Arlington, VA

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As Northern Virginia prepares to enter Phase 2 and our community businesses and organizations begin to look for ways to safely resume activities, I have noticed a distributing trend — the use of cars as required Personal Protective Equipment.

The first time it caught my eye was Arlington’s drive-through COVID testing site that opened in March, offering convenient testing for any citizen… as long as they own a car. Thankfully the County recognized the inherent injustice in this arrangement and opened a walk-up testing site, though unfortunately not until nearly two months later. Sadly, other local organizations don’t seem to have taken this lesson to heart.

My children’s elementary school, Fleet, recently had a pick-up and drop-off day where families could pick up remaining items that were left at school when the COVID closure hit, as well as drop-off library books and other items. The logistics of this event were entirely built around the idea that everyone had a personal automobile.

No directions were given about how to drop-off or pick-up without a car and parents were warned in bolded and underlined letters that they were to stay in their car at all times. This despite Fleet having a sizable walk and bike to school rate.

Finally, the Ballston BID has recently announced a Retro Drive-in Movie Night.  While less egregious than the above examples since it is purely for entertainment, it also stands out due to the demographics of Ballston. In a neighborhood where less than 40% of household drive alone to work and more than 16% are car-free, the BID has chosen to hold an event that requires a car to participate.

Likely none of the above organizations were trying to exclude anyone. Some may have been driven primarily by fear of the virus, others are certainly just suffering from what is known as “windshield perspective.” When you so often view the world from behind the wheel of a car, not only do you begin to implicitly assume that everyone owns a car, but it also colors your perceptions of people, places and events.

Research in 2013 found that not only do people who drive through less-affluent neighborhoods view them more negatively than people who walk, bike or take transit through the same neighborhoods, they even viewed the exact same event differently.

Participants in the study were shown one of four versions of a video of an ambiguous event (two boys fighting over a piece of paper). The only difference between the videos was that they were shot from either the perspective of a driver, a bus rider, a cyclist, or a pedestrian. Researchers found the participants shown the video from the driver’s perspective rated the actors higher on negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant, etc.) than those shown the other videos.

If we are to meet our climate goals, we must make our transportation sector more sustainable. While electric vehicles can help, they aren’t enough. We need to be increasing the number of trips made via less carbon-intensive, not bowing to our windshield perspective and allowing COVID to push us in the direction of more cars.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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