Saturday, July 21, 2012

American Car Culture Has To Go

Does anybody really enjoy driving anymore? That’s not a rhetorical question. Do you revel in the call of the open road, spend time behind the wheel as a recreational pastime, or “get your kicks on Route 66”? I doubt it. Cars have had a far-reaching impact on American life, American cities, and American expectations. And if we believe our own senses, these effects have been less than salutary.

An NPR report this week repeats grumbles, which reporter Franklyn Cater admits are a century old, that American cities pursue “war on cars.” As proof, Cater notes cities creating dedicated bus, bike, and pedestrian lanes; aggressive speeding and parking enforcement; and refusing to widen congested urban streets. Such measures aim to slow traffic and encourage walking or car-pooling. Some people are angry because the measures work.

Research and statistics repeatedly reveal that Americans enjoy the idea of cars. We like the principle that we could crank the ignition and motor across the continent simply because we take a wild hair. A remarkable number of Americans compare their feelings for their cars to romantic love. Many people give their cars names and treat them as members of their family. Some even admit they buy gifts for their cars on Christmas and Valentine’s day.

But those same stats reveal a different picture when we get past the broad strokes and actually look at the brass tacks of owning an automobile. Ask about insurance payments, maintenance costs, commute times, the DMV, skyrocketing gas prices, and the frustration of changing the oil on a hot summer day. No, really: ask somebody. The story will veer remarkably from our great national car narrative.

The myth of the Great American Road Trip has given way, in many cities, to ninety minute commutes. The ease of getting from place to place seems less impressive in much new urban sprawl, so vast and intricate that we cannot find our destination without military-grade satellite technology. Car culture has become so frustrating that many people, including me, joke that we’d be unable to drive if we injured our middle fingers.

Only cars enable today’s single-use urban development. City planners no longer include public parks in subdivisions, and it’s unsafe for kids to play in the streets. It’s hard to organize three-on-three basketball in a sloping driveway, so we should not act surprised when kids prefer to stay inside, watching TV and playing X-Box, feeling increasingly alienated from peers and society.

And that’s just kids. When even sallying forth to the supermarket requires a journey worthy of Odysseus, who can blame adults for not getting involved in community activities?

If cars have a deleterious effect on individuals, the cumulative effect is worse. I dread to think how much productivity we squander on daily commutes. Many cities, during rush hour, smell like the smoking section of an unwashed men’s locker room. And because we’re encased in our hermetically sealed capsules, we reduce the number of chance encounters with diverse people daily, shrinking our creativity quotient.

I did the math recently. I need my car for work, but spend much of my paycheck maintaining my car—the primal vicious circle. Without my car, I could shave five hours off my work week. That’s five hours for family, or hobbies, or growing a garden, or catching up on sleep. No wonder France and Germany, with the world’s best mass transit, have 35-hour legal work weeks, versus America’s stultifying 40-hour standard.

Frustratingly, the poorer individuals are, the further they likely live from work. Thus, the people who would benefit most from a reduced car culture are the people who can least afford to abandon their cars. Buses and taxis seldom visit the poor side of town. That’s why routine tinkering around the edges disappoints, because the problem is so integrated into our lives. Extracting it will be painful.

We cannot eliminate all cars. We rely on automobiles for mail and package delivery, safe transport of perishables, and emergency services. My parents, living in the country, would be trapped without their car. But if we compare the vast marginal costs to the limited core benefits, we know that most of us are not better off for owning cars.

Finding ways to minimize our automotive reliance will cause pain and dislocation in the short term. But for our long-term health as individuals and a society, we must reduce car culture to the smallest possible size. Our cars stand between us and our homes, our communities, and real human life.

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