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The Troubled Relationship between America and Its Cars: A Challenge for a New Democratic Vision

by Cheryl Seal (cherylseal@hotmail.com)

For most Americans under the age of 65, the automobile is as unquestioned a part of daily life as the electric light bulbs and the flush toilet. Younger folk simply assumed these things have always been around, like Mount Everest or the Great Lakes. Almost everything we do now revolves around the car - where we live (cars make it possible to work one place and live somewhere else, as far away as one chooses to drive each day), where we spend our free time, how much free time we have (which is considerably reduced by the time we spend in traffic), and where we shop (why go downtown when you can cruise to a supermall in the suburbs?).

Although the auto has given us great mobility and the horse a well-earned break, the "car culture" has done incredible damage, more than most of us want to accept, to the fabric of our communities and to our environment. It has removed the focus of our lives from our communities and made long-term stability an "option" rather than a necessity. At any given moment, we are more likely to be found "between places" than we are to be found at any given destination. Because of school buses (an extension of the car), communities have, over time, found it more convenient to build huge schools and bus kids to them from outlying communities than they have to maintain smaller community schools where each child is seen in a context other than his/her file. We have sacrificed billions of acres of habitat and green space to the car, then polluted much of what is left with the car's byproducts (discarded oil, MTBE plumes in ground water, air pollution, etc.). I still clearly remember the trauma we kids experienced back in Norwalk, Ct. in the 1960s (where I lived for several years)when both our skating pond park and the last decent park in the center of town were sacrificed to "progress" - i.e., to highway ramps and overpasses. But this same scenario was repeating itself across the country and has continued to various degrees since then.

Americans now spend a bigger chunk of their monthly budgets on transportation (carpayment, insurance, gas, etc.) than they do on food, and more time commuting (an average of 4-5 hours per week) than most of them do on any type of outdoor activity or even just talking with their kids, spouses or friends. Since the late 1950s, the car has set the agenda, not just for our public policies, but for our international policies as well. Keeping sources of oil open so we can keep our cars in gas and oil has, to a great extent, also determined who our allies and enemies are. The need for fuel has even lead to one war (the Persian Gulf) and is suspected of being the cause of several other military actions and coups. Suharno's CIA-aided overthrown in 1965-66 in Indonesia and the Vietnam War, for exmaple, are both suspected of being motivated by oil. While Indonesia harbored vast untapped oil reserves, Vietnam bordered on a major oil shipping corridor from Indonesia to Japan and the U.S. Hainan Island, the site of our recent alleged incursion into Chinese airspace, lies in this same corridor.

The car relationship has progressed beyond even daily life or politics and has become what amounts to a bizarre philosophy of life - our ideology has been replaced by automobeology. Incredibly, most rightwingers now consider the automobile as a basic sacred "right," as unquestionable as the right to own an automatic rifle. Many of these folks have actually condemned proponents of non-gas burning vehicles, such as electric cars, as "anti-combustion engine" - as if the gas buring motor has some mystical significance beyond making your wheels turn.

But for even the most liberal among us, the car now, at the very least, equates with status at some level. Bus riders and walkers are routinely ridiculed or scorned. Remember Weird Al Yankovitch's parody song "Another One Rides the Bus" (sung to the tune of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust")? That song was considered universally funny because of the universally accepted piece of automobeology that says bus riders are losers. Walkers have an even tougher time. The other day, as I drove along a busy 4-lane road in a strip-mall peppered area outside Baltimore, I saw an elderly man carrying two sacks of groceries trying to pick his way along the median strip without mishap while the cars whizzed past him, treacherously close. But there was no sidewalk for him to use. Planners now rarely take anything not carried by at least four wheels into consideration. As a result, the number of pedestrian deaths in most metropolitan areas is unacceptably high and the life of a walker is full of danger, insult, and unpleasantness.

A recent compilation of facts by the Department of Transportation reveals just what a strange and contradictory relationship Americans have with their cars. The overall picture that emerges from these stats is one of a spoiled child: We want our cake and we want to eat it all by ourselves. An indefensibly high percentage of American commuters - 88% - do almost all of their traveling in their own private cars, all alone. Car pooling is a very distant second choice. Although public transportation is readily accessible (available and not too far from home) to 70% of commuters, less than 12% regularly use it. The primary reason given: convenience. Yet, the nastiness of public transportation is obviously a myth: 87% of all commuters regularly using it say they are satisfied with their transportation. Instead, convenience seems to be the primary reason for everything associated with the car - from drive-through banks and food joints to wanting to reach every acre of our national parks in our SUVs - at the expense of all else. While 72% of all drivers said that ease in getting to stores and work was very important to them, a recent environmental survey showed that nearly 80% of all Americans considered pollution and loss of habitat serious problems - both of which are due in large part to the car culture. The big struggle emerging appears to be between convenience and conscience. I predict that in choosing sides, the rightwingers will make convenience the next unalienable "right," falling a close third after guns and cars.

While the DOT survey showed that Americans say the second most important single reason for choosing a place to live was lack of heavy traffic, most of the same people (88% of them) insist on creating the congestion they claim reduces the quality of their lives. Another twist comes with these two stats: While a February report showed that SUVs and light trucks now outnumber passenger cars in most regions, the DOT survey found that 46% of drivers blame most transportation-related air and water pollution on SUVs and light trucks.

The sum message of these findings seems to be: we want to be able to magically jump in our cars alone and get wherever we want to go quickly and easily. But, we don't want to encounter any traffic, noise, pollution, or gas shortages along the way. If a president is symbolic of a larger national malaise, then perhaps Bush, with his magical thinking about global warming and missile shields, is just a symptom and not ultimately a cause of our deepest current woes. In any case, the confusions and contradictions that swirl around our cars make it plain that Americans have been receiving and perpetuating conflicting messages about their cars and the culture they have built around them. Addressing this problem calls for real leadership, not political games, not bandaid fixes such as drilling for oil or widening highways.

Instead, this is a time for the Democrats to step forward and behave as true leaders, working to shape a workable long-term VISION of the future, one that will give the second or third (or seventh and eighth) generations down the line a better, simpler world, not bigger, more complicated problems. The first step is reducing the contradictions by establishing a solid model for America, one based on the greater good, period, not greater good to the highest bidders. A cornerstone of this model should be that we CANNOT rely on fossil fuels any longer. They must be phased out and phased out quickly. We must discourage urban sprawl and revitalize our dying cities - both problems created by the car culture. Afterall, if the car had not made it so easy to abandon our cities, we most certainly would have worked much harder to make them livable. But nowadays, when things get untidy in our lives, instead of rolling up our sleeves, we roll away in our Explorers or Camrys.

Once a model for the future is hammered out, how its goals are achieved then becomes the daily work of our governments - federal, state, and local - and of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs and the renovated system becomes not only stable but self-perpetuating. As it is now, the current dysfunctional system is self-perpetuating, and can only end with one outcome: destruction at all levels (environmental, societal, economic).

This critical crossroads in our society offers the Democrats a chance to salvage their image through concrete action and moral consistency. The 2000 election was partly lost by voters who turned to the Greens or did not vote at all because they believed - alas, not without good cause - that the Democrats had become as easily swayed by special interests as the Republicans. What Americans really long for, like any spoiled child, is consistency and firmness, moral values and real strength. The public's longing for the former two qualitied account for most of John McCain's appeal, while its need for the second two have rendered James Jeffords a new folk hero. The Democrats' model for the future must be solid, not filled with holes bored by lobbyists. The actions that are necessary for achieving its goals - such as phasing out fossil fuel dependence - must not be contingent on exceptions demanded by every other special interest. Real leaders must dictate ways that the special interests can help the nation achieve its goals, not the other way around (the situation that now reigns supreme thanks to Bush).

Most Americans are ready to accept a new direction and to do what needs to be done to produce positive change. The only thing lacking is a leader headed in the right direction.

Cheryl Seal is an environmental journalist, science abstractor, illustrator, and author. Her book on forest issues, "Thoreau's Maine Woods Yesterday and Today" (Yankee/Rodale 1992) was selected by "The Readers Catalog" as one of the 40,000 best books in print.