The curious geography of cars

overpassGeography seems like a pretty straightforward thing. If you want to go from A to B, find the shortest route. And perhaps long ago, it was that simple. But today the car rules most cities, and it has introduced some truly curious kinks to conventional geography.

Cars, and perhaps more specifically the highly inflexible roads they run on, redraw maps in strange ways based on ease of access unrelated to actual point to point distance or directness. With this strange model, a world of restaurants just a mile away becomes further in practice than than a cluster of eateries many miles away accessible by highway.

Let’s take my lunch options, for example. I work downtown. Downtown sounds great. People bustling around, restaurants and shops and offices abound. It sounds like a piece of walkable urbanist’s heaven.

Unless that’s not the part of downtown you work in. I work in a part of downtown where the sky is much more open, buildings aren’t quite as close together, and a bird’s eye view from Google Maps will reveal that literally more than half of the city blocks in the area are simple surface parking lots. Parking is great for cars. Bad for eating.

There are probably two or three restaurants within a reasonable walking distance. But the bulk of downtown and its playground of restaurant-filled tunnels is far enough away that few will venture out to it, especially as the journey to said grease mecca involves walking past bail bondsmen, pushy street hustlers, a jail, a courthouse, numerous halfway houses and social help centers, and all of the savory characters that frequent those places.

And try convincing your coworkers to hike past all that when it’s 100+ degrees six months out of the year.

So, for those of us that do venture out for lunch with any frequency, the car is practically a necessity. But that doesn’t bring the magic of downtown within our reach. Due to the difficulty and expense of parking in the part of downtown where the restaurants and livery are, it might as well be on the other side of town. So when we do man our cars, we take them elsewhere.

Being on the edge of downtown, we have quick access to highways, which aren’t typically overcrowded on weekday lunch hours. Thus, we head out in our cars to place that are easily accessible and easy to park in. And that’s how a cluster of restaurants four miles away becomes closer in practice than a world of food just a mile away.

Will this always be the case? Possibly not. Houston is doing lots to try to stimulate growth in the underdeveloped area of downtown, and I’m sure that new offices and/or residences will bring with them plenty of places to sate our appetites. And perhaps we can figure out some clever alternatives in the meantime—company owned bikes that people can check out might be one option. So could foldable electric kick-style scooters.

But even with development and clever options for getting downtown quickly, the fact remains that the fixed guideways that cars run on, and our willingness or ability to get places by other means, cars will continue to redraw the maps of how people get from A to B in strange and curious ways.

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