Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Paved Battlefield: Part III - Car Culture And Cycling

 This is Part III of the series "A Paved Battlefield". You can check out Part I here and Part II here.

In my last post I described how we as cyclists are misunderstood creatures out on the road by non-cycling Americans. That is certainly part of the problem, but there is another issue that is even more subtle and pernicious to the well being of all of us. I call it "Car Culture". Now, I admit to this not being my terminology. Lots of folks use the term, but in this discussion, "Car Culture" will be used to describe the subversive way our culture, our people, have been led to believe that "this is how life works". To help illustrate this point, I have employed a favorite little ditty of mine called "Cars", a "New Wave" and proto-tech song from 1980....................

"Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It's the only way to live
In cars "

From "Cars" by Gary Numan

Mr. Numan explains the basis for the song by saying it grew from an incident of road rage he experienced in the U.K. and says the following as well: 

"It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world... When you're in it, your whole mentality is different... It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.": Gary Numan

A Personal Empire: I believe Mr. Numan has described very succinctly what has happened to us in America, and perhaps wherever automobiles are the most preferred mode of transportation. We didn't consciously buy into this way of life, it just sort of happened over the last 50-60 years. Everything got built around the automobile, and then, we got suckered into thinking that our car interiors were our own little kingdoms. We wield powers while inside of our vehicles that we would never imagine using outside of them, much less as violently as we do. Yet something odd overcomes our psyche when the car door latch snicks shut and we turn the key in the ignition. (Or push a button, as is becoming more common these days.)

Suddenly we are little dictators, with powers and wills that would frighten even Nero in his most morally bankrupt state. With no regard to courtesy, compromise, or manners, we bully our way down the road playing "chicken" with our cruise controls, racing to the first place at the stop light, and all the while, putting our lives and the lives of others at risk without a second thought. 

I used to work "for the enemy", as I refer to that time in my life nowadays. I was a car mechanic at an independantly owned four bay repair shop that arguably had the highest reputation for the best repairs in town. (Still does to this day, as a matter of fact.) Well, the point is that when I would inform someone that the car they just brought in to have checked out was in too poor a condition to drive anymore, and that they should stop driving it immediately, they would look like I just told them they had cancer and had 24 hours to live. They would freak out in some instances. I would watch as their whole existence crumbled underneath them as they wondered aloud how they could even live their life without the automobile. It was an enlightening thing for me. Cars = life in a lot of peoples minds. Simply amazing. Sick is really what it is.

The Rebel Forces: Now throw these two wheeled pests, these cyclists, out there on the pavement with this "Car Culture" that we have and you have a volatile mix just waiting for a spark to set off a fire. While the law says cyclists have a right to share the road, and slogans, programs, and more are out there trying to proselytize these motorists into compromise with "the enemy", the sad truth of the matter is that it isn't working. Heck, we can't even get motorists to get along with each other in many cases. Laws? ha! Even many cyclists don't obey the laws of the road, much less the car driving public. (Stop signs and speed limits anyone?) 

 The Long Road: It is my belief that this needs to change for all of our good. I think many people agree. The thing is, we're an impatient lot, and folks want to see this get fixed "yesterday". Obviously, that is unrealistic. I think getting things "fixed" in the next ten years is just as unrealistic. My feeling is that it took upwards of 60 years to get us where we are at, and it just might take that long to get things turned around. Hopefully I am wrong, but you know, it might just take decades. 

I think that our culture has to decide that cars are not "all that" and that we, as a people, want to see pedestrians, cyclists, mass transportation, and yes- automobiles as part of an educational system for our youth, and as a main directive for the reshaping of our infrastructure. That means some of our current culture will need to be torn down: spiritually, mentally, and physically, and re-shaped. As with any sort of change, there will be detractors, whiners, and people that will throw down some spectacular tantrums. Get ready for that part. That said, I believe it will be worth it, even if I am not here to see the end result. 

And I think that is the way we current cyclists have to look at this. We may see incremental change in our lifetimes that we can enjoy, but that should not be the "why" of this move to tear down Car Culture. It should be understood that we have to start a process to bring us out of this, and that for a better world sometime down the road for those who follow in our tire tracks.  


Small Adventures said...

Wise,WISE words,GT. I'm enjoying this series of posts :)

BTW,I won't be home to wish it after tomorrow afternoon (I'm going with a bunch of friends to Pisgah NC to ride! WOOHOO!!!Start the year off right!),so I wanted to wish you and yours a very safe,VERY happy New Year's ol friend :)


mw said...

totally dude

by the way. i look for that vinyl->CARS. great song. he nails it.

happy new year.

Unknown said...

Great post Mark - as usual!

I read in the Denver Post that Colorado University contemplated making Freshman leave the car at home but backed out of it. They said Freshman parking passes are lower than in the past - so hopefully with the help of city planners all across the country - we can make bicycling/walking/mass transit more advantageous in the future to all!

Wally said...

We will always be a car based culture. You use a "car" to scout for Trans Iowa, you use one to go to TX to ride...we will always need and depend on cars.

The motorcycle world has struggled with this for decades and its starting to see some change in the billboards to "starting seeing motorcyclists" and other educational campaigns. I think bicycling needs to capitalize on that movement, maybe find a way to include bicycles in sharing the road and being seen. There is more here than can be covered in comments....

Guitar Ted said...

@ All: Thanks for reading! I appreciate the comments.....

@Wally Kilburg: I don't advocate for the elimination of cars, or even for reducing their use by say- 50%, (although I think that is a reasonable goal) What I am saying is that this runs deeper than the obvious. It is psychological, spiritual, and an ingrained thing that need not be, and is, to my mind, detrimental to our collective well being.

If people would see that they don't "have to", that there are optional, valid reasons to choose motivating oneself from one point to another by something else other than one person in one car, then we have made progress.

That is what this is about.

Wally said...

Sharing the road will require a change in mindset among the drivers. Alcohol use has been curbed because driving programs have incorporated the dangers into their driver safety programs. As mentioned, motorcycling has benefited as well from such efforts. I think you need to ingrain this thought of sharing the roads coupled with the idea that bicycling is more than a hobby at as early a stage as possible.

I live outside Chicago and ride the roads locally. Its scary but I've been doing it too with my motorcycles for over 17 years. I know some people go out of their way to give no quarter to anything with two wheels and our courts and enforcement officers also view motorcycles and bicycles much differently often saying you are asking for it if you ride either. Similar to your views posted earlier. When the law won't even consider us seriously, it shows you how far we really have to go to change this mindset.

Wally said...

Like I said, there is so much more to this than can be addressed in comments, but to your idea of reducing car use by 50%, or the comment about motivating ones self in some way different from one person in one car, our ingrained psychological detrimental reasoning to car use...there are valid social and economic reasons for much of this use. Our current economy is heavily based on this use and the current economy sucks. Consider how much worse it could be. I wonder then how many true bicyclists would still be pushing for the collective well being when they can't afford their lifestyles? People tend to care more about themselves now than ever; screw their neighbor. When push comes to shove let someone else pay the price, save me. We have to address that sort of thing. There is a lot of work to be done GT.

Tom said...

Here in NC, many of our State universities prohibit Freshmen from having cars on campus. I remember that year as being stressful for a lot of my friends as they had never had to walk more than the length of the mall in a given day. After years of Scouting, I found it to be no big deal.

Several schools have successfully started programs where they will give incoming freshmen a bike if they sign a pledge to not use their car on campus that year. I don't recall which school, but one reported that the entire program for 1 year cost less than the creation of 3 new parking spaces.

Ted, this is great stuff you are writing. We (the USA) have to do something to start taking back our young folks from the commercial Auto/Pharma/Fastfood industries that have enslaved them in the last 30 years.