Just before the holidays, a city attorney in Carmel, Indiana submitted a reimbursement claim for $1.15 because he drove half a mile to a meeting. As Kara Kenney at WRTV reported:
The claim, dated December 1, says Haney traveled from Carmel City Hall to the Center for the Performing Arts for a meeting. Maps show city hall and the Palladium are about a half a mile apart.
The thing that baffles me about this request is not so much the absurdity of asking to be reimbursed a dollar if you're making over $100,000 a year (although that is preposterous). It's this:
The reporter contacted Haney about his request who said he took his personal vehicle to a redevelopment commission related meeting across from the Palladium.
I went ahead and looked up directions from City Hall to the Palladium and here's what Google maps showed me:
Not only is this clearly a very short distance, but it's so short that Google Maps didn't even initially offer me driving directions. It went right to walking. There's even a walking and biking path (Monon Trail) that could've taken Mr. Haney to his destination safely and expediently if he didn't feel like walking along the street.
It's a laughably short distance to drive a car. The fact that the attorney chose to get in his car to travel a mere half mile tells us a lot about car culture and the dynamics of this particular suburban landscape in Carmel. (Fun Fact: Carmel is home to one of the first ever automatic traffic signals so car culture is its birthright, I guess.)
I didn't know much about Carmel before reading this article so I did a little research. I learned that Carmel is a suburb of Indianapolis (about twenty minutes away by car) and in 2012, it was ranked by CNNMoney as the Best Place to Live in America. Reasons include:
an unemployment rate that's just over half the national average [...] excellent schools, a big sports and recreation center, a performing arts center, and wide bike lanes. All that, plus a variety of housing options ranging from older homes to new subdivisions, and you have an irresistible draw for families.
A quick check confirms that the typical "family" CNNMoney is referring to is white and brings home over $100,000 a year. So Carmel is a great city if you're white, well-off and like driving everywhere. The bias in CNNMoney's list isn't surprising given that most of their readership probably fits that description, but it's still disappointing.
Given this information about the demographics of Carmel, the same could be said about WRTV's story. It isn't surprising that a lawyer making over $100,000 a year would choose to drive his car instead of take a ten-minute walk. He is actually a fairly average Carmel resident in this regard. But it is disappointing that, in spite of the infrastructure available to him, he chooses to drive, and chooses to eke a dollar out of the city for the resources he used to do it.
I'm not picking on Carmel here, just using it as an example of a pattern that is repeated across America. Even as suburbs try to repair themselves and make half-hearted attempts at walkability and mixed-use developments, they still have a long way to go. Perhaps they are even beyond fixing.
Here's how that has worked in Carmel: When I investigated the area that Mr. Haney chose to drive through for his meetings, I found a stark contrast.
Look in one direction and you see freshly cemented sidewalks with decorative lighting, new trees, fancy signage, and faux-historic buildings. That large building in the background on the right is part of the Performing Arts complex where Mr. Haney was headed. It's a massive faux downtown, made up of theaters, restaurants and upscale retail, which cost the city $100 million.
Turn around from the above view to look in the other direction and you'll see this Stroad wasteland:
Carmel probably heard about a few New Urbanist ideas (wide sidewalks, concentrated developments, attractive streetscapes) and had the money to try them out so it did. But that hasn't been enough to change the overall character of the area, nor has it changed the fact that everyone in the city probably still drives almost everywhere. As Mr. Haney has proven.
Until more suburbs get serious about walkable, affordable spaces created through incremental development and used by the people who live there, no amount of cobblestone sidewalks or historic street lamps will change the fate of these places. And as long as you're getting reimbursed for every pitiful half mile you drive, why stop?
(Top photo from Wikimedia. All others from Google Maps.)