Some thoughts about cars, society, and driving.

This is an opinion article that does not necessarily reflect the views of Sustain Mizzou or its members.

People blame America’s automobile dependency for a lot of things, including a worsening environment. Little is talked about, however, of the social costs that cars incur.

Cars pretty much cause a total sensory washout. Mucking with the AC or XM Satellite radio and the omnipresent concern of rearending the too-slow asshole in the left lane all fight for your attention. It’s too bad that most Americans choose this method to get where they need to go, and it explains a lot about why our infrastructure gets more and more decrepit every year and our communities more stretched out and isolated.

When I’m in my Accord and I hit a pothole, nothing really major happens instantly to affect my quality of life. Sure, it might fuck up my alignment after awhile but the car provides a layer of insulation from the outside world. The Accord’s suspension takes care of the bump so I don’t split my head open on my roof. All is well. I might even drag my feet on calling public works to get that pothole filled in.

Try doing the same with a bicycle. Better yet, try running over a pothole with a narrow road cycle tire built for low rolling resistance and not much else. I commute to school everyday on a bicycle, and Columbia’s uneven road quality is way more evident now that the shock absorber is me and not a car suspension. In particular, Walnut Street heading towards College is pretty janky.

Don’t like hot weather? Me neither. Good thing heat, in our air conditioned, car friendly Midwest paradise, exists purely as a theoretical feeling you get in between going from your car and the automatic door at Hyvee. It can also exist to irritate you when you’re sitting in your car and waiting for the damn AC to get cold, but I digress.

Try biking on a hot summer day, where you’ll be begging for a breeze sitting on 9th Street at red light. The subtleties (or lack thereof) in weather are evident when you are exposed to the elements. Is it any surprise that Americans don’t really consider global climate change a dire threat when we spend so many hours in climate-controlled environments? I noticed that Western Europe, which takes climate change seriously, lacks air conditioning in most public places. Nothing gets you onboard with AGW faster than sitting and sweating in the Paris Metro with other sweaty, non-antiperspirant using Frenchmen, I promise.

Cars also discourage cooperation on the roads. An optimally designed automobile throughway will prioritize automobile traffic above everything else. In addition, cars are designed to work well with strict structures (stoplights, speed limits) directing the flow of traffic, given the speeds involved and potential ramifications of a major accident.

This means drivers don’t make eye contact with other drivers to acknowledge their existence, let alone that of pedestrians and people on bicycles. You learn to follow signals, stay in your lane, and watch out for the other speeding metal boxes lest an accident occur. While this mindset is passable on neatly organized suburban thoroughfares, it utterly falls apart in any sort of dense, city environment. Take a look at this YouTube video of traffic in Shanghai:

I’m not saying that Columbia’s traffic downtown is the chaos and bedlam you’d find in bigger cities, but clearly it is something that needs to be addressed. As a cyclist, you definitely need to be much more aware of your surroundings riding around than cruising in a car.

My grand idea is that because the majority of people commute by car, it causes social as well as environmental issues, a lot of which are intrinsic to driving around in a large metal box. When was the last time you were in a car and challenged the guy who rides the Shakespeare’s pedicab to a race? Remind me again, is it easy to find parking on campus? Why are we in such a rush to build giant apartment complexes off bucolic, two lane Rock Quarry for students when the city has over 3,000 abandoned houses? The somewhat reasonably priced automobile has given average Americans more mobility now than ever before. Unfortunately, it also introduced problems that need solving.


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