06
Mar
11

Drive

Drive by the Cars, one of my all time favorite bands. Poignant is the word I would use to describe it.

***

Many cities are trying to make themselves more bicycle friendly (e.g., see this for Denver’s new effort to institute bike sharing), and I think some of the arguments put forth for this policy choice are good. Bikes are better for the environment, require less infrastructure, and can’t be used to do much damage when driven drunkenly.

There are those who go beyond policy though in pointing out that biking is a type of political statement that strikes against Americans’ excessive individualism and oil-use. Biking is put forward as a civic social alternative to cars which are destructive smog-machines that have driven suburbanization and highway building. Even further, some people make the point that biking is a type of MORALLY EXPANSIVE activity that puts is in a closer relationship to the earth and our cities. For lack of a better word, some people say that biking is better for your SOUL.

I’m very sympathetic to these points and I think that for me, biking is like vegetarianism. I’ve tried to be vegetarian for a while and I’ve just recently tried to make it official. I’ve long thought that trying not to kill animals to eat is a good idea, but I didn’t give it much urgency. I thought I would put in a good faith effort to get around to it, and if I didn’t, o well.

Biking is the same way. If I were a stronger person, I would probably try to bike more often and maybe even get rid of my car.

Today though I realized that this stronger claim — that biking is a necessary component to a more responsible expansive life-style, is wrong, and I feel like I’m positioned to defend the automobile, because being from Dallas, I’m familiar with a driving culture.

There the practical points to note, which is that cars are pretty key in a place like Dallas where things are spaced far apart. Also, things being spaced far apart make land cheap, which is good, if you can capitalize on the sprawl with the proper infrastructure and perhaps not excessive environmental damage (urban footprint is, as I understand it, one of the biggest ways humans impact the environment and a smaller footprint is really good for lots of reason).

But besides this, I think driving a car is itself a type of morally expansive transportation. What I mean is that cars — and this fact is often overlooked, so don’t laugh at its obviousness — allow the owner to transport OTHERS. Even for a single person like me, this has enormous benefits. I can meet friends easily across all parts of the city (well not really easily since Boston has terrible roads, but yea, you get the point), which lets me sustain a more diffuse social network. It also lets me help people out in various ways. I drove my friends home from the liquor store after we had dinner, and let me pick up another friend from the airport as well as dropping him off after he had to leave back to Dallas.

I also use my car to give rides to strangers, though this is taboo and is often greeted with shock, though I don’t know why. Why don’t more people ask for rides? I guess there’s the danger factor, but that doesn’t seem like a very good reason, since I think its usually pretty transparent who could use a ride and who should be ignored. For example, coming back from the shopping center I see people carrying a lot of stuff to the train station, which is a good 15 minute walk a way. Not crushing, but I notice, and I’ve thought about asking people to just get in my car (since I go right by). One day, an elderly Asian man just came up to me and asked for a ride. There was no risk of danger, and since I had been thinking about that same thing, I told him sure.

It was completely unremarkable. I dropped him off at the train station and he left.

What this shows me is that cars are pretty key. They are not, as some have suggested, bubbles of solipsism where anonymous commuters go to amplify American’s misguided obsession with individualism (though for the record, I think individualism, understood properly, is very defensible). Rather they are mobile social platforms where you can talk with your friends, help them get places, or meet them at distant places.

The fact that cars are seen as a symbol of solitude is due more to our conventions about what is acceptable to do with a car (offering rides) than anything about a psychoanalysis of our country’s love of individualism.

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