Sunday, January 2, 2011

From the Archives: Why Cars Suck

From 2008:

Apropos of George F. Will's moronic column extolling as virtues the ravages cars cause to our social landscape and planet, I thought I'd point out that he clearly didn't read my post on why cars suck:

In no particular order, here is an elaboration of why cars suck:

1. Cars magnify the worst aspects of capitalist social relations by alienating drivers from lived interaction with fellow human beings. Cut off from immediate contact with others, and enclosed in a climate-controlled, steel/glass bubble, many drivers behave as though the world outside them is at best decoration, at worst a series of conspiring inconveniences plotting to sabotage their delusional mission to proceed unhampered by anything. Drivers treat other people in ways that they would never treat them if they were walking next to them on the street.

2. Following closely on the heels of #1: cars are selfish. It's all "me, me, me" with cars. Cars, in effect, habituate and encourage this kind of behavior. Moreover, the entire idea of a "personal automobile" is selfish in that it hogs up resources, space, etc. in a way that is unsustainable and unrealistic. For example, moving down a major thoroughfare in a city, a car with one passenger takes up roughly 1/4 of the space of a city bus (which can hold up to 100 or more people), uses a disproportionate share of fuel resources, and on top of that exacerbates the problems of congestion. Cars also crowd streets that would otherwise be excellent bike routes. Although it's hard to see from the point of view of the drivers seat, the reality is that city-life is a profound testament to the sense in which everyone is bound up in relations of dependency. A city is a space in which lots of people cohabitate on terms that no individual sets themselves. Yet, the unrealistic point of view encouraged by the car is something like the following: "I am free to the extent that I can drive my care where I want when I want however fast I want and not have to live by train schedules or interact with other city dwellers." It is undeniable that this mindset has been produced after many years of having infrastructure devoted exclusively to car-travel, pitting drivers against each other in a free-for-all traffic jam they are stuck navigating through every day of their lives. So it stands to reason that car drivers aren't inherently bad people; on the contrary they can be educated and habituated into new habits if we were to change to a car-free system of infrastructure and transportation.

3. Cars make cities less safe. Especially if you are a biker or a pedestrian (God forbid, right?). Some drivers get so caught up in their own quest to quickly make an unprotected left turn at an intersection (or quickly sneak in front of pedestrians to make a right on red) that they simply forget that they are inside of a climate controlled, metal/glass bubble which moves at the touch of a button on the floor of the car cockpit. Meanwhile, the people they almost mow down or intimidate or whiz in front of are walking on their own two feet. Nonetheless, the distorted relation that drivers stand with respect to the outside world causes them to miss a lot of the facts, thus they tend to focus intensely on whether they might have to wait either 0.5 seconds or 5 seconds to turn left (as the case may be). In such a case, the person trying to walk down the street becomes the enemy. "Must turn before this jerk pedestrian makes me wait for 2 more seconds than I have to", we can imagine drivers thinking to themselves. This is barbaric.

4. Cars are (f)ugly. Sorry, but they are. Particularly in salty, snowy conditions where they are all covered with dirty crud. There are strong aesthetic grounds, it seems to me, to purge the heavy presence of cars from the urban landscape. Let them be garnish at most, rather than the main course. At the very least, I think we can all agree that the hideousness of parking lots (and everything they represent) is the perfect exemplification of this problem. The most beautiful urban spaces in our country were almost all constructed and planned before the manufactured obsession with the personal car became pervasive. If we're talking only aesthetics here, in the narrow sense of how 'attractive' or 'scenic' an urban space is, should we go in for the walkable leafy streets of Greenwich Village or the prosaic, washed-out, lifelessness of suburban areas designed for maximum car-commuter ease? Rather than going on the defensive and merely trying to impede the creation of new parking lots, we should instead push for the immediate expropriation of all parking lots in dense urban areas, in order that the public might re-develop the space for affordable housing, urban agricultural efforts and other worthwhile activities that counteract the social/environmental ravages of cars.

5. Cars pollute city air and water. Set aside their role in climate change for the moment. From a more local perspective, the heavy use of cars by individuals in cities creates unnecessary smog and air pollution that is something you can smell, taste and sense on days when its particularly bad. Why should we put up with this when just about everything else about cars sucks?

6. Cars are a serious misallocation of resources. This is true from the perspective of production as well as of consumption. In terms of consumption, cars are a terrible investment: they require maintenance and upkeep costs, insurance costs, financing/payment costs, repair costs (when things inevitably break), parking costs, fuel costs, ticket-costs (for when you inevitably park in the wrong spot or get caught going 5 over). Moreover, cars do not hold their value (which, btw, is totally untrue of bikes; quite the opposite in fact). So, cars also represent a misallocation in the sense that consumer resources could be put into something that yields a more worthwhile return for their cash. From the perspective of production, cars are not what our society should be building: cars are not necessary since there are tons of alternative, more efficient, more egalitarian, progressive, environmentally sustainable and practical ways for people to get around. Now it is a unfortunate fact of the infrastructural design of much of the USA that cars are in some sense all but required. But three things must be said here: first of all, buses and bikes are in many ways more of an option than people in these places realize. Surely there are options for reducing car-use even where people are forced to use cars as a primary means of transport. Second, the inability to avoid heavy car-use in a certain area should not be a reason to condone cars as such, but should instead be a reason to change and re-think the way that the particular space in question is physically set up. Third, this unfortunate fact about much of America is not true of major cities at all (one thinks of Chicago, New York, Boston, Philly, DC, San Fran, etc.). In Chicago cars are not required at all; on the contrary they are more of a nuisance than a benefit even for convenience-minded, self-interested folks. To take a Chicago example, who can argue with 2 all-day all-night 24/7 rails (the 'blue line' and the 'red line') that let you stay out and play as long as you like on weekends without having to bother with designated drivers or pricey cab debacles? So with these three things in mind, bringing the conversation back to production, we should point out that manufacturing personal cars is a waste of labor power, capital and energy resources. They should never be built in the first place; there are, however, a lot of vehicles that society does need: A shit-ton more buses that we currently have, trucks and vans appropriate to certain tasks of building infrastructure, etc. One need not be anti-worker (or anti-UAW) just because they oppose the production of automobiles. Those workers have a ton of know-how about how to build all kinds of things we do in fact need, and a just society would hardly put them out of work simply because capitalists have been investing in the production of something we don't need.

7. Car horns and alarms are noise pollution.

8. As a friend of mine astutely points out in the comments, "cars make gyms make sense". There's a lot of wisdom packed into that short quip. Kind of reminds me of a guy I knew in college who would drive 0.25 miles from his apartment to the university gym to work out for two hours and then would drive back to his place. In the Spring, no less.

9. Oh yea... and have you ever heard of this thing called CLIMATE CHANGE? Either cars are on their way out or we're on our way out as a planet.

10. etc.

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