In 1997 my aunt and her partner were driving in their car a few miles from their home, when an oncoming driver hit them head on. My aunt sustained some moderate injuries, but her partner of nearly thirty years died that day. This story is hardly unique. According to Wikipedia there were an average of 93 deaths per day on USA roadways in 2009, approximately 2% of all deaths that year. Of these about 1/10 were pedestrians. So while automobile-related fatalities pale in comparison to those caused by cancer, heart disease or infectious disease, they still outnumber those caused by suicide or (intentional) interpersonal violence.
I don’t cite these figures in an attempt to give some sort of quasi-objective account of human suffering. I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with the Mark Twain quip about “lies, damn lies and statistics”. What I do hope to illustrate is how common-place and acceptable human suffering caused by a very specific technological artifact has become in this society.
Contemporary USA culture is determined by nothing as much as the automobile. Unlike airplanes, automobiles were not invented in North America. Even the Interstate highway system was an appropriation of the Nazi Autobahn. But in the United States cars achieved apotheosis. The post-WWII economic boom can be largely attributed to the positive feedback loop in the development, sales, use and investment in cars. Many of the hallmarks of contemporary capitalism came out of the auto industry: the assembly line, planned obsolescence, bought union leadership, wholesale destruction of poor and non-white neighborhoods, suburban sprawl and mega-store chains. And despite the signs that oil extraction has begun to decline, the system continues to chug along.
At some point in my adolescence i decided that i never wanted to own a car. I do not remember my initial motivation, but the intervening years have only reinforced my resolve on this matter. As a teenager, i got my learner’s permit and then my full license along with the rest of them. But while many of my classmates were gifted cars, or even took on part-time jobs to get them, i remained aloof from this rite of passage. My conscientious rejection of car culture became starkly apparent in my senior year when i was almost the only white person to ride the bus and i rarely took part in the supposed privilege of being able to go off campus for lunch at the local fast food establishments. The city i was living in then was the worst i have ever experienced. My family’s house was far removed in the suburbs, and cut-off from everything else by two interstates and a busy four lane street. But even the “downtown” area, 15 miles away, had a distinctly suburban feel. The bus system may well have not existed for how few and infrequent routes it ran.
When i applied for college one of my major criteria was a campus that would not require me to commute by car. As a child i was not particularly interested in bicycles, but at 18 i quickly learned how to ride. I was lucky that the city i lived in had a vibrant bike culture, where i soon became a regular in the monthly Critical Mass rides. The downtown area, with it’s narrow thoroughfares, had been laid out longer before the rise of the automobile. I learned to be very cautious, but also confrontational as well. Several of my cycling acquaintances were injured in those years, but fortunately none very grievously. I also learned how to respect pedestrians, and what defensive walking looks like.
I am honing these survival skills once again. With each new location i make my temporary home, i adapt to different traffic patterns, different levels of visibility for non-cars. Ironically, the most difficult for me have been the small towns where pedestrians are expected to have the right of way. My habit is to wait for car traffic to clear before crossing a street, which confuses drivers who actually respect pedestrians and cyclists. In big cities i always stare at the driver when i cross an intersection, until they notice me. Most drivers will only look for cars in the direction they intend to turn, and don’t even know i am crossing their path until i am directly in front of them. Many drivers idle in a designated crosswalk or drive through an intersection just as i am about to cross. Sometimes i smack the rear of their cars, hoping against hope that they will take more care in the future. Sidewalks are rare in rural areas, and can be lacking even in dense urban areas. When walking in the street i always stick to the left, so i will be seen by oncoming cars. It would be wise to wear reflective material at night, but i haven’t taken this step yet.
My choice to remain car-free has had certain disadvantages, but i find that the pros greatly outweigh them. I get exercise. I don’t have to pay for gas, insurance, repairs, parking or auto loans. I don’t have to sit around on the “free”way in rush hour. I don’t have as much of the green guilt of being worried about climate change while directly contributing to it (though as a participant in the economy i still indirectly add to the problem). I am more aware and present in my surroundings, which are often not aesthetically pleasing, but may benefit me in other ways. Most of all, i just don’t find driving to be a pleasant experience.
My choice is hard for most people to understand, even many anarchists. The incentives to conform to automobile ownership in this society are very strong. So much of just getting by is premised on it. Employers often shamelessly discriminate against the car-free (“must have reliable transportation”). Acquiring a car is a major step in establishing one’s credit. Even many personals ads list car ownership as a requirement for a potential date. My intentional rejection of the automobile way of life has constantly reaffirmed my total rejection of this society’s values and priorities. Cars get associated with freedom, independence and autonomy. My experiences have exposed these ridiculous pretensions for the platitudes they are. My personal freedom is not contingent on procuring a large machine or buying into the massive system it is built upon!
Last Winter a family friend and several of her family members were visiting relatives in India, when her uncle lost control of the vehicle and veered into the path of a large truck. Everyone was killed in the collision but the truck driver; an entire household obliterated in an instant. Through this personal grief i was reminded that the cancer of car culture is now rapidly infecting the populous, developing Asian states. And unlike in North America where there is something of a regular generational turnover of experienced drivers, in India and China most individuals operating motor vehicles have been doing so for only a few years, if that long. Even religious shrines are being dismantled as obstacles to the proliferation of roadways. As a consummate green anarchist i could take some consolation in the finitude of fossil fuels and the unlikelihood of suitable replacements ever being developed – but i am impatient and pissed off and selectively confrontational. I am sick of seeing people and other beings i care about sacrificed to the idol on four wheels. I want the car culture to end, and i want it gone now.