FloMo Diaries, Installment 1: Car Culture

*I mentioned earlier that I was inspired by an idea David Byrne (co-founder of the great Talking Heads) had. He bought a bike and decided to bicycle around the various places his artistic life took him and write a book about. Said he felt biking gave him a connection to cities and places you can’t get in a car or on a train. He also said that the things he noticed tipped him off to the nuances of the culture. I stole the idea, and am going to make weekly Sunday entries about my little suburb of Flower Mound, Texas. For a few weeks, anyway.*

In the late ’90’s I was in Chambellan, Haiti for about a week. Our church body has a connection to a church there and every year, sometimes twice per year, we send a pastor from our church to visit. Every so often, their church reciprocates.

As the visiting pastor I was treated like, well, royalty. I was taken to meet the mayor of the town. My laundry was done daily. I was asked to preach or pray at every possible opportunity. I felt like a big deal.

One of the meetings I was asked to attend was a business meeting for their church. It was “official” and “formal.” I reported the newsworthy events that transpired at my church since our last visit and they reported on their situation. As is customary for “official” and “formal” (as well as “unofficial” and “informal,” for that matter) meetings of the Tribe Known as Christians, we ended the meeting with prayer with and for each other.

And, if you know anything about our Tribe, we’re wont to spend a few minutes discussing precisely “how” we can pray for each other. As the guest, they asked me to go first.

Our particular church at that time was growing. We were adding services and people kept coming. One issue that was concerning was “parking.” All those people coming had vehicles. The city government said we could no longer park cars on the extra acres of empty land that surrounded our building and the bureaucracy involved made a temporary lot installation impractical. I wanted my new friends to pray that our proposed solution of parking about a half-mile away and shuttling people wouldn’t discourage our own members and wouldn’t prevent visitors from having a positive experience with our congregation.

Seems reasonable, right? It was a genuine problem with genuine repurcussions that could affect our church negatively. Granted, I was a bit naive when dealing with people in extreme poverty and disease and very little of what we’d call modern conveniences. But, still. It was where WE were at the time as a church.

Blank stares came back at me from my Haitian brothers from another mother.

The translator spent a minute or two giving them a detailed explanation. When he finished, some guys slapped their foreheads in disbelief. Others shook their heads. Another laughed. Then there was excited chatter that I couldn’t understand.

I asked the translator what was going on. He said that my brothers from another mother were having are VERY hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that there was so many cars where we lived. They acknowledged the problem and would gladly pray for our situation, but these were people that lived in a village that had maybe one car drive through their town a day…and that was a bus headed for Port Au Prince.

Their roads were made for burros and walkers and practical for labor. When they had a house, no thought was given to where cars would be parked. They didn’t have a word for “parking lot” for the same reason they don’t have a word for “hockey rink.”

And, we live in a town (officially, we live in the “Town of Flower Mound” and our “town council” meets at the “town hall”) where cars are at the forefront of the way we live. When our buildings are designed, you have to go before planning and zoning committees and you can bet your bottom dollar they’re going to want to know where you’re going to park all those cars that will come to your business. Oh yeah, and where all the water is going to drain off that big old parking lot is going to come up, too.

In fact, when we designed our current church facility, given that parking had become as sore subject with our congregants (the Haitian brothers from another mother’s prayers were answered in the short term, but you can only hold that beach head for so long) that we sought out “average recommended” parking spaces for when the auditorium was full–architects know these kinds of things–and we tried to double that. We thought lots of families in our situation brought two (or maybe more) cars during Sunday services due to our worship schedule.

We weren’t alone. Other churches who were building called us to see what we were doing with our parking lot and where the water would drain. I was in meetings to determine where future “curb cuts” would be so people could get into and out of our parking lot.

We aren’t alone. One rapidly growing church in our community purchased a former grocery store, complete with big parking lot, and there’s already concern about words like “egress” and “traffic flow” during “peak times” and such.

Our cars are important to us, man. So much so that a recent proposition during a recent election involved us using tax dollars to join a regional effort for effective train/public transportation was defeated 90% to 10%. The other cities around us got in on it and have stops in their towns. Us…not so much.

And we’ve added a lot of cars. See, in 1974, DFW Airport opened. At the time there was around 2,000 residents. With requisite cars. Six years later, the population doubled. With requisite cars. 10 years after that, the population quadrupled. With requisite cars. 10 years after that, it tripled again. With requisite cars. In 35 years, our population growth was akin to “letting it ride” in Vegas, and doubling down with vehicles. Today, folks who keep up with such things think we’re close to 70,000 folks. With requisite cars.

Figuring that our two local high schools likely have close to 5,000 licensed drivers, and most households have at least two cars (our family has four)…well, that’s a lot of cars.

Much like Haiti, so many of our roads were built for practical reason. In our case, primarily to get folks from our sleepy town to the airport. This is why Farm to Market Road 2499 (in Texas, Farm to Market roads are precisely what you think they would be, still serving that function in rural areas, while adapting their function in urban ones) zips north/south through the heart of our town like it more-or-less zips through the heart of DFW Airport.

This is why the Town Council meetings at the Town Hall have people up in arms about widening Morriss Road. The Morriss’ had five daughters and were prominent school teachers in the late 1800’s. There are LOTS of parking spaces on each side of Morriss Road if you think about it…a lot of those spaces at the high school which should be alongside the road named after prominent school teachers.

There are locals upset about Long Prairie Road (a.k.a. FM 2499) going all the way through to Denton. Our town has often named roads for historical reasons, like Cross Timbers (a.k.a. FM 1171, a.k.a. Main Street) is what folks that came cross country in wagons called this area because they’d apparenty crossed a lot of timbers that stretch from here to Kansas and finally had hit a “Long Prairie.” The Kirkpatricks and their 8 kids hit the Long Prairie after their trip from Tennessee. They just widened Kirkpatrick Road with little, if any, opposition from the natives.

We have lots of cars.

Which is why need lots of roads that were built for 2,000 people fixed up to handle 70,000. And why architects design homes with garages as a primary feature, some hold two cars, some can park 3. If we wanted to and had six cars, we could park them in our garage and driveway and not use the street or block the sidewalk.

And not many have sidewalks that are used for anything more than creating an easement to run power lines underneath. Most people only use them for neighborhood strolls if the weather is nice (re: October, March-May). Joggers use ’em some. Skateboarders can’t really, because most have earth shifts underneath them to cause good skateboarders to use the pads and helmets for their intended purpose. Instead, they try to use parking lots, most of which have signs informing them that skateboarding is some sort of misdemeanor crime.

And we don’t even consider other modes of transportation seriously. It’d be easy for me to bike from my house to one local high school, but VERY tough to bike to the other. And some middle schools I couldn’t safely get to from my house via bike. No way to get to shops without crossing some major throroughfare designed for cars going at least 40 m.p.h. Biking ain’t consistently safe. Razor scooters just aren’t practical. Roller blades suffer the same fate of skateboarders. Motorcycles work well, but mostly it’s a bunch of guys that are referred to as Mild Hogs who pay for status symbol bikes and go on long rides to rural restaurants that provide way too much fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

Our restaurants have drive thrus because we can’t be bothered to get out of our cars. Last night, I was at Chick Fil A and no one was using parking spaces, but 8 of us were in line. Sonic is mostly parking spaces anyway…but some waitresses do indeed use roller skates.

We adorn our many cars with icons of our children and their involvements, and political affiliation, and religious fish or a minority of politically incorrect folks who have unreligious fish. We purchase cars we swore we’d never own because both doors slide open and we can get all the necessary gear in and out of ’em so that when we get to the soccer game our family and gear look like Ringling Brothers clowns pouring out of the car and they just keep comin.’

If you want to know Flower Mound, the first thing you’ll notice is that we love our cars, and we’re prepared to pay more taxes to keep on truckin’…just check out the ever-present orange barrels. Either state, county or local taxes keep us up to our armpits in construction. Our economy here thrives on the auto: We have the needed gas stations. And needed auto parts stores. And body shops. And garages where we take the cars when the radio won’t cover up the strange noise anymore.

And maybe our Haitian brothers from another mother should spend more time praying for us about that. Even if those prayers would only hold the beach head for a limited time.