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.