My dad had a furniture store called "Suburbia." He opened it back when that name conjured up all that was good and enticing about America: big cars, big lawns, big houses filled with (we certainly hoped) big-ticket furniture.
But now my dad's gone, and so, perhaps, is the suburban dream, replaced by the realization that it's hard to heat a big home and mow a big lawn and, most of all, love a long commute. It's even hard to love a series of daily short commutes -- such as a hop in the car to go get milk. What's more, it isn't even healthy.
Ever wonder why, for instance, the rate of diabetes is soaring? It's not all Paula Deen's fault. It's a "common-source epidemic," says Dr. Richard Jackson, author of the book "Designing Healthy Communities." "It's something in our environment that's changing our health." That something (besides fast food, big portions, incessant advertising and the allure of 5,328 TV channels, not to mention the Internet) is suburban sprawl itself.
In a TV series Jackson will host this spring on public television, the big idea is that when we moved from compact cities to car-dependent suburbs, we didn't realize the problems we were creating, including obesity, depression and isolation. What can be done to reverse this sad -- literally -- state of affairs? A couple of things.
One idea is to retrofit the burbs so they are more like cities. Add bike paths and sidewalks. Turn dead shopping centers into lively apartment complexes. Invest in more public transportation.
But another idea, one we all can undertake immediately, is to try out the Walk/Ride Day created by a nonprofit called Green Streets Initiative. Once a month, on the final Friday, the deal is simply to not drive a car by yourself. "You can use any mode of transportation you like," says Green Streets' executive director, Janie Katz-Christy. Scooters and buses are good. So are bikes. You even can carpool. "We set the bar so low it's on the ground," she laughs. "Even if you walk a few extra blocks, it's good."
It's great, in fact, because once you get out of the car, you immediately start living a very different life. It's something Katz-Christy can personally attest to because she was once the typical soccer mom (who's also an architect).
"I have a minivan. I have a driveway. I didn't know where the bus in front of my house went," she says, describing her old life. But one day, when she was driving her kids to their exercise class, she suddenly wondered: If they need exercise, why are they slumped in the back seat?
From then on, instead of driving, the family started to bike places or take the subway. Gradually, "we were using our car less and less, and all I was doing was taking it to get repairs," Katz-Christy says. That's when they took the big leap -- and went carless.
On the trains, they meet people. On the buses, they read. (And vice versa, of course.) When walking and biking, they presumably keep diabetes, depression and obesity away and make the air a little less polluted, too.
It's easier for their family because they live in Cambridge, Mass., with schools and shops in easy pedaling distance. But even suburbanites could start using their cars less, if they try out some of the alternatives and find one or two they like.
The final Friday of February is the 24th. Maybe it's time to start a whole new journey.