had to eliminate as much processed food and sugar as I could. Walgreens, and this city, were not on the side of my recovery.
A city designed around the car devalues and creates barriers for people without a car.
Ask anyone who has ever returned to drinking and using drugs after being sober for some time, why they used again, you will get one of three types of answers.
Some will say the cravings were just too much. Cravings are real and powerful and all of us succumb to cravings from time to time (I’m craving a chocolate cupcake in the fridge right now. It is my reward for finishing this essay).
Others will say they were just bored or out of their routine and not thinking. It just happened. Been there and know exactly how that works.
And then others will pinpoint something specific, a frustration or barrier. We try so hard to follow the prescribed system but it is constantly working against us. So we turn to the thing we are most familiar to give us relief.
Transportation issues in cities create stress and anxiety. If you are already stressed or experiencing anxiety, navigating a city compounds that problem. As stress and anxiety rise, we tend to make poorer choices, not because we’re dumb or not trying, but because the pressure influences our perception and judgement.
The German city of Heidelberg is trying to eliminate the car. It is trying to increase the proximity of living and working. If you live closer to where you work, cars become unnecessary. If cars become unnecessary, you eliminate a stress point — both on humans and the environment.
If transportation to work, school, or personal appointments were a little easier and not a logistical nightmare, we’d eliminate a factor that leads to relapse or a recurrence of symptoms. We’d create a more equal playing field for and access to opportunity.
Imagine where you live right now. Take away your car or access to a car. You have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow at 9 am. Can you get there by walking, riding a bike, taking the bus? Would you even know how to get around your city without a car?
A certain segment of society scoffs and casts judgement at another segment of society when they fail. We say to people with addiction that they have to change everything and overcome enormous odds. As they slog through the sludge designed to keep them down, we demand perfection through circumstances that are not our circumstances. They fail and we say, “that’s on you.”
In reality, it’s on us. We built the city or town that forges perpetual failure and hardship for some. Transportation creates tremendous inequality. And for those trying to overcome addiction, it makes recovery much harder than it has to be.
If you really don’t want addiction and relapse in your community, look at the proximity of life and work and the means necessary to get from one environment to the other.
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