In All Projects, Consider the Human

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Every once in awhile, I’m jarred into realized how dehumanizing our modern culture is. Take walking, for example. In September 2015, the US Surgeon General – our federal government’s “leading spokesperson on matters of public health” – launched an initiative called “Step It Up!, a call to promote walking and walkable communities.”

The Surgeon General’s call is both timely and necessary. His message is timely in that as of 2014, the average American took a mere 5,900 steps per day –  a little more than half the recommended 10,000 steps. And its necessary because being sedentary is strongly linked to early death, through ailments such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers. It turns out that being physically inactive is even more dangerous than being obese.

The Surgeon General’s call is also a sign of a sick culture. The “Step It Up!” campaign reminds us that some people have created a world that humans find difficult, inconvenient, or unsafe to walk in – read: to carry out a fundamental human behavior in. Together with disappearing common spaces – like this example from San Francisco – across much of the United States, walking has been “engineered out” of our lives.

Sluggishly and expensively we’re trying to engineer walking back into our lives. As of the end of 2014, more than $10 billion federal dollars – and many more state dollars – have been spent on constructing pedestrian and bicycle facilities and carrying out promotional programs. The government and by association, we taxpayers, have spent millions of hours and billions of dollars on what amounts to a “grand correcting of past and present mistakes.”

And yet years go by before sidewalks are constructed. Studies must be carried out by specialists in order to choose where scarce resources should be spent. All of this to nudge a now largely sedentary culture to walk a little; to be a little more human.

Therein lies the problem. The modern transportation project has removed us humans from the equation. Federal and state government officials claim how constructing and expanding highways boost economies, rather than human well-being. Some states, including North Carolina, take denial of humanity so far as to prohibit the spending of state money on “independent bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects.”

It seems that once we’ve crossed a threshold of dehumanization, once we deny what humans are built to do, there’s little use in turning back. After all, in 2014 a measly 2.75% of people walked to work, and a pathetic 0.64% bicycled. Why invest in walking and cycling when the majority of us drive everywhere?

Thus, the dehumanization project marches on. Reports are made defining how “Federal transportation spending expands the capital stock of the US economy, drives the production and delivery of goods and services, and positively affects business and household
incomes.” In this introductory statement, we come across the US economy, businesses, and households. But where are the people in this introduction? Where’s the humanity?

Given all of this, I propose that we re-humanize all projects intended to make life better for us humans. To accomplish this re-humanization, we should continue pushing for the necessary corrections to the dehumanized environments others have created. We should also try to prevent future dehumanization, making sure that humans are central to any discussion about progress.

For example, consider self-driving vehicles. Humanists will ask how this technology will satisfy people’s fundamental needs for getting around their communities and living with others. What about a bypass proposed to bypass another small town? How will it support the fundamentally human act of creating commons in which to socialize and play?

When we consider humans in all projects, we create a world in which we can do without the Surgeon General’s call to do what healthy humans naturally do.

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