More of the Mad Men Series: Car Culture

By | July 22, 2010

“I constantly think about and dream about my car! My car is an extension of me. Without my car I feel lost.”

—- any number of adolescent and young males in the USA

We’re so accustomed to the automobile in our daily existence that people who get around by walking, bicycle, or public transportation, when they could drive a car, appear odd, if not downright mentally unbalanced. In a sequel novel, Duane’s Depressed, which followed his earlier works, The Last Picture Show and Texasville, the novelist Larry McMurty, presents his protagonist, Duane Moore, as a slightly disturbed man who decides to park his pickup and walk wherever he needs to go. His family, relatives, and friends all think he has gone mad. Duane simply wants to get out of his pickup (in which he feels stagnant), walk in the open air, and think about things. McMurty presents, Duane, as undergoing a psychological crisis in his life; but the fact that McMurty portrays Duane’s “psychological crisis” by his decision to walk rather than drive and the way other characters in the novel react to Duane’s behavior shows the degree to which we think that the automobile is essential to our lives, and the degree to which we question the good sense of anyone who tries to live without the almighty automobile. McMurty uses this episode as a way of showing Duane’s mental depression; and the reader understands because he, like most of us, thinks that abandoning a perfectly good automobile to travel by foot indicates odd behavior, if not a degree neurosis. In short, we all assume the values of the car culture.

However, today more and more people are beginning to question the assumptions and values of our “car culture.” These people are not at all odd folks and people slightly mentally unbalanced. The opposite is more likely the case: They’re very sane, fine people.

Who really is the mad person? Is it the person who has come to think that a four-wheeled machine is essential to his existence or is it the person who has begun to think that this machine, useful though it might be, should not dominate our actions and thinking?

Before making a few statements as to where our real madness lies, I will admit the value of the automobile as a form of transportation (after all, who can rationally deny this?). In short, I shall credit the view that our car culture may not be indicate complete madness.

To appreciate the value of the automobile you only need to try walking distances that normally take only a few minutes on the automobile. Unless you’re a great walker, you will quickly appreciate the value of automobile travel. The automobile has allowed communities to spread out in ways impossible before the automobile. We can have more “elbow room” in our cities and towns, and more choices in where we live and work. Much of our economy depends on automobile travel and transportation, as do the greater variety and the availability of consumer goods. It is hard to argue against the proposition that our material standard of life has improved as a result of the automobile. As means of travel and transportation, the automobile is unquestionably valuable. Most people would argue that the automobile culture represents a rational life style.

Yes, automobile travel represents a rational alternative with plenty of social benefit. And the skeptic might seem as silly as Duane walking the long distances of Western Texas when he could drive his pickup. But this is not the complete story, because the social benefits of the car culture come with social and ecological cost.

First, let’s ask just how rational a life style does the automobile represent? In other words, let us ask who really is the mad man: the person who parks his car and walks and the one that cannot be removed from his beloved car? Walking is healthy; sitting behind the wheel every day makes you fat and lazy.

The car-culture life style is not very rational when you think in terms of efficiency, and conjoin this with our habit of driving alone. Many foreigners remark on our one-person , one-car pattern of travel. This means that a 3-4 thousand pound machine with 110-190 horsepower is used to transport one person, average weight 150 lbs. This is neither efficient nor rational.

As a counter-example, bicycle travel is many times more efficient and more practical than the automobile for distances in the 5-8 mile range. At such distances, when you take into account delays due to street congestion, the time needed to find parking, and the time spent moving from parked vehicle to your destination, the difference in travel time between automobile and bicycle is negligible, if not one favoring the bicycle.
[….the WorldWatch Institute published some .. figures on cycling. Comparing energy used per passenger-mile (calories), they found that a bicycle needed only 35 calories, whereas a car expended a whopping 1,860. Bus and trains fell about midway between, and walking still took 3 times as many calories as riding a bike the same distance. ]

Who is the mad man?

Our driving habits are also not very rational when you think in terms of cost, both to the individual and to society. We use fossil fuels at an alarming rate and will eventually drain the earth of these resources.

The automobile is also not seen as a rational alternative when you take into account the negative impact on the environment: air pollution and CO2 emissions which are a major cause of the looming global climate change.

Cities, especially in western U.S., have been designed to accommodate our automobile culture. This is evident in the growth and expansion of outlying suburbs; in the continuing need for more and more freeways and the constant transformation of every available space into multi-level parking structures at business and retail locations, both in the urban centers and throughout the suburbs. In spite of all the construction and transformation to accommodate the automobile, most of us in urban and suburban areas suffer the daily affliction of traffic congestion and lack of room for parking all those vehicles.

Who is the mad man when you consider the cost of the automobile in terms of yearly deaths, maiming, and serious, debilitating injuries due to automobile accidents? Check out the statistics and weep. Moreover, have you tried driving the freeway and streets of any major city during rush hour? Welcome to the daily grid lock!

Who is the mad man?

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