Swimming Lessons, French Artists, and the Cost of Transportation (true story)

Looking (not very hard) for one good reason why I shouldn't be in Paris right now...
Looking (not very hard) for one good reason why I shouldn’t be in Paris right now…

One morning last summer, I sat next to the pool making small talk with another parent whose daughter was in Abigail’s swimming class.

He was half of an interesting couple. An American artist married to a French gallery owner, their family had just moved to a little village outside Paris and were in town visiting family for a few weeks. Since they had met in the United States, I asked how they had settled on living in France.

“There were several reasons,” he said. “But France is a better place to be an artist.” The French, he explained, place a higher value on owning art than people do in America. You just don’t find regular people in the U.S. saving their pennies for artwork, he explained. “Americans spend a lot on their cars, so they don’t have as much disposable income.”

Leaders of the free world! (in how much we pay for transportation)

What this conversation highlighted for me is that we are, indeed, making a trade-off here when we decide to invest so heavily in auto-based transportation. As a nation, we’ve become gluttons for wide, expensive, high-speed roads – and just roads, with very little spent on infrastructure for getting around by cost-effective foot or bike.

From the Atlantic article that published the chart above:

… what people spend on transportation can’t go to other sectors of the economy. That’s a problem because transit spending doesn’t create the same wealth as other investments, say in real estate or personal health.

Meaning that what you spend on your car, you can’t spend on art – or anything else.

Think of your wish list. Either the one in your head or tacked to the side of the fridge, the one that has things like “new sheets” and “cottage on a lake” written on it. What if you had another$8,000 to $9,000 a year to apply toward these things? What if it were feasible for you to drop one of your family cars, or not own a car at all? That’s quite a raise you’d be giving yourself.

Of course, for most of us that doesn’t seem feasible. Our cities aren’t set up for people to go carless. But that, too, is a choice, and one we might keep in mind as the talking heads debate how to raise more money for roads. If there is a way for us to create communities that are more efficient… well, shouldn’t we do that?