The National Catholic Review

We hardly need another predictable indictment of the automobile or America’s car culture. Plenty of social commentators have already weighed in with “feet good, wheels bad” assessments of current U.S. transport patterns. But the time does seem right to stir up our creative juices and reconsider continued reliance on autos as our default mode of transportation.

Deep down, I am ambivalent about cars. On the one hand, like most Americans, I frequently drive about and actually derive considerable pleasure from the experience. There is nothing like whizzing down an open highway (if you can find one anymore) with some up-tempo music (I recommend early Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty) blasting from the speakers. Full disclosure: I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work each day and, as a Jesuit, have never actually owned a car. But, typical of folks my age, I fondly recall the satisfaction of stepping out the door of the Department of Motor Vehicles on my 17th birthday with my first unrestricted driver license in hand, thus completing the final stage of that great American rite of passage into adulthood.

On the other hand, for all the satisfaction and practical advantages associated with driving an automobile regularly, I find it hard to deny the downside of excessive car use. Owning and operating a vehicle is expensive, ecologically harmful and has a pernicious way of insulating us from our social and natural environments. Burning endless gallons of imported gasoline to propel our self-contained private vehicles on nonessential trips near and far is the very embodiment of self-indulgence and unsustainability.

We are coming off a summer that afforded automobiles a rather high profile. The rollercoaster of gasoline prices had us buzzing. The media covered the rollout of an impressive new generation of hybrid and electric cars. The Disney Pixar animation feature “Cars 2” received plenty of attention. Depending upon your perspective, the movie either delighted and entertained millions or contributed to the brainwashing of yet another generation into a decadent car culture (see, my ambivalence persists).

One particularly revealing spectacle was the Los Angeles Freeway saga widely dubbed Carmageddon. For an extended period over a July weekend, north-south traffic in our nation’s second-largest city was all but halted when road construction shut down the 405 freeway. Ironically, the major purpose of this roadwork is to widen and strengthen the Sepulveda Pass in order to increase the volume of traffic the road can carry in the future. Recall the “if you build it, they will come” principle from the movie “Field of Dreams.” Once again, an American public works project will serve to perpetuate gridlock, at a time when many European cities are actively discouraging the use of cars in congested areas through traffic-calming measures, parking restrictions and hefty tolls on those who spurn public transportation.

Besides employing disincentives for auto traffic, especially single-passenger use, urban planners and transportation officials should continue to enact positive measures to enhance reliable public transportation and encourage pedestrian-friendly zones rather than allow cars to dominate public spaces. Recent budget cuts in many regions have reduced bus and rail service precisely when we should be making public transit more attractive and affordable, not more of a hassle. We should seize opportunities to create truly walkable and bikeable neighborhoods.

Of course, even forward-thinking public officials will need to accommodate our existing car culture. Our preferences will not change overnight; piling into the family car remains the most convenient option for most commuting, shopping and vacationing. Indeed, some destinations are unreachable by other means. But does our need for mobility always justify maneuvering several thousand pounds of metal through town? Can we muster up the collective imagination to consider some practical alternatives to unrelenting car use?

I hesitate to recommend breaking entirely with the automobile. But to avoid the folly of getting stuck in unsustainable patterns of living, we must face up to the imperative to renegotiate the relationship. Since our reliance on gas-guzzling vehicles is not serving us well, it is time to challenge our overly car-centric culture.

Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 8/25/2011 - 5:33pm
Ed,
Older cities such as your beautiful and densely populated San Francisco, or my hometown of New Orleans, which were set up around trolleys (and canals in the case of NO) are naturally conducive to relatively effective and efficient public transportation. The more modern great cities, such as Houston and others, were set up around suburbs and the new interstate and highways systems. much less conducive to efficient public transportation. It may work well some places, but not others. 
Mary Sweeney | 8/24/2011 - 5:10pm

If you believe in public transport, and I do, two things are essential:


1) that you are registered and do VOTE in your city, state, and national elections (this includes the Primary elections), and


2) that you support (financially, vocally, and with your personal energy) candidates that understand that fixing roads, expanding public transport is NOT throwing money away.


There is nothing more important than that in terms of making change. If you are dissatisfied with the pace and direction of change, you need to elect representatives who will move these issues forward instead of erecting a logjam.


As Dr. Martin Luther King said, "It is not the voices of our enemies that we should be worried about but the silence of our friends."

EDWARD AHEARN | 8/22/2011 - 10:45pm
I agree with the writer's concern and wholeheartedly support the use of public transportation.  However, instead of increasing buses on the routes most used, they are decreased, especially after 6 pm.  It seems that the public transportation staff disbelieve that some of us need to use the buses after 6 pm.  Sunday bus service is poor with long waits for those at the bus stops.  Also, the buses could be cleaner as trash, paper cups, plates, old newspapers, etc. often litter the seats and aisles.

Thanks for the article.   Anna M. Seidler 
EDWARD AHEARN | 8/22/2011 - 10:39pm
Maria Davila | 8/22/2011 - 10:18pm
Like Fr. Massaro, I too have an "open road" liberating experience, except mine involved the freeing experience that .25 cents could get me on a bus out of a mind-numbing summer job (itself a privilege, I now acknowledge). Being born and raised in Puerto Rico - a very car-intense highway-driven society - the thought of being able to ride the bus system for a quarter and get anywhere in the metropolitan area was incredibly freeing. From that moment on I vowed to live in a town where public transportation was a priority. 

However, these days in the Boston area .25 cents doesn't get one anywhere. The table of fares on subways and buses shows a very distressing picture. Having to use public transportation to get to a minimum wage job means that about two days' wages per month, at least, are spent on public transportation alone.

A commitment to "job's recovery" and "motoring" any kind of economic boom will depend on a robust and financially accessible public transportation system. For many reasons (mismanagement among them) fares in the Boston area public transportation system keep rising while effective wages of those who most need it keep decreasing.

Working for labor justice and a living wage requires the kind of reflection you are offering, acknowledging that the economic "motors" of society need to include the going to, getting to, and coming from jobs.
ed gleason | 8/22/2011 - 6:26pm
We live out toward the beach in San Francisco. We can walk one block to a street car[muni train] and for 75c [senior] and 25 minutes later we are downtown [6 miles]. We can hear the schedule by dialing 511 and get the next car, about 10-15 minutes apart.  
no parking fees, no gas. no hassle. When public transit is good nothing beats it.  
Andrew Russell | 8/22/2011 - 2:18pm
My wife and I took our family to Colorado for a wedding this summer.  For 5 people it would have been $1000 cheaper to drive (including hotel stays).  We flew because our children are young and 20 hours in a minivan is not the same as a few hours on the open road with the top down on a convertible.  We also investigated train travel from major cities.  The cost was even more expensive than flying. 

It appeared to us that the most fuel-efficient way to travel was also the most expensive and least convenient.  I agree with Fr. Massaro that if we as a society wish to conserve resources, we should make public transportation more affordable, and decrease subsidies for highways. 

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