Dismantling a Car-Centric Society

Photo by Elysse DaVega.

By Elysse DaVega

Usually I’m a pedestrian, but today I’m on my bike.

At night, my feet pulse from the pain of what must be thousands of steps, but feel like millions. Tonight they won’t, I think to myself, because today I’m on my bike. I’m lucky enough to have one.

I’m riding not in the bike lane, because there isn’t one, but a small sliver of gravel hugging the grass. I’m one misstep away from ending up in the muddy ditch to my right.

My grocery bags, dangling from either handle, keep slapping against the spokes. The wind coming from the cars, vans, and trucks zipping past me feels sardonic, because God knows I need the breeze on this sizzling August day, but the gusts make it hard to steer. This small metal frame and I are no match for you, General Motors. But I’ll be home soon.

My conundrum is not unique, nor can it be boiled down to a broke college student going to extremes. This is a reality shared by 8.7% of U.S. Americans, which may sound insignificant, but amounts to almost 29 million people. That number isn’t far from the population of Beijing, which, ironically, is notorious for its motor vehicle-induced smog.

We, the 29 million Americans without cars, are partially comprised of willing minimalists and savvy citizens living in cities where local transportation picks up the slack, but we’re also the vulnerable: students and single mothers living in cities where local transportation is little to none.

“Cars are black holes for money,” my own newly-single mother said to me, descending the steps of the Greyhound. We had just finished the 19-hour journey from Tennessee to Florida, the latter of which, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition, is the deadliest state in the U.S. for pedestrians.

Today, ten years later, I live 45 minutes away from Jacksonville, where 462 pedestrians have been killed in the last decade. I regularly joke about my disadvantage of not having a car, calling myself a “full-time pedestrian”, but it’s in effect a potential death sentence.

To society, we non-motorists are mere nuisances to be pushed around and honked at; when killed in accidents, we assume the blame for getting in the way, which we obviously must have done. News reports of accidents involving non-motorists focus on traffic blockages and road closures rather than the loss of a human life; we are likened to anomalous stray cats. 

Such contempt towards non-motorists is entirely misdirected; we get in your way not because we want to, but because our society gives us nowhere else to go. Instead, frustrations should be aimed at our car-centric society. Car-centricity is the phenomenon in which society prioritizes the existence of cars (and other 4-wheel motor vehicles) in both city spaces and mainstream culture. As Biking Cupertino puts it, cars are seen as the “only meaningful way to commute”, leaving little to no consideration for pedestrians and cyclists.

Those on foot and bicycle are burdens; the bus and train are looked down upon, deemed a desperate method for the poor. In a nation that deems itself one of the most innovative in the world, how are we stuck in this automobile-dependent rut?

The first and most obvious culprit is all around: poor city planning. Everywhere I go, I see that existing on my own two legs is a crime. Be it a sidewalk that abruptly ends at the other side of the crosswalk or a small piece of barely walkable terrain like the one I mentioned before, the United States is never lacking in reminders that this place wasn’t designed for me to be on foot.

Instead, parking lots swallow our cities whole, and the hearts of downtown centers are severed in two to allow for more highways. In Texas’ case, the solution to highway traffic on the I-10 Katy Freeway, 26 lanes at its widest and the biggest in the country, is always to add more lanes. On a surface level, more lanes may seem more efficient, but what road planners fail to acknowledge is that more lanes mean more space for cars, and that more space for cars means more cars will fit, and that more cars will lead to more traffic. The problem often worsens itself.

It’s not all bad, though. When I first traveled to Chicago, one of the highest-ranked cities for city planning in the U.S., my highest intrigue wasn’t in the skyscrapers — and that’s saying something, given that my town’s highest building is 85 feet tall — but in the width of the sidewalks, and how effortlessly the large swaths of Chicagoans glided through them. They did so with a certain reassurance on their faces, as if their city would always take care of them as they had taken care of it. It’s something I’ve never felt in my own town.

Instead, in my city of St. Augustine, the landscape I’m accustomed to is more akin to a game of Frogger: massive multi-lane thoroughfares and state roads in the middle of forested areas with no sidewalks or bike lanes. As a pedestrian or cyclist, my only accessible options are the streets around the historic quarter (where my university is located), but even these aren’t a given; they flood profusely if it rains for more than fifteen minutes. Here, it’s impossible to exist peacefully. The constant threat of multi-ton machines barreling by is enough, let alone Mother Nature stopping by to remind me that even the blessing of rain can be a curse. If local governments worked harder to assure accessible, well-maintained roads and cities, we non-motorists would feel safer– like our city truly belongs to us as much as we belong to it.

A common counterargument to this side of non-motorist reform is that what’s done is done; we have built our cities a certain way, and therefore need not interfere with tradition. However, we’ve seen time and time again that a city dismantling its car-centric nature is in its best interest. London, following a COVID-sparked increase of journeys on foot, has set plans to become the most walkable city in the world by implementing better crosswalk technology and dedicating more pedestrian-priority streets in traffic-heavy areas. Paris’ desire to combat climate change has brought major cycling reform in the form of more bike lanes and parking. Both of these cities are among the oldest and most revered in Europe, but they’ve proven that tradition and evolution aren’t rivals, but rather elements that prosper in balance.

Still, it needs reminding that it’ll take more than adjustments to public structures and roadways to de-center cars from our world: we also have to dismantle a deep-rooted car-dependent culture. In our culture, because cars are the default, any deviation from this is regularly met with laughs or criticism.

We’ve reached the point where men are emasculated and shamed for not having a car, or worse, not having interest in them.

On a personal level, I’ve been rejected for internships on the sole basis of not having a car. I was told on multiple occasions that it’s “not an ideal situation” and makes me “unreliable.” When car-centricity feeds into societal illnesses such as toxic masculinity and classism, why do we willingly participate in it?

Well, it’s not a phenomenon we invented ourselves; its roots can be traced to the Golden Age of Capitalism, that is, post-WW2 economic expansion. The end of the war marked a clean slate for a new, modern world, and the U.S. ran with it. Increased automobile ownership was one of the star accomplishments of this period; as more and more Americans moved out of cities and into suburbs, demand increased and manufacturing exploded. Advertisers painted cars as a promise of your own freedom, your individuality, your key to being. Cars soon became the norm, casting a shadow over the pre-war days of trains and streetcars. 

The biggest takeaway from this era was individual freedom. After all, we live in the U.S.A., where freedom is priority number one; why wouldn’t we want to be able to go wherever we want at the whims of our will?

As great as the drop-of-a-hat thrills of individualism may be, such a value system has contributed to less consideration for the less fortunate. I mean, why should we care about the guy walking 12 miles to his job interview? It’s every man for himself, after all. In centering individualism, we’ve neglected our ability to empathize and look for solutions that benefit people other than ourselves.

Most of all, we’ve neglected the art of balance. Instead of cars being the only viable option, what if we just as much prioritized public transport? If we consider more collectivist countries, that is, those with a value system opposite to our own, we can visualize a society that better includes non-motorists and guarantees them the same prosperity and opportunity that motorists have so long enjoyed. Japan, for example, is famous for its Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans, but do you know what else it boasts? A high-speed bullet train that transports 1 million passengers every day. For comparison, on an average day in the U.S., the entire Amtrak network’s ridership amounts to only 85,700.

I’ve been through the Americas, Europe, and Africa, and nowhere else have I seen public transport as stigmatized as it is in the U.S. In Mexico City, there are 10+ public transport methods available. In Cologne, Germany, the subway comes every 10-15 minutes. Having a car is a plus, not an expectation. Most people get around with public transport, and nobody gives you that pitiful puppy-dog look when you tell them you’ve got to catch the bus home. Through traveling, it’s become clear to me that the more we (our society and our governments) embrace public transport, the less unusual and looked-down-upon it will be. Diversifying our transport with trains, buses, light rails, and other methods can uproot both our cultural and practical dependencies on cars, keep non-motorists out of harm’s way, and challenge us to think differently about what’s better for all.

The future I envision is one in which people are pedestrians because they want to be, not because they have no other options. In this vision, people buy cars to reward themselves after they find work, not in order to find work. Wider bike lanes, pedestrian-only paths, less pollution from less cars on the road…

These are all good ideas, I think to myself as I continue that ride home. But I can’t enjoy the daydream for long, because the sun’s probably burnt my scalp by now, and my eggs are definitely broken from all the spoke-slapping.

As I trudge on in that rocky, glass-covered road shoulder on my way home, I beat myself up for all the times I’ve taken sidewalks for granted. Wait, this reminds me of that one book by Shel Silverstein. What was it called again?

Oh yeah, I remember. Where the Sidewalk Ends. No wonder that guy was from the U.S., because where the hell else does a sidewalk just end?

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