Get in the car!

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A frustrating experience from behind the wheel of a car this weekend has left me thinking about how we design parts of our infrastructure.

I’m referring to the experience of picking up a relative from the airport, which was frustrating because the line to the pick-up zone was congested to the point of stop-and-go traffic.

Once finally in the pick-up zone, a driver has to weave in and out of idling, entering, or exiting cars, which often do all of these things sporadically. Then one has to swoop in at the correct door and pick up the passenger — assuming they are there. If not, cars usually idle until cops shoo them away, at which point they drive around and re-enter the tunnel.

Design experts refer to this as our “built environment,” and the folks at Strong Towns discuss it frequently in their work. A great example of this is in their post “No Car Left Behind,” which they consider to be one of their best blogs of 2010.

In this post, Charles Marohn considers the design flaws of the car-centric school that his child attends, as well as the neighborhood around it. One of the most striking aspects of this post was his discussion of the drive-thru line designed for parents to pick up their kids.

At the end of the school day, parents queue up their cars, and a school employee calls out the names of kids as their parents reach the front of the line. Marohn rightly points out how this design encourages parents to consider walking thirty feet to meet their children an inconvenience.

This is very similar to the airport drive-thru. People fly hundreds — if not thousands — of miles to visit or to come back home, and the best most of us do to pick them up is drive a car into a tunnel of idling cars (and exhaust fumes) and tell them to get in.

It may not seem strange at first because it is so usual, but has anybody else seen the opening scene of Love Actually and stopped to wonder why we don’t always greet our visitors and relatives that way? Of course, people still do greet their traveling kin in person, just as some parents who pick their kids up still walk and greet them.

The problem is that our design is encouraging us to do otherwise. After all, when we drive to the airport, we won’t have to pay for parking if we just drive to the area outside of the baggage claim, where passengers are sure to be waiting.

Similarly, if there is a drive-thru line for our children, we don’t have to brave any elements or exit our car to retrieve them. What we sacrifice for these added conveniences seems small, but it is quite important — more inter-personal interactions, a little exercise, and less isolation.

One advantage of transit is that it encourages all of these things, but we can accomplish them to an extent with cars. The point is that we should think carefully about how we design our environments, and we should not always favor the most convenient or usual method — life is usually more complicated than that.