by Nathaniel Hagemaster
For a variety of reasons, I am not a car owner. This has put a variety of obstacles in my way, particularly when I lived in rural Texas and in Fort Wayne, Indiana. When I moved to Chicago and got a job at Connections for the Homeless and started learning about zoning, I came to realize how many of these obstacles weren’t created by my car-lessness but, instead, by a societal expectation that everyone drives and by the zoning that reinforces that expectation.
There are city buses in Fort Wayne. However, most Hoosiers I knew weren’t even aware that the buses existed, even if they had lived in the town for their whole lives. Each route ran hourly. So, if I missed my bus, I either had to Uber at the last minute or be extremely late to work.
Most areas outside of downtown did not have paved sidewalks, intersections didn't have crosswalks, and bus stops were sparse, which meant that I not only had to walk 15 to 20 minutes to get from my house to the nearest bus stop, but I also had to do most of those walks on the street, grass, and/or gravel, quickly ruining most shoes I owned. During winter, most areas with bus stops would remain covered with un-plowed snow, which meant that I’d have to walk in the street or through deep snow to get to my stop and wait for my bus.
As a non-car-owner, I took these hardships as a normal part of life, with no awareness that conscious decisions about zoning have played a huge role in making the places I've lived difficult for someone in my situation. Until reading M. Nolan Gray’s book Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, I didn’t realize how much zoning has impacted my life and, in fact, was an influence on my decision to move to Chicago, which is a lot more walkable and has reliable public transportation.
In Gray’s introduction, he states that “all zoning does is segregate land uses and regulate densities” (pp. 2). In other words, zoning assigns each piece of land in a municipality to a “district” and then defines what activities the land can be used for and what kinds of structures can be built to support those uses. The zoning code defines the level of density allowed in a district--how many households can occupy a given space—by defining rules about whether multi-family buildings are allowed, how much open space must be provided on the land, how tall the buildings can be, etc.
According to Gray, zoning has regulated densities by banning developers in a lot of areas from “building up” to create multi-story buildings to accommodate growing populations. This forced them to “build out” instead, “on the edge of town, taking up farmland and natural areas that might otherwise have remained unbuilt” (pp. 4-5). And the issue that arises from spreading things out is that it puts the places people need to go to--for work, groceries, healthcare, recreation, etc.--further away from their homes and from each other. This, in turn, makes car ownership a necessity in most U.S. towns.
Aside from simply not being able to afford a car, I have had a tumultuous relationship with car ownership and driving that dates back to my childhood. I was raised by a single mother in Texas, in a working-class household, with perpetually unstable transportation options. Since my mom didn’t have credit or make enough money to save for a decent car, she would constantly purchase clunkers that cost no more than $500. These cars would always require some serious upkeep that my mom couldn’t afford, since they were often at least a decade old when she bought them. We’d use these cars until they’d break down, then be without a car until we found another clunker, and the cycle would continue.
To make matters worse, my mom was always a nervous driver, and this socialized me into becoming a nervous driver as well. Add to this the fact that I have Asperger’s, which makes learning new things a strenuous process for me and contributes to my general anxiety around new and unpredictable situations--which are part of the driving experience. These factors, plus the high cost of buying and maintaining a car, have all required me to utilize public transportation to get around as an adult. This is why I was willing to tolerate as much as I did when transporting myself to work when I lived in Indiana. However, everywhere I’ve lived has lacked subways, had unreliable bus routes, and was spread out and unwalkable, and cab rides were always an expensive last resort for getting around.
I have always been a person without a car who has lived in areas that required cars to get anywhere, and I have always assumed that this is just the way things are, and that car ownership is part of being an adult. Not only are cars considered symbols of freedom and even social status, owning a car is considered a normal standard for Americans of all social classes regardless of how much they cost to purchase, maintain, insure, register, or fuel. Therefore, to not have a car is considered abnormal and reflective of a person’s character for not being able to afford a car, not knowing how to drive, not being comfortable with driving, or even just choosing not to drive when so many Americans see car ownership and usage as innate.
In fact, when I was in college, living in a remote college town in central Texas, I had to get used to being shouted at by drivers passing by when I’d walk along a main street. They’d say things along the lines of “get a job,” when it was apparent that I wasn’t walking recreationally but was walking to attend class, while wearing a backpack, or retrieve groceries, while carrying shopping bags. Drivers in this town behaved as though seeing my lack of a vehicle was somehow impeding on them or their day in some way, which made them feel the need to call out and shame me for not bumming rides off of friends, paying for taxis or rental cars I couldn’t afford, or getting into debt by leasing a car that I couldn’t pay for just to meet social expectations. On the contrary, I was probably in the best shape of my life from all the walking I did during this period.
Gray asserts that zoning plays at least some part in influencing the cultural norm of relying on cars for transportation. He states that “zoning assumes universal car-ownership" (pp. 5). It strictly segregates uses, for instance, disallowing corner grocery stores in residential neighborhoods, so residents need to travel in order to shop (pp. 5). Thus, the distribution of homes and businesses to eliminate density creates the need for transportation, and with car-ownership being an assumed social standard, the need to park all of these cars emerges, and developers need to spend scarce land resources on parking garages and lots.
In addition, “zoning prevents densities that are needed to support regular” public transportation services (pp, 5). In lower density areas where most people have cars, a bus system isn’t economically viable. Gray adds that developing “walkable, mixed-use, reasonably dense development patterns... [is] outright prohibited under most American zoning codes” (pp. 5). Therefore, zoning’s direct intent to prevent density in various areas disregards cities’ needs for walkability and decent public transportation. In fact, when things get too spread out, developing things like more-encompassing bus routes that cover more land becomes nearly impossible.
When I moved to Chicago a little over a year ago, I obviously wasn’t thinking about zoning or even density. I simply wanted to live in an area where I could easily get around without being obligated to own a car. and this city seemed like the right fit. However, the practice of eliminating density through zoning has contributed to my desire to leave the towns that I’ve lived in without me even being conscious of it, since low-density continues to be the accepted standard even if it doesn’t benefit people with lower incomes or even just people who don’t abide by the norm.
Gray, Nolan M. Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. Washington DC, Island Press, 2022.