When Your Car Drives You

USA, Arizona, Phoenix, traffic on congested freeway, elevated view

Recently I decided to do something nice for my car-owning girlfriend. A front panel on her vehicle was being devoured by rust, and I had some fiberglass left over from a spring repair on my sailboat. Why not use it to patch her car? It seemed like a good project for a free weekend.

I’m not that good with fiberglass, but I figured that even a bad patch job was better than letting the rust have its way, and she agreed. On Saturday I prepped the surface and laid down the glass; it hardened into a lumpy approximation of the panel’s original shape.

On Sunday I went out to buy a can of paint to match the car’s color. We live near downtown Bangor; there are several auto supply stores within easy walking or bicycling distance. A can of spray paint weighs less than a pound. Nonetheless, like a typical American, I took the car to do my errand.

After discovering that the two nearest stores were closed on Sunday, I finally found what I was looking for at the Auto Zone on Stillwater Avenue. By then I was in a bad mood, stewing at traffic lights and annoyed at myself for contributing, unthinkingly, to an ongoing American problem.

Here was a classic case of a car using a human to accomplish an errand for itself. I could have easily picked up a can of paint by bicycle. Granted, it would have taken a little longer, but I would have spared myself the irritation, and gotten some exercise to boot. Instead, I sat idly at traffic lights as the car spewed greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

I wonder how much of the car-owning population ever thinks about this. It’s easy to fall into frivolous use of a car. We can’t walk to a nearby store for that quart of milk? We can’t ride a bicycle or take a bus to a nearby job? We’ve been so conditioned to think of everyday car use as normal that to question it seems like heresy.

In her book Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay cites a Federal Highway Administration study on American driving habits. The study showed that less than a quarter of our time behind the wheel is spent getting to and from work, and less than a tenth on road trips and vacations. The largest contributor to congestion on our roads comes from errands. And a lot of those errands, like my quest for spray paint, are for the car itself. The car culture has become self-perpetuating.

Isn’t it past time to question this, and to take steps to move our lives in a different direction? Don’t we have some responsibility to the planet and to our communities to mitigate the damage done by the car? Shouldn’t public policy encourage people to behave more responsibly?

Instead, it does the opposite. Municipal governments eagerly build parking lots but grudgingly mandate bicycle lanes. Public transportation is constantly under attack by bean counters who see it as a wasteful subsidy. Development in outlying areas is encouraged while pedestrian-oriented downtowns wither.

These are not market-driven decisions. The car culture is heavily subsidized at all levels of government. The bailout of General Motors cost enough to run Amtrak for 147 years.* Gas taxes are at an all-time low. Widespread free parking is nothing more than welfare for cars.

Americans have been brainwashed into the misconception that individual car ownership is necessary and desirable. We are told that our time is too valuable to walk or bike to work, and then we drive to the gym to burn off the fast-food meals we eat behind the wheel.

I don’t want the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place I will likely never visit, opened to oil exploration so that I can drive to Auto Zone on inexpensive gas. It would break my heart to see an oil spill on the coast of Maine. Yet there I was, in a car, on a summer Sunday afternoon, making those things more likely. A Greenpeace promo after the captain of the Exxon Valdez slammed the ship into a reef in Prince William Sound states the case succinctly: “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

As Kay wrote in Asphalt Nation nearly 20 years ago: “It is time to have it another way. Just as we learned that we must examine the environmental consequences of unleashed consumption, so too we must learn to let the car stop driving the economy.”

 

* Estimated 2015 Amtrak subsidy: $340 million. Cost of GM bailout: $50 billion.

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