A Fresh Look at American Sprawl

only one Concrete, WA, but concrete and asphalt are the welcome mats for
towns across America. Image: Gord McKenna/Flickr.

advocates for livable streets know that our addiction to the automobile
is almost without peer. We know that we’ve given our land to driving
lanes and parking lots and our air to exhaust fumes. Nevertheless, it
can be hard to step outside of the car culture we’ve spent our lives
marinating in and see the country with a new perspective.

That’s why this letter we received from two British tourists is so
refreshing. It’s both a stark admonishment of how much we’ve given up
for the car, sometimes barely noticing it, and a heartening reminder
that what often seems normal to us need not be: 

We are visitors to the States from England. Our main reason for
coming was to visit friends, however upon researching into transport
options we were horrified to discover that the only viable option to get
from NY to LA via many small towns was by car. Many of our friends have
tried to justify this saying that ‘America is simply too big to have
public transport’. To us, this is purely INSANE. Surely a huge country
should offer the best public transport in the world! Bullet trains could
cover the driving distances in no time.

We are feeling quite ashamed of ourselves as we write this but
inevitably we did end up driving across America. We have found the
American people to be welcoming and friendly and the landscape beautiful
but we have not yet seen a single ‘town’ in the US that we, as
Europeans would class as a town. I would class them more as motorway
service stations. Buildings designed for cars. People waiting in line
for a drive through. People competing for car parking spaces at gyms!
These are not communities as we would recognise – market squares, parks,
rivers, cafes, stations, public art, gardens etc. ‘Towns’ are simply
not towns! We feel saddened that many Americans are not afforded the
community lifestyle that we enjoy in Europe.

Our purpose of writing is not to attack your country and we do
apologise if we have offended. I am writing to urge you, beg with you,
plead with you to keep up the fantastic work that you are doing. Despite
the wonderful time that we have had in the US I simply cannot wait to
get home in order to walk from my flat and pick up a newspaper and a
pint of milk, on my journey I shall say hello to everyone I meet, take
note of the weather and breathe some fresh air.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Interesting perspective, but I hardly think that a train from NYC to LA would be competitive with air travel. For comparison the distance is about the same from London to Tehran.

  • Good perspective for the most part, but in the interest of full disclosure–Britain has its car-tastic shit towns as well.

  • Also meant to include above:

    I’m not sure exactly what the authors want here. To avoid driving across the country — OK, check. To see small towns, OK check. But then they bemoan the lack of high speed rail connecting New York and LA. But wait, if there was high speed rail connecting New York and LA it would definitely not be stopping at small towns and even though taking it might speed things up a bit, they would likely end up driving from hubs like Kansas City to places like Lawrence, KS that are “small towns.”

    So why is Amtrak not a good option for such a trip? I’ve taken the trains that run between New York and LA to get from erie, pa to los angeles before and I’ll tell you what, we stopped in a lot of small towns! Too many small towns to go fast, but great if you’re into getting off and checking them out. If you want to sleep well on the train, it’s going to be expensive, yep. But if you are stopping pretty often and getting off the train at a small town or three, then you’ll be able to sleep at a hotel and be good to go.

    I don’t know, something about this letter just kind of irked me. 🙂

  • Schtu

    With all due respect to the letter writer, American cities should not attempt to model themselves after European cities as we search for solutions to our transportation conundrums. We should look at what American cities used to be like before the smothering effect of the automobile reshaped their existence. Streetcar suburbs, small towns, rural commercial centers – all these vibrant car free models of communities are still viable. As Jeffrey points out, the size of the US is a hugely significant factor in our search for transportation solutions beyond the automobile.

    I also find it odd that the writer would propose bullet trains as a solution to visit small towns. The trip that the writer undertook is one of the few times that I think a fuel efficient automobile is entirely appropriate. I love riding the bullet trains in Europe but I don’t fool myself for one minute that I am experiencing any connection to the culture of the small towns I whiz by at 250 mph.

  • JohnB

    It is ironic that Europeans come to the U.S to experience exactly what they don’t have in Europe, where they chopped down all their old-growth forest centuries ago, and they don’t have wilderness in the sense that we have.

    Then they complain that they can’t just “nip out for a cup of tea and a muffin” like they can at home. and that there isn’t a number 22 double-decker red bus connecting Tinytown, Idaho with Littletown, Arkansas.

    Outside of the major U.S metro areas, we are a sparsely populated continent. There isn’t a town every few miles that would sustain local buses and trains like in Europe.

    Now I like Europe as much as anyone, and love taking their trains even though they are very expensive by U.S. standards. But realistically, how am I going to take my wife and two kids with camping equipment to a National Park for the week-end by public transport?

  • patrick

    While there are alternatives to traveling by auto in the U.S., they are nowhere near as competitive.

    As an example, I took a train from Paris to Barcelona, it took about 10 hours and was by no means high speed or express, it stopped at numerous tiny stations. By comparison, taking the train from Emeryville to LA takes as much as 13 hours, even though the distance is only 2/3 the distance between Paris & Barcelona. There are bus alternatives that are faster, but taking the bus is not nearly as nice as taking a train.

    I think what they were trying to do, which was travel through the U.S., not over it, is only realistically possible by car today, whereas in Europe (and many parts of Asia) it is a simple matter to travel the country by rail.

  • @John B. Assuming you aren’t already slaving away to pay for the fixed costs of a personal auto or two for your family, and assuming you are somewhere in norcal, likely sf or the bay area, you can take your family to yosemite or sequoia national park via amtrak california’s services to these national parks for a weekend camping trip affordably and comfortably, camping gear included.



    sequoia / kings canyon:


    it’s irritating to me when people maintain that they must keep at least one personal auto around because they need it for times like these. i think that is in part what is so irriating about this letter–the authors suggest they are some kind of committed, anti-car zealots and quickly move to ‘we needed to use a car to do this’ because other options were not ‘viable,’ i.e. we didn’t really think or about it or consider our options.

  • @ Patrick. Amtrak San Joaquin train (on-time vast majority of the time, bikes on board, unboxed) from Emeryville to Bakersfield: 6 hours.

    Timed Amtrak bus connection from Bakersfield to LA: 2 hrs 20 mins

    East Bay to LA via amtrak 8 hrs 30 mins. Multiple schedules and times throughout every day of the week.

    Driving time to LA from emeryville (google maps): 6 hrs

    Factor in the differences between the comfort and convenience of the train vs. the car vs. flying (flying is at least 5 hrs given airport time, etc) then the train here is pretty competitive. I wish the coast starlight was better to LA too, but that’s just a big tourist train right now.


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