Wednesday, June 25, 2008

DING! You are now free to move about the country.

We all know this slogan from the annoyingly perky Southwest Airlines ads on TV. And it's kind of clever the first few times.

But this week has been kind of rotten for me, for a number of reasons that mostly come down to the US government sucking, timing being off, and one of my teaspoons getting broken.

So I was thinking about the fact that I need to do some travelling in the next few days, and may even be booking a last minute flight back home if things don't work out.... As usual, my bags are right up against the checked baggage weight restriction, I don't want to pay the new fee for a second checked bag, and I hate feeling like a pack pony when I'm going through security with all of my carry on shit. But, oh, the fees-- they burn.

Indeed, without a car, dependent on air travel to get where I need to go, and with all of the fees and costs involved in booking flights (nevermind the exorbitant rate I may have to pay if I have to return at the last minute) -- with all of these hindrances in my way, it has become clear that we increasingly are not free to move about the country at all, especially if you are of a certain social class and are from certain more isolated parts of the USA (or North America, for that matter).

Now granted, we don't actually have pervasive and authoritatively enforced rules about who can travel where and when (this isn't apartheid, after all), but it occurs to me that the freedom to get anywhere -- even to your job, if you live in a place with bad public transit -- is increasingly disappearing in this world of $4 a gallon gas, airline surcharges and fees, and inflationary pressures on everything else.

My mom asked me a few weeks back about my sort-0f-boyfriend and the fact that he doesn't have a car, even though our hilly, very much suburban-focused city demands one if you want to leave a few core areas that are walkable/transit accessible/bikeable. She said to me, "What kind of person doesn't have a car?" and although I was mostly annoyed about this comment on general principles at the time, it also occured to me that there's a real classist thing going on there, whether my mom realized or not. Yes, even in this oil-boom city the poor often have shit-beater cars so that they can get to work, but there are plenty of people who don't have a means of vehicular transportation, either by choice or by economic necessity. Sure, they can't get to the mega mart on the outskirts of town. But maybe their lives are better off for it. And maybe wondering, with not-so-concealed disdain, about the kind of person who doesn't have the means to purchase a vehicle, and who can't take transit everywhere, only covers up the real problems of mobility and accessibility and the lack of intelligently designed, walkable urban centers in North America.

What kinds of people don't have cars? People who work but can't make ends meet. People who have debt because they chose to get an education and haven't paid off the loans yet (the 'grad school poor, ' as opposed to the 'poor poor'). People who had cars that crapped out on them, and couldn't afford the repair bills because they wanted to pay rent and buy food.

So no, some of us are not free to move about the country. And maybe we never were.

The enviro hippy in me says that this might not be such a bad thing, less driving and air travel. The other part of me says that restricting where we can go, whether directly through regulation and force, or indirectly through economic pressures, can't be a good thing. It makes our worlds smaller, and it places just one more limitation on our freedoms in a country (and this applies to Canada too, although it's less obvious) where civil liberties have been steadily and stealthily rolled back since 9/11.

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