[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Living in an Automobile Culture
The automobile dependent society that we find ourselves living in is not logical because people will not walk or bicycle even short distances but maintain an unhealthy sedentary lifestyle.
Questions Why should motorists be pitied? Does a car protect the occupants from air pollution? Why do people work so hard to have an automobile? Why do motorists say that bicycle travel is impractical? How do they underestimate the cost of operating a motor vehicle? How do they explain away the effects of a sedentary lifestyle? Why are they so upset by talk about global warming? Why is their sedentary dependency destructive of the environment? Were people always dependent on vehicles? How recently has the change to automobile dependency happened in some areas? Why were streetcars in many ways a better solution? Are Europeans as sedentary as we are? How was an ancient king kept helpless? How are modern consumers being pushed into dependency? Why was Henry Ford so strongly opposed to the streetcar? What is the cultural reason for auto dependency? What is wrong with a new car? What are the only prices the motorists react to? How have we been making the auto a necessity? Do people really enjoy driving? What reckless behaviors do they engage in? What senseless rituals are part of the automobile culture? What excuses to they find for not walking or cycling? How would walking and riding a bicycle help them? Why wouldn't I want to live without a bike? Has there been a period in the US of great cultural change? Why will people hang on to their love for the gas guzzlers? Why do we have to oppose them?


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Living in an Automobile Culture

Bob Pickett wrote: The people shut inside those cocoons (autos) with the artificial air fanned on them and rigidly subject to traffic controls are to be pitied. They have access to so little of the outdoors, even though such access may have once been the impetus for owning an auto.

Cary Weitzman wrote: This makes me think of one of the more bizarre excuses people come up with for not commuting to work by bike instead of car, "What about all the car exhaust? I wouldn't want to be out there in the open with all those fumes." As if the air in cars is somehow magically purified by the act of being sucked in somewhere up near the front grille (near the exhaust of the car in front of them) and run through the air conditioning or heating system.

Bill Yoder wrote: My favorite excuse of my high school students for not having time to do their homework is "I have to go to work." When asked why they have to go to work, it's "I have to pay for my car." When asked why they have to have a car, it's "I have to get to work." It's hard to defeat such circular logic. Too many kids are hooked on cars at age 16, and live the remainder of their lives enslaved by the concept of "freedom of the road."

Note: this essay contains only parts of my original reply plus a lot more written since.

People defend using automobiles instead of bicycles for traveling short distances by saying that bicycling is too dangerous or too difficult, ignoring the danger and difficulties brought about by the car. They pretend that car travel is no more expensive than the cost of filling the gasoline tank, thus ignoring the long hours they spend working to make payments on the car and its insurance. They ignore or deny the air pollution problems caused by autos, or they assume that the car protects them from exhaust fumes (a recent study has found that the air is more polluted inside the vehicle than outside). One know-it-all on the web suggested that auto exhaust was now so clean that it couldn't be used to commit suicide! (You know what my suggestion to him was! ) They ignore or accept as normal the health problems caused by their sedentary behavior, explaining that the ability of cyclists to get to work by bike comes from super-human ability. And they desperately deny that global warming exists or that man has caused it because they don't wish to change their own behavior. In fact, even those motorists who recognize that global warming is a real problem are still waiting for someone else to solve that problem.

While living in my parents' house since the death of my father, I have spent many mornings hiking the same woods I inhabited as a boy, although the woods have mostly been destroyed within the city park in order to grow grass. I notice that only a few older people are ever seen walking around the neighborhood and, even though the park has scenic views of a waterfall and gorge, I encounter relatively few hikers. However, the hillsides further back in the woods have been badly eroded, in some areas down to the bare rock, from four-wheelers being driven up and down them, and my old hiking trails have become roadways. Gradually, I have recognized that the people largely responsible for this destruction are my parents' younger neighbors. A three-mile hike or ten-mile bicycle ride is something they can't conceive of doing, but spending several hours tearing up the wooded hillside is right up their alley. No one could ever pretend that this kind of activity is inexpensive, kind to the environment, or even healthy.

How did people become so dependent on motorized transportation? If we believe television and movies, every American family before the car had a horse and wagon or had horses and saddles for everyone. But this is just our car culture projected backwards. It took too much time and trouble to feed and care for a horse every day (in the Westerns, the horse can magically travel for days without food), so most people lived in towns where they could walk to all their destinations. Walking long distances was not a rare event and was seen as an enjoyable activity.

Some cities were not forced to join the car culture until quite late. In Pittsburgh in the 50's and even the 60's, it was possible to ride a streetcar or walk to every destination and to just use a car for vacation trips. I say "forced" because, in Pittsburgh and other cities, the streetcar routes were discontinued while still quite popular. As a young boy, I walked city streets to school every day, and I never encountered any dangers. My parents thought nothing of walking long distances too. After getting to my grandparents' in Cannonsburg by streetcar, we would walk a mile up a steep hill to their house and then walk to every destination after we got there. Unfortunately, after we moved to Alabama in '55, public transportation was poor and sidewalks absent, so I was the only one who maintained the habit of walking everywhere.

Some people maintain that we are so dependent on automobiles because it is modern times or because of our affluence. However, the rest of the world has never become as auto dependent as we are. In Europe, where wages are as high as in the US, automobiles are involved in less than half of the trips in every country:

European Transportation by Trips, 1988
Country Auto Bicycle Walk Transit
W. Germany 47.6% 09.6% 30.0% 11.4%
France 47.0% 05.0% 30.0% 11.0%
Netherlands 45.0% 29.4% 18.4% 04.8%
Denmark 42.0% 20.0% 21.0% 14.0%
G. Britain 42.0% 04.0% 29.0% 14.0%
Austria 38.5% 08.5% 31.2% 12.8%
Switzerland 38.0% 09.0% 29.0% 19.0%
Sweden 36.0% 10.0% 39.0% 11.0%
Those who wish to deny the significance of these figures say, "Europe is smaller than the US, and people have shorter distances to travel." The first statement is not true unless we include Alaska, and the second statement is true because people in Europe generally don't choose to drive 50 miles to work. In any event, over half of the trips in the US are for distances of less than five miles.

In the past, the people who were dependent on vehicles were the wealthy. Even in cultures with no vehicles, it was often considered wrong for the king's sacred feet to touch the ground, and he was constantly fed, bathed, and otherwise attended to by women, so he became a fat, helpless, unhealthy, and short-lived child. Obviously, the intent was to cripple him as quickly as possible and to keep him as dependent as possible.

In today's culture, a similar effort exists to make the consumer dependent. There's not much profit to be made off of the healthy, self-reliant individual who can solve his own problems. I find I can cook an excellent meal for myself from scratch within 30 minutes and while doing other work at a cost of not much more than a dollar. Yet, many people are absolutely dependent on heat-and-serve food or restaurants, solutions that cost much more, take more time, and don't taste as good.

But transportational dependency can lead to even larger profits. Henry Ford believed in an America in which each family or person would own a car. At the same time, he was absolutely opposed to the use of streetcars, even to the point of insisting on not doing business with any company that received or shipped goods using their services (freight traffic on the streetcar lines was a good source of profit before the depression). What was so wrong with streetcars? Were they inconvenient and expensive? Having spent the first ten years of my life in a city of streetcars, I can report that they were fun to travel on and not nearly the problem of an automobile. There was not the pollution and noise of the buses that replaced them (buses have improved since then). It's true that we had to walk to the streetcar, but we could also get off right at our destination instead of making the long walk from the parking garage. It cost less to take a streetcar than to pay the parking fees. In fact, the cities have finally realized that their costs are lower when people leave the car at home. However, people who leave their automobiles at home reduce the the profits of the automotive companies, and they don't burn gasoline or use tires -- that's why automobile, gasoline, and auto tire companies conspired to destroy the streetcar lines.

I think also that the American culture redefined itself as a culture with a car in every garage and then made a necessity out of using the car even when it was not necessary or even convenient. In Tom Wolfe's story, "The Child by Tiger," we find a car owner before 1914 going to the trouble of using his car to travel a few blocks during an emergency, even though that required his refilling the radiator with boiling water and hand-cranking for fifteen minutes. He could have easily walked a mile in the time it took him to prepare the car to travel a few blocks. But because the event was important, he wanted to show up in the car and look important.

Now days, it costs a year's wages to buy a car, and up to a quarter of the space of the house is taken up by the garage. Yet, when someone has blown a whole year's salary on a new car -- even though there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old one -- everyone comes and congratulates the fool, as if he had won a prize or something!

In newsgroup discussion, the same fool will argue that his car costs him nothing at all except a few dollars to fill the tank now and then. He ignores the car's cost, the portion of his home's cost that went into the garage, the time and money he spends getting it cleaned and serviced, the fact that his trip to work is no faster than if he had ridden a bicycle, and the cost that he, his employer, or the government has to pay for his parking spot. The only thing he reacts to is the price of gasoline going up a nickel! Although the fool denies that the cost of his vehicle is subsidized by one penny and although he maintains that the government is already too big, when the government doesn't promptly do something to lower the price of fuel, he is howling for immediate action to remedy the crisis.

Now days, when people say a car is a necessity, they are really saying that our society has been straining to make it a necessity. The little local businesses have largely dried up and are continuing to disappear due to people's willingness to drive five miles to save a nickel. Indeed, many people prefer to drive the extra five miles even if the price is no lower. The old winding roadways with their gradual grades and low speeds have been replaced with steep, fast, freeway-type roads because people want to drive that five miles a little more impatiently every year. Each year the roadway looks a little more like a race track, and each year it takes a little more courage to become a cyclist.

People insist that they enjoy driving, but I wonder what kind of pleasure they are having. Some drivers spend their time cussing to themselves or yelling and screaming at everyone on the road. I can spot these motorists when I can't hear them because they will break a couple of laws and nearly kill me to pass my bike when I am less than fifty feet from a red light. One three-lane section of road near my parents' home winds up a steep mountainside before turning into a two-lane. This short section has become a desperate race track, with motorists making the sharp, blind turns at speeds 10 mph above the speed limit in order to be the first one up the hill. This driving behavior very much reminds me of walking between classes in junior high school, with all the kids pushing and shoving each other; it was chaos then, it is chaos now, and it's the same people. I have the suspicion that if these people really enjoyed driving that they would be willing to take their time and not endanger themselves and others.

There are ways of driving that indicate illogical behavior. I have already mentioned the person risking my life to beat me to the traffic light. I've also had these people pass me while I was waiting at the line for the light to change and park sideways in front of me, spread out over the pedestrian crosswalk. I have also had motorists come up behind me while I was waiting for a red light to change or while I was slowing down for a stop sign and deliberately pass me without making any attempt to make a legal stop. While slowing down for pedestrians in the crosswalk at the University of Alabama, I've had student motorists behind gun their engines to pass me and the pedestrians at over twice the legal speed while in fact they were required by law to stop. One common type of driver is what I call "Rocket Man." This fool takes deliberate life-threatening risks in order to save seconds. Considering the number of red lights per mile, those seconds would be quickly lost. Much more common -- in fact becoming the norm -- is the Admiral Farragut driver, someone who thinks the speed limit is the minimum speed rather than the maximum speed. A constant habit of driving everywhere at maximum speed probably leads to more motorist deaths than taking deliberate risks. Accompaning the Admiral Farragut driver is the Tailgater. Tailgaters used to be rare but now they are common, and the simple act of stopping for a red light can lead to a wreck. Finally, there are those who just won't take red for an answer. Seven thousand people die every year in the US as a result of these Redlight Runners.

The car culture has several amusing aspects. For instance, I'm sure we have all passed the house that collects cars. First it's half a dozen, then a score, then half a hundred, and then too many to count. Sometimes the cars are all damaged, but sometimes they seem to be mostly operable. We know that this collection is not part of a business because there's no place to work on cars and no customers. A great American past time seems to be stopping along some isolated stretch of road and urinating on the car tires, an activity performed by men who are mostly wearing overalls. We know that this is a man thing because the women never get out to try their skill. And we know it has nothing to do with bladder control because the women are quite capable of waiting until they get home while the men are not. In addition, the men take their time about it and show no desire to hurry on. Another great ritual is washing the car. I say "ritual" because for some this is performed on every pretty Saturday or Sunday afternoon (depending on the person's religion), whether the car is dirty or not. This custom seems to be dying in favor of the drive-through car wash. The most common ritual seems to be the drive-in. For some reason, rather than walking in and having a nice table to eat at or getting a check cashed right away, some people prefer to sit in long lines of cars, all the exhaust pipes going at once while trying to listen to a defective speaker and and trying to talk through a defective microphone. Finally, after 30 minutes of the worst air pollution imaginable, the occupants receive a bag or a cannister, make sure the contents are what they intended, and drive away. Considering the fact that the vehicle engine never stops running and that the throttle is usually set pretty high, it's very likely costing a dollar a minute to wait in line, if one includes the wear and tear on the idling vehicle (one time I let my van idle for twenty minutes because I was afraid the battery would not restart it, and the next week I had to buy a new motor).

It's very hard arguing with people who have brainwashed themselves into making a luxury into a necessity. Having redefined their lives to fit within an automobile world, they now insist that it's impossible to live without a car. They ask, "How could I otherwise make the 100 mile round trip to work?" Well, they could live very comfortably on a job that pays less than the cost of a daily 100 mile car trip. They could enjoy the extra time too. "How could I get all the kids to school?" They have legs, don't they? "How could they get to school in the rain?" I walked to school for 15 years, and I can't remember one time when rain was a major problem. "How can we carry home groceries and other packages?" You have to use a two-ton vehicle every single day because you get groceries once a month? At any rate, not owning a car does not lead to instant starvation and self-deprivation, although they prefer to think that it does. In fact, they will find themselves with extra money and time, and -- if they commute by walking or cycling -- better health.

If someone asked me to give up riding the bike, what would my excuses be? I'd say I didn't want to miss the fresh morning air, the singing of the birds, the great feeling of being alive, the trees and flowers along the way, and the stars at night. Why would anyone want to ride around sealed up? I would also sorely miss the good exercise, as it takes 60 miles per week by bike to get the recommended amount. While spending the same amount of time walking would be almost as good, it would not take me to work or out into the country for a pleasant trip. And if I was forced to buy a car to make up for that transportational lack, I would have to find a higher paying job living somewhere I didn't want to live.

I'm not sure how cultural change occurs, although I witnessed it once. The hippie period was a sudden, unexpected change that has never been properly explained. It's easy to see it as a period of sex and drugs and to ignore deeper changes. In early 1968, a student I knew came back from California with bells on his toes and completely opposed to our materialistic way of life. I thought his behavior outlandish, yet that year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy died, the yippies marched on Chicago, and in another year, there had been a major sea-change in beliefs and appearances, and his behavior and attitudes were the norm and not the exception. Unfortunately, there was a deliberately fuzzy attitude towards what that change was, so most flower children just swapped one set of half-understandings for another and did not really learn to evaluate and remake their culture and their lives. So, very gradually they turned away from their new ideals and got back on the treadmill and back into the rat race.

Whatever your interpretation of the period, it can't be denied that for a brief period, people were more interested in something beyond money and were willing to make considerable sacrifices to achieve that goal. In order to get away from automobile dependency -- that is, back to a non-sedentary lifestyle that creates less pollution -- that's what we will have to do, not because bicycle travel is in itself at all inconvenient, but because everything that could be done to make bicycling difficult or impossible has been done.

I admit that not everyone will ever be converted. Even if every expert acknowledges that global warming is real, even if every doctor tells his patients that they need more exercise, even if city streets are closed to cars, even if speed are reduced to 25 mph everywhere, and even if the cost of owning a car becomes exorbitant from gasoline taxes, parking fees, and other taxes, the American public is going to continue to identify with and to polish their automobiles. Cuba is an example of this. There is no way that something as humble, as practical, as convenient as a bicycle can win their hearts. The warmest spot in people's hearts will always be for that huge, fin-covered, gas-guzzling, shocking pink, 1959 Caddy. And they will forever be angry at us for taking their fun away.

But it's long past time that the human race grew up and started acting like responsible people. Those of us who are mature and responsible have to fight through all of their crap and change the way the world is run.

Or our grandkids won't have a world.


Is Cycling Dangerous?  Shows that the dangers of cycling are overrated while more serious dangers are ignored.

Auto Costs Vs. Bike Costs  Shows how badly the true costs of operating a motor vehicle have been understated.

The Planet of the Bicycles  A humorous look at the clash between the auto culture and the bike culture.


carfree.com Carfree cities past, present, and future. Presents solutions to the problem of the urban automobile.

Cycling Through an American Town  Three stories by Michael Ayers on the future of the automobile.

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