Why driving is bad for America

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Walking along Dale Street in St. Paul 8 years ago, I stopped to watch an old man slowly climb into a temporarily parked van in the right lane. Within seconds, a driver came up behind the truck and repeatedly honked his horn as the poor guy struggled with his cane, climbing into the vehicle. It lasted a long time; it seemed to last over a minute and it was excruciating. I could only imagine how awful the old man must have felt.

At the time, I remember thinking the incident would never have happened outside of a car. There’s no way someone is repeatedly yelling at older people who are trudging down the sidewalk. People don’t slip up behind a grandpa in the grocery store line and yell, “Hurry up!”

But when all you have is a horn, every driver interaction becomes vaguely abusive. I don’t even know why this particular incident stuck in my mind, because if you spend time on busy roads, you see countless uncivil acts every day.

That is to say, Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times opinion column, “What Driving Means for America,” rubbed me the wrong way. Pontifying on a road trip, Douthat somehow comes to the general conclusion that driving cultivates social qualities like “independence, cooperation and responsibility” and is the community glue that holds our country together.

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To me, it seems completely upside down. If anything, a nation where driving is the most common mode of public interaction turns us all into solipsistic, bubbling cutthroats.

Limits and freedoms while driving

In his column, Douthat leans heavily on a new pop philosophy book by Matthew Crawford, “Why We Drive.” Primarily a collection of vehicular anecdotes, Crawford sprinkles just enough philosophical concepts throughout the text to give it a thin veneer of scientific legitimacy. For example, Crawford introduces “homo moto” (the motor human) to refer to a sociological concept known as the “expanded subject”, which is a genuinely useful way of conceptualizing our relationship with technology.

Simply put, technology extends our agency in specific ways. Glasses extend our ability to see, much like a television (through space) or a photograph (through time). Clothes and shoes become extensions of the skin, while phones extend our ability to converse with each other, first through wires and now through satellites.

Few technologies transform our subjective agency more dramatically than the automobile. But contrary to what Crawford describes, the “motor subject” is not a one-way street leading to greater freedom. Although driving increases our ability to move at high speed, it comes at the expense of almost every other type of action. Secured in a confined space, driving allows only the slightest movements of the hands, feet and head. Meanwhile, our senses are entrenched in cocoons of steel: we can neither smell a flower nor hear a bird. It’s nearly impossible to make eye contact with another moving driver, let alone have a conversation.

Instead, we can only rush forward, and even then our decisions are greatly reduced. America’s roads are elaborately designed spaces, down to the highly regulated fonts that appear on the signs. Drivers have very little choice about what to do or how fast to go – no faster than 70 or slower than 40 on most highways – and the vast majority of the time we have to stay in our lanes. Worst case scenario: A few years ago, the Minnesota State Patrol launched a special press campaign to inform the public don’t stop if a family of ducks appears on the highway (imagine explaining this to your child in your car).

The truth is, driving is a boring chore, requiring just enough mental energy to keep you from daydreaming. Instead, when faced with the boredom of a ride, most drivers concoct elaborate narratives. As Tom Vanderbilt describes in his wonderful pop science tome, “Traffic” (a vastly superior book), all drivers become the heroes of their own stories. If we change lanes during a traffic jam or leave an exit early, we tell ourselves that we have accomplished something, outdone the anonymous crowd. In reality, however, these decisions make little difference.

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Ross Douthat ends his essay with the provocation: “If you don’t lead your neighborhood or your region, what form of mastery and adult knowledge do you seek in its place?

On the contrary. I believe you only get meaningful knowledge of a neighborhood by getting out of your car. There is no richer and more rewarding engagement with a community than that of a pedestrian walker, learning things about their cities that are unimaginable to someone strapped into a cockpit. The cops knew it, which is why walking a little helped prevent crime in a way an SUV patrol never could.

What driving really means to America is a rather tragic story that allows most people to entirely escape the commentary and connections – weak and strong – that occur in the public space of the streets. We replace it with a Darwinian struggle for asphalt, viewing our neighbors as nothing more than a relentless barrage of competitors for space and speed. Other than the occasional bumper sticker, no meaningful social interaction takes place on a freeway. Instead, most of the time, driving is nothing more than hard work that belies Douthat’s assertion that the daily experience of driving instills “virtues well suited to citizenship.” Cars are America’s great leveler, turning everyone, good or bad, left or right, new immigrant or CEO, into lonely selfish morons.

By the way, this has all been much worse during COVID, where road deaths have increased as speeding tickets have soared. Anecdotally, it does seem like reckless driving is getting worse, and the data backs it up. Through a combination of social isolation, frayed ties, abandonment of law enforcement and ever more powerful vehicles, safety on our streets has declined sharply over the past three years.

But there is another America waiting for us if we go by car. I have a personal rule that whenever I see kids on the sidewalk with a lemonade stand, I make myself stop. For me, lemonade stands are a great way to build community, teach kids about public life, and (of course) get lemonade, so I support them every chance I get. .

Kingfield lemonade stand

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Frogtown Lemonade Stand

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

But when I drive, my lemonade principles often get frustrated. I’ll spot the children’s table too late, otherwise I’ll see it, but it’s impossible to cross three lanes of high-speed traffic, or turn around at a busy intersection, or find a place to park, even for one minute.

But my percentage of lemonade stand stops without driving, biking or walking? Still going strong at 100%. This is surely the best way to discover America.

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