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Nondrivers: America Excludes Us
Rethinking car-centric communities for a more inclusive future
Drawing Outside the Lines
The Right to a Playful City
- The Future
I was born with an eye condition called nystagmus that means I can’t see well enough to drive. Growing up in semirural Washington State, a couple of miles from the nearest bus stop on a road with no sidewalks, I hated relying on my parents to take me anywhere I wanted to go. I didn’t know any other adults that couldn’t drive, so I was certain that I was pretty much alone in my inability to enjoy the American birthright of the open road.
It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, when I returned to Washington State to work for a disability advocacy organization, that I came to meet other adults, who like me, didn’t have the option of driving.
The thought of living without driving is terrifying to people in the US because so much of our built environment and culture are designed for car dependence. But in every community there are people who can’t drive. And not just places where nondriving is relatively convenient, like New York or Washington DC. In fact, one third of people living in the US don’t have a driver’s license. This includes people like me who can’t drive because of our disabilities. It also includes young people, immigrants, people with suspended licenses, and people who have aged out of driving. Additionally, there are many people with licenses who can’t afford to own a car, pay for insurance, parking or gas.
People without driver’s licenses, both those who identify as disabled and those who do not, are more likely to be Black, indigenous and people of color. People with disabilities are four times more likely to be unable to drive, and two to three times more likely to live in a zero-vehicle household. But despite all this, in the US it’s a given that if you have access to a car you can afford to drive you can take yourself anywhere you need or want to go. The narrative we’ve been sold is that without a car you are not a person who has valid mobility needs.
Wanting to address our erasure as nondrivers, in the fall of 2020, I began organizing with a program called the Disability Mobility Initiative. Meeting other nondrivers, hearing their stories, and their challenges, has deepened my commitment to creating inclusive communities where everyone can get where they need to go, and has also made me feel much less alone. I think the same is true for each of the nondrivers we have connected with, and together, we are starting to insist that our voices be included. This looks like showing up to testify at transit board meetings where service cuts are being considered or sharing stories in op-eds and TV interviews about how broken sidewalks and fast moving traffic make it difficult for us to access our neighborhoods. We’ve also invited legislators to spend a “Week Without Driving” where they experience what it’s like to try to get around their own communities and patterns of daily community life without the privilege of driving themselves, so that when it comes time to allocate resources and make plans, they remember the gaps they themselves experienced—if only temporarily.
And while our work primarily addresses the gaps in access for nondrivers, car-dependency has other environmental, climate and societal costs that are externalized to low-income and black and brown communities. From neighborhoods segregated by highways, housing costs exacerbated by parking minimums, exposure to air and noise pollution, vehicle crashes and pavement induced heat islands, our decision to build communities centered around the ability to drive yourself in a vehicle everywhere you need to go was and is a failure.
We are starting to reckon with the consequences of this, but because the US is so enmeshed in car-dependency, the solutions drivers propose—electric vehicles, pedestrian “detection,” last-mile autonomous shuttles—are too small. They’re not designed to actually rethink our reliance on cars, only to address some of its worst externalities. Everything here revolves around cars—from the design of our physical communities, to our social networks, even our cultural identities—so it’s almost impossible to imagine how to begin to untangle this dependency.
That is, unless you’re a nondriver. Then almost every moment of every day you’re thinking about how to make life here work without a car. And if you’re someone like me with a disability that makes you a permanent nondriver, you’ve spent your entire life imagining a world without driving. It is this vision that we need to tap into, to lift up and to support. It is the people who are already waiting for the bus, walking down the shoulder of the highway, searching for an apartment near enough to the train station, who will lead us towards a more just mobility.
Main image: A person with a white cane and another with a service dog walk along an unpaved dirt pathway beside a large road in Vancouver, Washington. Photo © Paulo Nunes-Ueno