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Lonely in traffic

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Monday, Dec 8, 2008

This is something to consider as the U.S. prepares to bailout its hapless auto industry. Jon Garvie reviews Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic for the TLS and highlights some of the problems with car culture that Vanderbilt elucidates. Driving allows us to travel faster than the speed of human thought while expecting us to interpret the intentions of the other people we must interact with while traveling. Unable to communicate and process what is happening fast enough, we outsource our conscientiousness to the system of signs, a textbook case of moral hazard. Our trust in the system belies the real dangers. And the signs seem to supplant our need to recognize the humanity and frailty of other drivers—it’s as though the signs do it for us and take them into account. “A line of vehicles crawling along congested roads at 20 miles per hour imitates nature. That speed is the maximum at which even Olympians can run. It is also the limit beyond which humans cannot maintain eye contact and other, vital, non-verbal forms of communication.” At higher speeds, we can no longer comprehend one another. The faster we go, the more isolated we become.


Though we experience driving as freedom (when there is no traffic, that is, to remind us of other people’s wills), driving nonetheless requires great amounts of coordination and cooperation; it’s probably one of the last things we should go into expecting to be liberated from the hassles of other people. In our car-fostered feelings of isolation, interpersonal mores no longer seem to apply and we regard it as alone time—“me time.” Meanwhile, we should feel terrified:


In order to absorb the gulf between the risk of death and the reward of a trip to the supermarket, we require elaborate coping strategies. Economists have suggested that a dagger attached to the steering wheel and pointed at the driver’s chest would represent an automobile’s “negative externalities” accurately. Instead, we have tended to buy SUVs (more likely to crash than smaller cars), with airbags and computerized gizmos which provide illusions of control. Often, while driving, we eat, text, talk, or drink as if to quell the panic which similarly dangerous situations produce.



In spite of all the danger, we cling to our cars in America and insist upon their overriding convenience, and the independence they allegedly supply. We transform them into overriding status signifiers, emblems of our autonomy. Garvie cites Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 30 can count himself a failure in life,” which I certainly experienced as truth when I lived in Arizona. If I told someone I rode the bus, they would assume I was either joking or was on some sociological do-gooder mission to see how losers live. This kind of attitude becomes a near-insuperable barrier to change. Grown-up people I knew in Tucson truly believed that it was “impossible” for them to ride the bus. Not only did they not know how it could be done, where the stops were or how to get a schedule, but it struck them as a physical impossibility—they would just as soon jump off the roof and start to fly to their destination. And I basically felt the same way. I had a car, because that is what you did as a middle-class adult. Anything else would be making a statement, and I just didn’t have the energy or the investment to be constantly making that statement as I went about my life, let alone the hours to waste on the inferior mode of transit. I wasn’t going to burn a few hours getting to and from the grocery store.


But the independence implied by the car way of life, the class privilege it seems to codify and attribute to our own pluck or inborn entitlement, is illusory, since in reality, of course, it requires a massive infrastructure to allow us to get our motors running and head out on the highway. Politics must direct public funding in that direction, presumably at the expense of more social and collective modes of transit. And this infrastructure makes possible further isolating modes of signifying class—suburbans detached homes, yards, exurbs, etc.


Perhaps that movement to protect ourselves from the terror of everyday life by embracing a faux convenience happens more generally—that we try desperately to relabel alienation, anomie, angst (the three A’s of late-stage capitalism) as something more amenable, or even something we regard as positively beneficial. “It’s so awesome that I have so little human connection in my life—fewer interruptions while I am watching TV!” Convenience (generally the avoidance of hassling with others) is often the recompense for social isolation. Every moment we experience as convenient, then, is a disguised moment of terror.

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