The scale of distance changes drastically from city to city and town to town in America. We spent the last week in Texas, San Antonio and Houston, and we rented a car for the second time this year. Even though we were going to be in urban centers, we needed an automobile to get around. In Chicago, something is close if it’s a ten-minute-walk. In Houston something is close if it’s under a 20 minute drive.
Zoning makes it so everything is separated. You drive 4 miles to the grocery store, you drive 3 miles to the restaurants near you, you drive 5 miles to the mall, the hardware store and everything else. My relatives were surprised to learn that neither I nor Mr Waters own or use a car on a regular basis. We, in fact, walk to the grocery store. There are 4 good grocery stores within 15 minutes walk of our apartment, among the other easily accessible resources: comedy clubs, restaurants, bars, book stores, florists, bakeries, rug stores, nail salons, barbers etc. We don’t have a car because walking or taking the train or bus is easier. The lifestyles in Chicago and Houston seem mutually foreign to each other.
There is public transit in Houston, busses and a light rail, but most people drive. Highways accommodate the masses with four lanes, sometimes expanding to seven. Giant interchanges soar over the city, with flyover ramps about ten stories high. To limit traffic congestion city planners expand the roadways, add tollways and access roads. The scale increases to adapt to the use. People drive everywhere, because it is how the city works, and vice versa. Of course, this isn’t just Texas, this is a wider thing throughout the country. I need to be reminded that Chicago, New York, Boston, and a few other cities are the exception to the driving rule.
Driving culture also encourages having your own private house and yard. Outdoor space is more often private than public. Whereas in Chicago we have a balcony garden and might go to the lakeshore park for a picnic; Texans (and most Americans) might have a barbecue on their back porch, swim in their in-ground-pool or spend an afternoon mowing their own lawn. And it is fantastic to have that space.
While sitting in my Aunt’s backyard in San Antonio, we talked about what we would do with a garden that size, how it would be to maintain, what vegetables we’d grow, whether we’d have a dog. But we also talked about how our lifestyle just wouldn’t work with that kind of space. Having a house in the suburbs, or in urban sprawl, requires lifestyle adjustment: driving everywhere and giving up the multipurposeness of urban neighborhoods. In our apartment we can have a 6×3 foot balcony garden (1×2 meters) and enjoy growing most of what we want, while still having the benefits of public transit and active, accessible neighborhoods. I’d rather be able to walk down the street to choices of cafes or a brewery or grocery stores or book stores, than have a massive yard and have to drive to those things.
This doesn’t mean I won’t one day live in a house with an orchard, but it does indicate to me how much difference there is within one country, and how adjusting to a different environment might be a challenge. America has so many different cultural units, and even Chicago alone has many different cultural enclaves, that it is impossible to understand it as a single unit. I grew up in Texas, and my family only ever lived in places where we needed cars. It seems odd that I should forget what that’s like in many ways, but now driving culture surprises me and seems vaguely foreign.
For the past 8 years I’ve lived in relatively urban areas, and relied on public transit rather than cars. I imagine that if I’d moved somewhere less urban and more car focused when I repatriated, I would have had a much harsher culture shock than I felt in Chicago. It seems that whether you’re in a city or suburb or rural area matters more to lifestyle than what country you’re in.