For the first nine years of my life, I lived on the outskirts of the city, living my best life in the 900 square feet of apartment that I called home. Though I was content playing with my stuffed animals, I cherished the times I would go outside. One of my fondest experiences was the 10-minute walk I’d go on every week with my mom to Trader Joe’s — past the church, the pet cemetery, and the park — until we would cut through the trees, down the hill, and into the parking lot. In my hometown, our community was accessible to its residents, not only by car, but by bus, bike and on our own feet. You had freedom to go where you pleased.
Moving north, however, would change that dynamic completely. No longer did I have the luxury of a sidewalk to safely traverse the busy routes. If I wanted to walk to the store, I would have to trudge through mud and litter and try not to be hit by speeding vehicles. Though my school offered bus routes to the library, stores and park, I would have no means of getting home on my own, relying on my parents to pick me up — often an inconvenience to them, as they both worked full time. I found myself in my home more often with each passing day. As I reached my senior year of high school, it made sense for me to drive, expanding my access to places I could not go before — I could go wherever I wanted. That car took me to SUNY New Paltz this year.
The village of New Paltz is touted as a walkable town, with sidewalks along every street reaching markets, restaurants, health centers and other necessities within walking range. It is intersected by major routes 32 and 299 and is right off I-87, a major New York State highway. New Paltz’ business and constant flow of traffic allows for a bustling, vibrant community to develop. However, it is clear, in being both a pedestrian and a driver, that there is tension between the two groups.
Pedestrians are forced to stick to the narrow sidewalks to avoid stepping onto the road. When crossing the street, it is common to see a car zoom past the designated crosswalk, supposedly with better places to be. The steep cracked pavement of Plattekill Avenue makes it especially dangerous walking downhill — the most common way many students travel off-campus. On the other side, drivers are tasked with navigating the busy streets of New Paltz, which provide very little parking, congested, narrow roads, and flippant drivers who couldn’t care less if the sign says “No Right on Red.” There is no denying the hostility that comes with traveling through New Paltz, but as history and current-day data shows, giving more space for cars has detrimental consequences.
Forbes Advisor reports that as of 2021, 91.7% of households in the United States own at least one vehicle and 22.1% have three or more. That is 278,063,737 registered vehicles total. Having this many vehicles in one country is an astronomical number, but it is not surprising. This car craze was fueled by the rise of the middle-class in the 20th century, which ushered in an era of mass consumption, a car being one of those products. With more people buying cars, there came a necessity for better road systems that could accommodate them. Homes built around these intricate systems led to the suburbs we know today — rows of homes neatly spaced apart, isolated within their own neighborhoods. Cars provided convenience for middle-class families. After all, why wait for a bus when you can hop in your car and get to wherever you need to in an instant?
The problem with the convenience of automobiles is shown through its consequences, that being the defunding of public transportation services. In the suburbs, because so many people drove, there was not as much of a need for these services. It is much easier to get around by car, which means funding is allocated towards highway maintenance rather than upgrading train cars. But not everyone drove. There were still people living in suburban areas who relied on public transportation. Today, those who are disadvantaged by decreases in funding, according to Pew Research Center, are “Americans who are lower-income, Black or Hispanic, immigrants or under 50…” as they cannot afford cars and rely heavily on public transportation. There are also disabled individuals who rely on public transportation that are constantly at odds with inaccessibility, such as barriers to getting to bus stops, inadequate signage, limited spaces, etc.
We have created a culture in which it is imperative to own a car to meet society’s demands, thus leaning into a complete dependence on automobiles for travel. By doing this, Americans who rely on public transportation are isolated from their communities, forced to survive dangerous conditions in car-centered areas where the nearest grocery store may require you to walk along the side of a freeway or wait two hours for the next available bus to take you there. It fuels an endless cycle in which the unreliability of public transportation leads to the need for personal vehicles, which leads to less funding for those transportation services, which then leads to an increased dependency on cars because of the unreliability of public transportation and so on and so forth — this is a structural, socioeconomic, and accessibility problem.
Now, getting rid of cars is an unrealistic goal for our modern era, but a few steps that we can take towards a less car-dependent future is first, a complete overhaul of our public transportation system. Speaking specifically of New Paltz, focusing on creating safeguards for pedestrians and cyclists with wider sidewalks and designated bike lanes is a good place to start. Increasing funding for the U-CAT, spreading awareness across campus of these services, paving sidewalks and creating accessible spaces for anyone to access are all great steps towards creating genuine alternatives to cars.
By improving and funding public transportation to be a legitimate, alternative transportation method, people are given the autonomy to decide which method would be best suited for them, decreasing our overall car dependency and decreasing the hostility between drivers and pedestrians. It is not only to make New Paltz safer, but to show benevolence for the human rather than the machine.