Tailpipes and Tribalism

Most of us never question our decision to buy and drive cars because we identify cars with our culture. “Driving is what people do.”

Published October 23, 2007 by PlanetSave
By Gavin Hudson

Most of us never question our decision to buy and drive cars because we identify cars with our culture. “Driving is what people do.” That’s been the unspoken motto of the last handful of generations and it’s the lesson we’re teaching our children. Handing over the keys to the car is our society’s rite of passage. We send our youth out onto roadways with thousands of other vehicles, each thundering around at up to 80 mile/hr (130 km/hr) and weighing as much as 40 tons (36,000 kg). Unlike most other dangerous rights of passage around the world, ours is visited upon children of both sexes. Those who make it home at the end of each day face the challenge of paying to own their vehicle — a life-long financial burden that averages between $250,000 and $360,000 per person, according to Motor Trend magazine.

Last night, I got behind the wheel of a car for the first time in a long time. I’ve never owned a car, and being in one usually makes me feel about as secure and comfortable as a vegan in a steak house — but not last night. There was the rush of independence in the autumn evening and a flood of old driving memories: going over the Golden Gate bridge, sneaking out at night from my parent’s house to court an old girlfriend, rolling through the countryside in a Mustang convertible, and making late night drives to the city with friends. I felt connected to a culture that I’ve tried so hard to eschew: the gas-guzzling, oil-pumping culture that stretches far and wide across freeway-laced landscapes.

After a long absence, I was again in touch with this culture — the auto-loving tribe of the developed world. I felt an affinity for all of these people in cars. They were people just like me: riding in their metal boxes, clogging freeways and roadways with red tail lights, like blood in the veins of some gigantic algal life form strapped to the land.

I feel good in the driver’s seat, and then I take a wrong turn. That damn truck won’t let me back into the lane. Somewhere inside me, the red arrow on my stress gauge crawls up a notch. I pull into a parking lot so that I could turn around, still thinking more or less benevolent thoughts. But now who does this guy in front of me think he is? Could he walk any slower? I’m in a stick shift, so to go any slower I’d have to come to a complete stop and switch into first gear. Finally, I have enough room to drive by, but I no longer feel goodwill toward all men and women.

I pull out into the road again, my left blinker flitting nervously across four lanes of traffic in the night. In the time it takes to cross the lanes, a bicyclist has pedaled his way up the hill and is waiting at the stop light in the right lane. He looks like a nice man: middle-aged with reflective gear galore, bicycle bags or “panniers,” and a helmet with a small blinking red light. I feel a sense of camaraderie with him. This is my culture; these are my people. Why is that car behind him crowding him like that? Doesn’t that driver know that bicyclists have all the rights of the road that drivers do and that they operate like any other vehicle on the road? My blood pressure skips another small step higher.

When the panoptic red light changes moods and casts an authoritative green glow, I part ways with the bicyclist and make another left turn past an audience of cars and headlights. Quick, better get in the right hand lane. I crane my head over my shoulder, gazing backwards as my vehicle charges forward. Now I have to slow down right away; it’s a sharp turn into the parking lot. I hope no one gets irritated with me that they have to slow down and wait for me to turn. Oh well, screw them if they do, I decide. I arrive at the supermarket, which is air-conditioned even at night, and grab my groceries.

Late night shoppers trickle through check-out lines, and back out into the comfort of their personal pieces of steel. I do, too. I pull out of the parking spot and turn my tires toward home. But now I’m in a right turn only lane and I want to turn left. Damn. If I were on foot, I wouldn’t have to obey these strictures that limit the directions we can travel.

In order to turn left, I pull out to the right and then take a left into a gas station to get turned around. A brief glance down at my gas gauge tells me the car needs fuel. Better buy some gas while I’m here. I pull up to aisle 5. The sweet, noxious smell of gas stations fills my nostrils. And now I’m that guy at the pump, directing the thick rubber hose to the open gas tank, filling my vehicle with foreign, environmentally destructive oil. Did I feel like a bad person, knowing that the slick, expensive liquid that flowed unseen into the car’s bowels was about to be released as air pollution into the atmosphere when I turned the key? No, not really. I was just another guy at the gas station pump. But I also wished there was another way.

Back when autos were nothing more than extravagant play toys for the super rich, Henry Ford developed a way to mass-produce them with cheap, streamlined labor. Cars caught on big, and in less than fifty years, they had become entwined in our popular ideologies. In just a scant few generations, marketers and auto companies have made us believe that we need cars by confusing them with our notions of happiness, success, attractiveness, family, prosperity, and even our sense self-identification. People everywhere feel connected to their cars, thanks to successful advertising. More importantly, they feel that driving a car is what they should do in their culture. That’s the really interesting thing. That’s why it’s so hard to get people to change their habits when it comes to transportation.

Great. Thanks, automakers. Thanks for the tax burden of building and maintaining millions of square miles of roadways, bridges, and parking lots. Thanks for increased exposure to air pollution, which causes asthma and other lung and heart conditions. Thanks for making it impossible to walk from point A to point B if there’s a freeway cutting through the middle. Thanks for the sedentary, high-stress lifestyle. Thanks for the climate-changing gases, the fact that oil is an incentive for war, and for the 45,000 Americans and the 955,000 other people worldwide killed yearly in car crashes. Thanks a lot for creating roadways through nature’s gems, such as Seattle’s Washington Park, which would rival Monet’s gardens if it weren’t for I-520. Yeah, thanks a lot. Mission accomplished.

For the sake of our vehicles, we tear through towns, forests, and plains to build super-structures of steel and cement where our autos can range. We overthrow foreign countries and topple governments in a frenetic bid to fill our engines for as little pocket money as possible. The entire Earth’s weather patterns are pushing new, less habitable extremes because of the gas belched out of the tailpipes of our personal transportation vehicles. Despite all this, as well as hundreds of thousands of road deaths a year, getting rid of our cars and trucks and shutting down the auto manufacturing industry is unthinkable.

These days, taking the bus, riding a bike, or even walking can make a person feel marginalized in small towns where every form of transportation has lost its place to single person motor vehicles. We see this message repeated in popular media as well: the socially awkward 40-Year Old Virgin on his bicycle is pitted against a sexy alpha male like James Bond, operating fast internal combustion engines on four wheels. And they’re not even driving cars with decent gas mileage. What’s so sexy about paying more for gas?

You can offer all the good evidence you want to show people that by not owning a car, they will be healthier, richer, more productive, and easier on the environment that we all share. Still, you’ll be talking to a wall as long as we have the common notion that driving is culturally what people do. Denounce driving and too often people feel as though you’re denouncing them and their entire culture. There’s a great scene in the film I Heart Huckabees where the father of an ultra-conservative family reviles one of the film’s protagonists as a socialist, a communist and anti-Christian for his stance against using oil and driving cars. The father felt — as many people do — that being against driving was analogous to being against the cultural institutions that he was a part of. It’s a sticky situation.

Our cars force us to sacrifice walkable downtown areas and weaken our sense of community. They cause us to leave our neighborhoods to commute dozens of miles each day to work. They undercut local businesses by giving people an incentive to drive for miles to shopping malls and box stores. They consume our time, our open spaces, and our good will toward others. When the auto and oil industries spend millions of dollars to vote down clean energy legislation, as it did last year in California, we have to ask: are we in control of our cars or does our car culture control us?

We might think it’s faster to drive to the store. But imagine there were no cars — only public transportation, bicycling and walking. Would people really locate food stores 10 miles or more apart? No. There would be more local food markets. I might actually know the person at the register. Instead of being herded through a check-out line and back into a parking lot, I might have the option to talk with my neighborhood grocer before taking the brisk, healthy walk back home. This has been my experience in countries like Italy, and I’ll admit that living with fewer cars and more community is pretty nice.

“Alternative transportation” isn’t going to be popular when it’s still just the alternative to the cultural norm. Still, alternatives to cars have come a long way. Commuter buses are beginning to offer free Wi-Fi; California is planning the release of a bullet train connecting the downtowns of SF and LA in under three hours; car share programs are offering easy, gentler ways to overcome our addiction to owning an auto; and bicycle and pedestrian lanes are taking back spaces they’ve been forced from in cities around the world, from Paris to New York.

A shift away from cars is possible. We could convert auto-manufacturing jobs into employment opportunities building a national public transportation infrastructure. We could support local businesses and reduce sprawl by shopping within walking or biking distance of our homes. We could commute by public transit, thereby saving ourselves the stress of bumper-to-bumper pushing and shoving and allowing us time to get a little more rest in during the ride to work. We could go for walks or bike rides together, making streets safer and communities stronger with an increased pedestrian presence. In how many other ways could our country and world be cleaner, safer, healthier, and more efficient without our dependence on cars?

It just takes enough people to stand up and change their daily habits before it becomes accepted, even commonplace to act outside of the cultural box. In the language of songwriter, Arlo Guthrie, if just one person does it, they’ll probably think he’s nuts; if three people do it, they might think it’s an organization; and if lots of people do it everyday, then they might think it’s a movement. And before long, you’re changing the way we get around.