America’s Car Culture Is Killing Us

We have met the enemy: It is parked in the driveway.


Published August 23, 2007 by The 
By Milton Moore 

We have met the enemy: It is parked in the driveway. If you just step back to gain a little psychological distance and imagine that you've never watched television or a movie, then the myth of “the American love affair with the car” starts to look like something that's been beaten into us by repetition, not something readily apparent. Sit in the traffic snarl on Interstate 95 and look at the faces of other drivers to see how much Americans are enjoying their cars these days.

This is what cars do to us:

•Cars kill us.

Actually, they kill us a number of ways.

American highway deaths in 2006 totaled more than 42,600. That's 3,500 each and every month, about equal to the death toll from the entire Iraq war. If you die young, it will probably be in a car.

They also contribute to killing us by encouraging us to sit for an extra hour or so a day. The car culture has driven most of us to live in far-flung neighborhoods and suburban sprawl, so that you really can't walk to anything. People who live in cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia tend to be thinner and fitter than people who live in rural areas because they walk as part of daily life. Thanks to our cars, we even sit when we move. A recent study revised the thinking about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet: It's not just olive oil that keeps them healthy, it's all the walking and bicycling they do just to get around.

•Cars destroy neighborhoods.

The car-road-oil lobbies that socially engineered our country have crafted a society in which mom works 30 minutes in one direction, dad works 40 minutes in the opposite direction and the kids are bused to school. With mom and dad far off when the kids get home, the kids are either encouraged to stay indoors and play video games (see previous entry on fitness) or they're kept at after-school activities far from home.

The free-form neighborhood softball game, the neighbor who runs over to get the FedEx package for the folks who aren't home, the sense of being grounded at home in a supportive setting seems like a '50s sitcom now.

•Cars destroy a broader sense of community.

Our one-man, one-car system reinforces the belief that it's all about me. People of all shapes and colors and ages come together in transit stations. The commuter gets in his car in one garage, gets out at the same parking lot every day and sees the same people every day. The commuter's world shrinks, as does the awareness and understanding of this great melting pot. Civic cooperation vanishes in the car, in case you haven't noticed the me-first approach to “Yield” signs.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Europe knows how liberating effective mass transit can be. When trains, trams, subways and buses run on time and at short intervals, life gets easier. You read or relax or even, heaven forbid, chat with someone instead of grumbling about stop-and-go congestion. The old maxim that “America is too big for mass transit” certainly doesn't apply to the part of the world where we live.

If transit runs every 10 minutes when people need it, travel is pretty convenient. If you think that setting life around a train schedule cuts into your freedom, think of how often you set your schedule to avoid heavy traffic.

To invest a billion dollars and who knows how many years to build a highway like Route 11 is to throw good money after bad. We can't just remember the past; we need to consider the future.

The future is not in cars. We'll always need cars to run around town, but not for the daily grind of commuting. Congestion, pollution and geo-politics tell us that traveling in this century will not be like traveling in the 20th century. Why should we invest in out-dated thinking instead of investing in making transit work? The government lavishly supports the car culture through road-building and maintenance, through our costly oil-driven foreign policy and even through zoning that keeps people sprawled. If the same sort of blind financial allegiance were given to transit, the culture would change.

Life would get easier. We would get healthier. We might get happier. And we just might find ourselves less isolated, more likely to play cards with friends in the evening than to lie on the couch and watch someone else play cards on television.

Milton Moore is director of photography and graphics at The Day.