Cars are like television, in that you can’t ever get completely away from them.
In a scene from the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson’s character tells his partner in crime, played by John Travolta, about something from a certain television show. “I don’t watch TV,” Travolta says, dismissively.
“Yes, but you are aware that there is an invention called television, and that people watch shows on it?” Jackson retorts.
Both worlds are ubiquitous – you are influenced by television and the car culture whether or not you choose to participate. There is no outside point of reference. I am reminded of this every time I get behind the wheel, and remember that this is how most of the people I know live.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a purist. I distrust absolutes. Renouncing car ownership is not the same thing as giving up cars completely. I live in a one-car household. The car belongs to my lovely girlfriend, Lisa, and I do occasionally use it.
I like to return it to her with a full tank of gas, as repayment for her generosity. When I lived alone, I rented a car about four times a year, at a cost of $35 to $100 per day, depending on the season. I don’t think that negates the central theme of this blog. I could rent a car once a week through the whole year, and it would still be cheaper than owning one.
But you forget certain things when you only drive occasionally. One is the price of gas. I go weeks at a time without paying attention to it. Then I’ll borrow the car and discover that it’s thirty cents more (or less) per gallon than the last time I bought it.
Another is road repair. The last time I borrowed Lisa’s car was the day a gas line broke near Shaw’s on Main Street, cutting off the most direct route from Bangor to Hampden. I got stuck in that traffic jam. Had I been on my bike, as I usually am, I would not have experienced any delay at all. I would have simply gone around. But there I was, seething in a line of traffic like everybody else, waiting my turn to be waved through.
It’s surprising how easy it is to slip back into the mindset of habitual driving: the annoyance at slow lights, at tentative pedestrians, at other drivers. We all think we’re better drivers than we are. Nobody ever admits, “I’m a below-average driver,” even though by definition half of us must be. (The only facet of driving at which I claim above-average skill is parallel parking, which I aced all three times I took my driving test.)
I wonder if all this annoyance contributes to our fractious civic life. Cars can act as cocoons, insulating us from the consequences of bad behavior. I’ve had horrible things yelled at me from car windows while riding my bicycle, and I’ve raised my own middle finger a few too many times from a behind a steering wheel myself. I can’t imagine that the stress of dealing with traffic, day in and day out, stays in the car once the driver gets out. Numerous road rage incidents attest to this. I’ve never experienced road rage while walking or bicycling.
So why do we do it – make our cars such a central part of our lives that we use them every day? Some of us have to – those who live in rural areas, or work odd hours far from home, or care for young children. But for the rest of us – is all the aggravation really worth it? I believe that a large number of people own cars because it’s what they’re used to. They haven’t stopped to consider that there might be a better alternative.
Owning a car can be like signing up for cable TV. At first you tell yourself you’ll only watch quality stuff. But after a few months you’ll hear yourself say, “Let’s see what’s on,” and before you know it, you’ve spent two hours watching naked people escape from some crocodile-infested swamp.
A car in the driveway is an invitation to drive for the sake of driving – to a bar you could easily walk to, down to the store for a quart of milk, or off to an appointment accessible by bus. It becomes a convenient fallback that’s only inconvenient because everybody else is doing it, too.