This break, I drove a lot. I live in the Chicago suburbs and I have a lot of friends who live in the city. That means I spent a lot of time driving on highways and through the frenzied, potholed streets of Chicago, usually completing a commute of up to two hours both ways in order to maintain contact with my cohorts. In that obscene amount of time spent in my dad’s Camry, I had a thought: cars are bad.
Cars are, of course, a staple of American culture. They epitomize the American identity of individuality and masculine propulsiveness. Public transportation is too passive an option for the red-blooded American. The Reaganist American owns his own transportation, and requires a garage that takes up half his house to store it. The U.S. is literally built around the assumption of ubiquitous car ownership. If you live in a suburb like I do, it takes you thirty minutes to walk to a grocery store. If you live in the U.S. and not in the heart of a city, you are not only culturally pressured to get a car — you need a car.
But consider how little we think about the death toll. In 2018, 37,000 Americans died in car crashes. That is 3,000 deaths a month. Thanks to navigation apps, we are able to avoid even looking at the car wrecks that pockmark the freeway every day, but they are a reality to which we are shockingly ambivalent. Chief of the National Safety Council Ken Kolosh refers to every day on the road as a “quiet catastrophe” for this reason. Our aversion to public transportation has led us to 70-mph aluminium death traps that amplify human error, and yet we simply do not care.
Cars are also destructive to the environment, and in more ways than one. Not only are their emissions a major climate change culprit, but they also enforce separation between humans and nature. For those of us living in cities and suburbs, we do not see ourselves as living “in” nature. We live on sectioned off patches of grass or rectangles of concrete. “Nature,” meanwhile, is somewhere we have to drive to. The division between “nature” and “civilization” exists as an extension of the assumption that everyone will drive wherever they need to go, and this division harms any environmentalist pursuits. Thanks to cars, we do not think of nature as everything around us, but rather as something “over there” that is hard to sympathize with. If we had a more fluid union of “civilization” and traditionally “natural” elements, perhaps our environmental consciousness would be more organic. And yet, cars have spoiled our potential utopia.
To be clear, in my ideal world, cars would not be eliminated. Rural areas have no need for a bullet train network, for instance. But imagine a civilization with a layout like Lawrence, but extended to all of Appleton. The town is organized into small village-like units. Everything you need is within walking distance — there is a grocery store, a library and a hospital. Trees grow as they please and wildlife besides squirrels and raccoons proliferates. There are public outdoor areas where community members congregate to bond. There are perhaps a few roads, but they are small, allow only for low-speed travel and pedestrians can walk through them as they please. If you want to travel far, there is a convenient and free train system takes you to your destination in minutes. In this society, community members see each other, nature is woven into everyday life and transportation deaths are nonexistent. Does that not sound wonderful?
To me, it does, but at this point it is not a realistic goal. The roads are built and cars are the mascot of American individuality. We could take small steps toward this pie in the sky by funding public transportation, but even so, my idea of a hegemonic Lawrence is unlikely to transcend the realm of daydream. But when you are driving for two hours on the freeway, watching roadkill and blown out tires pass you by on the shoulder, all you can do is daydream.