Car culture will kill us all

This afternoon, I dropped The Girlfriend off at the airport. For the first time in close to ten years for either of us, we now own a car — the last leftover of her brief move to Minneapolis, the land of 10,000 expressways. Neither of us wants it, but getting rid of it would require taking a significant financial loss after a year with a lot of unexpected expenses (the dog’s surgery, moving to Minneapolis, then having to break leases and move back, etc.). And so we keep it around, taking day trips to state parks and out-of-the-way brewpubs to justify it.

I’ve always had a strange relationship to car culture, because I grew up in a genuine small town where one really could meet most basic needs by walking. My mom, aunt, and grandma owned a furniture store that was initially located across the main road and then literally on the same block as our house. We were used to walking around the little downtown, walking over to the convenience store, the ice cream shop, the comic book shop. I walked to school up through 8th grade, during more or less any weather.

The experience of being dependent on a car was the experience of being trapped. Reportedly the Holy Spirit prompted my parents to spurn the church within walking distance and opt for another one a thirty minute drive away — it must have been part of God’s plan for me to wile away endless hours wandering around the church during choir practice or the seemingly unlimited number of other activities that occupied our family there. Obviously as a teenager I wanted to have my own car, just to gain some kind of control over my fate: when I could see my friends, when I could have time to myself at home instead of waiting around indefinitely….

Once I got the lay of the land in Chicago, though, getting rid of my car became a positive goal. This despite the fact that it was objectively pretty inconvenient for me to commute at all hours from Hyde Park all the way to the north side. For me, access to reliable public transit was true freedom, while owning a car seemed burdensome and unnecessary. I even grew to hate getting rides from people — the endless waiting around for them to actually leave, the “let me move the stuff out of the back seat” (how the hell did you accumulate so much stuff in the back seat?!)…. If I had to wait either way, much better to wait for the bus so that I could at least read rather than make inane small talk.

And now, whenever I drive anywhere, there’s this voice in the back of my mind saying that none of this should have happened. All these expressways should be thriving neighborhoods, all these four-lane highways should be train lines, and every suburban-style development with its detached houses and stripmalls should be an open field. All of it, all of it is wrong. We need to tear out and start new to have any hope.

That’s not going to happen, though, is it? Not only because the obscene wealth inequalities in our society mean that the rich can endlessly bid up the price of the few rationally planned communities in the United States, but because car culture — like gun culture, like the carceral state — has popular legitimacy. Places like Russia and China were able to tear out and start new in the 20th century because people there desperately wanted and needed a change. They were profoundly aware of the inadequacies of their present systems and were, at the end of the day, game for a hugely risky totalitarian project.

In the end, of course, Russia wound up with something not unlike what we in the United States currently enjoy: a declining empire with a rudderless and hugely costly foreign policy, an overactive repressive apparatus, a chronic overinvestment in unsustainable economic infrastructure, and a reliance on imports to meet basic consumer demand. And up to the very end, it enjoyed popular legitimacy. It might have collapsed under its own weight eventually, but in point of fact it collapsed because the elites who had been formed by the cynicism and brutality of their system decided it was time to cash out. That collapse may have been more graceful than the other realistic alternatives — the counterexample of Yugoslavia leaps to mind — but the result was that things got much worse for most people and largely stayed worse.

Meanwhile, the greatest minds of our generation are making billions by making it easier to call a cab — or, more to the point, desperately trying to make ends meet by driving those cabs. And hardly a day goes by without an exciting new pipe dream about driverless cars. Because that’s the answer: more and better cars. Oh, and maybe a light-rail development to help attract tourists to the gentrified part of town.

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