The Freedom and Frustration of Cars


This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked for readers’ reflections on the automobile. I wanted to know: How have cars shaped your life? What do you think about their future? I received so many responses that we are going off-schedule and posting half of them today and will share the rest on Monday.

Mauricio believes that electric vehicles are the future and has no patience for nostalgic holdouts:

I’m a car enthusiast from the Boomer generation, and I’m tired of laments for the internal combustion engine. It’s over! And people need to get over it. It’s been nearly 150 years now of the internal combustion engine, and fans say, “Oh, but they sound so glorious.” You know what sounds more glorious? A thoroughbred at full stride: the nostrils sucking in, the hooves tearing up the dirt, the gigantic heart pounding, and the jockey keeping it all under control. That’s romantic. But guess what? It died because the car was more efficient, easier to drive, and left less horse shit on the road—and at first, cars were slower than a decent horse. People bought them anyway, because cars were clearly the future … and let go of the romance of 4,000 years.

Lee is a physician and a cyclist who often has bikes on his roof rack that are worth more than his car:

My car increases my range. That makes my life richer. Even though I consider 50 miles in a day a modest distance to bicycle, a car puts many more things in my easily accessible daily range than I would otherwise have. Stores, parks, other people, all kinds of resources. Think of it the way any other animal would: How good a life you can make depends on what good stuff your range, or territory, comprises. A small range makes an impoverished life—materially, socially, intellectually. The bicycle was a social revolution, for just that reason. Remember, the bicycle was the impetus for widespread paved roads, and the Wrights were bicycle mechanics. The car followed shortly after, and took that principle up an order of magnitude. That ability, to access the good things in a large range at will, is why the car dominates our society and our lives, and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. (Yes, mass transit can fill that role too, in select settings of sufficient density to support frequent and convenient operation, but for most of America and large swaths of the world, cars and motorcycles are really it.)

For Alisoun’s oldest son, life is a highway:

He turned 2 when the movie Cars came out, and our family got him car-related items as presents. We thought the car theme might be a phase, like, “Today it’s cars; tomorrow it’s diggers.” It is now 17 years later, and the car phase has never changed. We have a car kid.

We are not car people. We drive them. We have them. But we are raising a kid who loves cars with a depth not often seen in teenagers today (in the neurotypical community). At 16 he bought his first car, a Mustang. He gave us a presentation about why we should let him buy it. He loved it and worked on it in our garage throughout the early-pandemic lockdown. He sold that one and bought another Mustang. He spends breaks from college tracking down car parts. His room has boxes of car parts. He watches car videos.

We shake our heads. The world is going electric, quieter with their cars. He loves to make his Mustangs loud. He meets very nice people who share this passion. This year there was a recall on a car part. He drove in front of me to the dealer in his latest Mustang. I watched him stop for a family crossing the street. One of the group raised his finger and circled it above his head. My son revved the engine for him. The man threw his head back with joy. A fellow car guy. I didn’t know these communities existed. I do now.

Having a car kid means I have learned to pay attention to cars. I have driven all over with him in the pursuit of good deals on parts. When looking at colleges, we counted the Mustangs we saw on our travels. We hit a hot stretch in North Carolina where we saw 17 Mustangs in 15 minutes! I am so glad our son found his passion young and we have gotten to watch him revel in cars. We still have the Cars bedspread from his Little Tikes bed and the Cars shirt he wore every other day of preschool. And now I get to ride shotgun in the latest Mustang with the push-button start and the special gear-shift cover and the very loud exhaust, and watch as fellow car folks wave as we go by.

Adam is not a car guy:

I’ve never driven a car and don’t expect to. It makes no sense on any level that I would be trusted, after fairly minimal instruction, to send a couple tons of metal hurtling around the world at extremely high speeds. Some mornings it takes me three tries to tie my shoes right; it seems crazy to suggest I should go from there to placing the right shoe on the accelerator and pushing down hard. To me it’s one of the wonders of the world that thousands of people drive thousands of cars past my window all day, every day, and only occasionally wind up wrapped around a telegraph pole, traffic signal, or each other.

One of humankind’s great achievements is the accommodation of mediocrity: There is something glorious about how we’ve managed to build societies in which millions of people can spend their time being just barely okay at things, and it mostly works. It’s one thing to invent a car and build a road network that a few geniuses or highly trained experts can navigate sort-of safely; it’s quite another thing to build a system that millions of everyday people, often not functioning at their best, somehow manage to traverse daily, mostly without dying. It’s incredible. But I still can’t make the leap to participating directly.

Vancouver’s one of those cities that does car-free days: pick a street and shut it off to traffic for the afternoon. I always go to those. It’s fascinating to see how many thousands of people can fit into a pretty normal city street when it doesn’t have any cars on it, and how completely different it feels. Just standing in the middle of a six-lane road and looking along, it is pretty strange.

I get that, to some people, they seem like a necessity, but cars are pretty weird if you never drive one and rarely get in them. We’ve played this funny trick on ourselves by accepting so completely the notion that roads are for cars, and that we must have enough roads for everyone who wants to to drive everywhere all the time.

Tara is conflicted about cars:

I spent the majority of my life in the exurbs. A couple of years ago, following a divorce, I moved into the type of walkable, urban neighborhood that city planners lust over. And the truth is, a lot of days, I still miss the exurbs.

My commute was brutal. I had to be up by 5:30 every morning to make it to work by 8. For the majority of the year, I never got to experience sunlight in my own house: I was on the road before dawn, and I’d arrive home after dusk.

Time and time again, my journey home was delayed by traffic accidents. I would sit in traffic for an extra two hours, knowing that the reason three lanes were blocked off was because another exhausted commuter drove under a semi that day. It was also never far from my mind that these accidents happened not because somebody was drinking or trying to see how fast a Porsche could go, but because the driver was an exhausted commuter just like myself, trying to make it home before it was time to put the kids to bed.

But also, I had a nice, big yard, with mature rose bushes climbing the back gate. We had a fire pit. We had a home theater, and could watch any film we desired on a massive screen, complete with a top-of-the-line sound system. The neighborhood was quiet. And, crucially, we were able to enjoy these benefits as average, middle-class people. The mortgage on that house was one-third of what my current rent is, and the public schools were perfectly acceptable.  

Now? I’m in healthier shape than I’ve been in since adolescence, because my neighborhood in the city is so walkable. I no longer put 20,000-plus miles on my car every year. I walk several miles a day, forever discovering new gems in the neighborhood I never knew about.

But I also no longer have my yard. I no longer have my home theater. I’m crammed into one-third of the space, but paying three times more. I walk by throngs of homeless people every day, and I have to step over puddles of urine on the sidewalks. Property crime is rampant; I’ve had to call 911 three times in two years to report dangerous situations, and every time, I have had to spend 10 minutes on hold because the operators are too busy.

I don’t have children, but if I did, private school would be a necessity rather than a luxury, since the public schools in the city are abysmal. And all of this is in the nice part of the city. The part of the city that is far, far more expensive and more affluent than my old exurb.  

I hated spending my life behind the wheel of a car. I hated the commutes that robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the sunlight, or the ability to spend waking hours with my family. I hated the car dependency, the way that I couldn’t so much as grab a soda without getting behind the wheel again. But I also appreciate the cars and infrastructure that made that all possible, that made it possible for average people to live in spacious houses with big yards in safe neighborhoods for a reasonable price. No matter how much cities invest in infrastructure and affordable housing, no matter how well a city is designed, no amount of urban planning will ever replace the freedom an automobile gives.

Kathy is also an aficionado of the freedom cars can afford:

Canadian here eh.

When I was a kid, my mother used to joke that it was a miracle that neither I nor my younger brother were born on a back road. Dad’s typical car comment was “Let’s see where this goes.” And I’ve inherited that driving gene from my dad.

I was born in Whitehorse, Yukon, and then we moved countless times, all over Northern Ontario, and then the family settled in Ottawa. Driving was a rite of passage for my generation, back in the ’60s and ’70s. The group I was part of for about five years was completely car-centered—rallies, demolition derbies—and gas was so cheap then, so a recreation item was to drive half an hour out somewhere, and then back, to accommodate parental deadlines. Of course, it was only the boys who were driving; the girls’ appropriate role was to sit in the stands, or the passenger seat, look sexy, and admire.

I moved on. My first husband had been a car buff for years, with a car sitting in the backyard waiting for his 16th birthday. Several months before, he developed glaucoma in one eye and went down to 10 percent vision. His charming grandfather convinced him that he would never again be able to drive any kind of motorized vehicle. We got a car, and I drove us everywhere, until it died of old age.

I love driving—my husband used to call me Stirling Moss, and told everyone that if you wanted to know the longest distance between two points, just travel with me. Freeways were efficient, but I always preferred the scenic route. My dream would not have been to be a ballet dancer, or anything like that—my dream was to be a stock-car racer. And, until I got older and some smarter, I had a very heavy foot. Whee! Traffic circles? Bring ’em on, and let’s see how fast we can do them.

We parted, and my next partner was an anxious driver, and an even more anxious passenger. We took a number of travel vacations around Canada—out to the west coast to British Columbia, and then out through the Atlantic provinces on the east coast, and eventually on a road tour of Newfoundland. We were good driving companions. And of course, each of us drove to and from our separate jobs every day. He had a truck, and I had (still have) a small car—and that’s pretty standard here.

I will never understand what changed for him, but his anxiety escalated, to the point that all he could do was drive into town once a week to pick up groceries and various supplies. I’m 74. And now he’s gone, and I want to take road trips again—there are little parts of Ontario, and Canada, that I’ve been longing to see or revisit. I don’t know anyone, among all my friends, who would be the kind of traveler I am, though, and it’s not as much fun to travel alone, with no one to share all of the “Oh, look at that”s.

Cars are freedom. If you’ve never heard Dory Previn sing about screaming in her car in a “Twenty-Mile Zone,” well, that’s another aspect of it. That little self-contained universe, all your own. Turn the volume up to 12. Sing along—the car doesn’t care if you can’t sing worth beans. Belt it out. Cry if you need to. Laugh at the things on the side of the road. Bliss. Always has been. An encapsulated adventure, or therapy, or joy, or whatever you need. Cars are a glory.

Roza couldn’t be more different:

I hate cars so much that I moved to another country and shaped my career around addressing car dependency. I think the most significant shift was my study-abroad semester in Copenhagen, where I fell in love with cycling. Not cycling in a Lycra suit trying to outrace the cars, but cycling in my everyday clothes at a mellow pace, maintaining a conversation with a friend and feeling completely safe. This led me to write my senior thesis about cycling policy in the U.S. and gave me the gift of seeing cycling as a valid form of transport wherever I am. I cycle daily in London, where I live now, and where I work in the city-planning sector.

Although London isn’t anywhere near a cycle utopia like Copenhagen, there’s been so much progress in the past few years with the introduction and expansion of the low-emissions zone in the center. I am able to cycle around central London with its substandard cycling infrastructure due to the fact that many of the streets in the center are quiet and peaceful, even during rush hour. The air quality has improved, and noise pollution has decreased. Although the policies were really contentious at first, I don’t think anybody would want them lifted at this point and to go back to being stifled by pollution and traffic.

My dislike of cars is probably propelled by the fact that I’ve been plagued by motion sickness all my life and can’t read or stare out the window of a moving car without feeling nauseous, making long car trips dreadfully boring for me. Since we have built our cities around the personal vehicle, we are left with a gray landscape that looks the same wherever you are in the country: highways, parking lots, flyovers, leaving no place for creativity or community. Most suburban places in the U.S. have no viable public space—places where people can just be for free, where they can meet people and form community, something that I think is further driving the division and loneliness that we face.

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