Fear and traffic in the suburbs
Voice From Goleta; Robert Bernstein
The movie "Bowling for
Columbine" is nominally about guns and violence in America. But it is
really about how Americans live in fear of the wrong things.
Worrying about the wrong things does not just make us tense and crazy.
It is a major driving force behind destroying our environment, both natural
If you base your fears on news coverage, the biggest risks to children
are abductions, school shootings and drugs. Parents respond to these fears
by driving their children to school. In reality, the biggest danger to
children going to school is being hit by some parent driving a child to
school. That danger is far bigger than abductions, school shootings and
Every day we hear another report about the mysterious rise of obesity
among Americans, especially among children. The Centers for Disease Control
has singled out parents driving children to school as a prime reason for
this epidemic -- one that that is making "adult onset" diabetes
and heart disease a serious problem among children for the first time ever.
Misplaced fear for children puts them at higher risk of danger and takes
away their sense of self-confidence and natural sense of exploration and
curiosity. But so much driving out of fear is also helping to damage the
environment, globally and locally.
We are poised on the brink of a war that many believe is an oil war.
It's said "War is not healthy for children and other living
Neither is too much driving and burning oil.
And what are people driving?
People fear their vehicle is not as big as the other vehicles on the
road. So, they buy a bigger vehicle to reduce their fear.
During the Cold War, we called this kind of thinking "The Arms Race."
Mine needs to be bigger than yours. We came close to blowing up the
planet with that type of thinking.
Driving an SUV is an act of aggression that comes from the
fight-or-flight reaction to fear. "I am going to make myself safer by
making you less safe."
Not exactly win-win thinking.
The result is more environmental damage, more pressure for oil wars, and
more deaths on the roads. Ironically, it even increases the risk of death
for the ones inside these mechanized rams since they are not in fact safer
after all. Another case of misplaced fear backfiring.
The arms race on the roads did not start with the SUVs, though. If you
ask people why they don't ride a bike to work, the most common reason is
fear of all those cars on the road. But, if you were on a bike instead of
in a car, you would be one less menace to your neighbors who are not in a
car. The arms race begins or ends with your choice.
Even under current conditions, riding a bike has a net gain for your
health and safety. While cars kill tens of thousands of Americans each
year, heart disease from inactivity kills hundreds of thousands. Every
heart-healthy minute you ride a bike extends your net life expectancy.
Why do so many people seek out the suburban life? Fear of the imagined
dangers of urban living is a big factor.
We hear all the time about school shootings and the other dangers of
city life. But, the case of Columbine showed that suburbia is no refuge and
may even be a more likely place to find alienated young people shooting up
But how real is the problem anyway? It turns out the rate of children
shooting and killing each other today is less than it was in the
"Leave It to Beaver" days of 1960.
What is the result of all of this suburban living? Suburbs force lots more
driving, and more driving means more human carnage. We fear the risk of
criminal behavior in urban areas and that results in far greater real risks
of suburban life.
And what is suburban living's effect on the local and global
environment? Suburban sprawl. City living gives people a small footprint on
the planet. Suburban living gives a huge footprint. Land paved over for big
suburban houses and driveways. Land paved over for broad streets,
collectors, arterials and freeways that take up far more land than the
efficient grid patterns of cities.
And, almost as bad, land covered in a crop which cannot be eaten or worn
and on which we pour millions of pounds of toxic chemicals per year. Those
suburban lawns receive more of these chemicals and result in more toxic
runoff than all of our cropland combined.
When Gen. Jack D. Ripper spoke of his "precious bodily fluids"
in "Dr. Strangelove", people laughed. Now, truckloads of bottled
water go to suburbia and the environmental impact is not funny.
And it's all because of misplaced fear.
We live in a time where so much information is available. Yet so much of
what believe is exactly wrong.
It's easy to blame others for what is wrong in the world. It's far more
challenging and productive to see how we can make things better. Every day
we choose what to buy, where to live and who to elect. And we make rules
for our children. The next time you are about to make a decision,
especially a major one, ask yourself: "Am I deciding this based on a
If the decision is based on a fear, ask yourself if you really know the
facts about how real that fear is. Ask yourself if your decision may create
a greater harm than the fear you are avoiding. Fear has its place.
Misplaced fear has no proper place.
We are very fortunate to live in a time of so many resources, both
material and informational. We can make a better planet and a better life
for ourselves and those we love. If only we refuse to act out of fear and
instead act on facts and on a positive vision.
Robert Bernstein was hit by a car early this year while biking home
from his nanotechnology engineering job. After a month in the hospital and
10 months so far of physical therapy, he is back to biking to work every
day. Robert Bernstein is a design engineer in Goleta.