Car-Dependent or Addicted to Driving?

I just finished reading a book about reversing our addition to alcohol.  The Easy Way to Stop Drinking, by Allan Carr, the Brit who owns a string of schools that give his EasyWay course on quitting smoking, is very interesting.  He contends that there are no drinkers who have full control of their drinking, and that is because of the ‘brainwashing’ adults in our society are exposed to which make drinking seem beneficial.   It made me, a champion of ‘alternative’ transportation, and for 16 years, a person who lives ‘car-lite,’ (which means without a ‘resident’ car), salivate with the thoughts that there might be a way to get people to eschew their car-wanton ways.

If the automobile had been introduced in urban areas first, and if the bicycle had not made auto-mobility popular first, we might have seen the talents of Daimler-Benz, Ford, Olds, Panhard, and Sloan aimed towards replacing the trams of cities, instead of the much more challenging job of building a consumer product that required individuals to a) lay out a quite large sum of money (long before consumer credit), and b)  take on the chores and responsibilities of teamsters, the people who drove us and our goods around, and tended to the skittish creatures that pulled the wagons.

As far as I can tell, cars provide only three benefits over walking: a) faster speeds, b) greater capacity to carry cargo, and c) the ability to shut out the ‘elements’ (both weather and various ‘undesirables’).   It took awhile for designers and engineers to achieve much of an advantage, and it was not all that apparent at that time that any of these things were that important.  Distances were not that great, as people lived in compact communities with transit; when one had to carry something big enough to call ‘carge,’ one called for a cartage service; and they never really considered shutting out the weather and ‘undesirables were a fact of life, and everyone learned ways to minimize their intrusions.  Ford wisely aimed at the rural market, providing a tool that could power many farm functions, as well as take the family and surplus farm products, to the nearest town with rail service.  Cars in cities were only toys.

What Carr makes clear in his book is that alcohol’s unique quality — to reduce the sensations from the body — was interpreted by those promoting it to be an advantage.  It was used over the ages, long before their were businesses built on peddling it, to escape depressing conditions, at least for awhile.  Sometimes the experience gave the imbibers insights to their problems so they could be solved, but too often, they were left with only a hangover, and an attitude that things were not that bad, after all.  Yes, alcohol makes things worse,  but it provides the unique capability of providing a way to avoid seeing that reality.

Driving cars does much the same thing.  Car-dependency is specifically a reference to cars creating longer distances in our lives, distances that are most easily overcome by — what else! — more use of the car.  Likewise, using a car to transport one’s store purchases has caused the stores to stop providing (free or at any price) delivery services — and we have much more residential space per person in order to store the many more items we each own.  And as to ‘undesirables,’ the massive use of cars has reduced the safety of public places, both the consequences of irresponsible use of driving force and the opportunities for those wanting to rob or attack others to do so.  Driving creates conditions that more driving is uniquely positioned to protect us from — albeit not to solve.

It is that theme of dealing with feelings that I addressed in my 1997 paper, “Using our Feet To Reduce Our Footprint.”  I suggested that modern times has plagued us with a new illness: resentment.  The world of large-scale institutions and experts makes us feel that we have no control, and that we are insignificant.  This emotion, like all of the rest, is a motivator, urging us toward a resolution, avoiding resignation.  The appropriate resolution is to either increase out own potency to be a ‘big fish in a big pond,’ or to re-situate our life to find a ‘pond’ where we can be sufficiently efficacious to meet our needs (hearth-health is dedicated to getting this right).   Drinking is one way to make us feel OK with this state of affairs, but so is driving.

I identified seven ‘rewards’ we give ourselves — or sometimes accept from others, usually the very parties that control us;  and numbing our feelings, as alcohol does, is only one of them.  The others are: controlling others, risking one’s assets, impressing others, touching ‘greatness,’ escaping pressures and boredom, and diverting our attention.   Faith Popcorn pointed to another when she introduced the idea of ‘small indulges.’  Drinking is useful as a reward provider, but not as much as owning and driving a car.

Society has devised the greatest means of scrutiny of driving and owning a car than for just about anything else, including drinking in Ontario.   And for good reason; cars kill and main, and their high value and mobility demand state protection.

Driver accountability, for most of the device’s first hundred years, consisted mostly of fear of being seen doing unseemly things with our car in the heart of our community; but that has diminished both due to the lack of any ‘eyes on the street’ (provided mostly by pedestrians and residents looking out from their homes or yards) and the realization by drivers that most of their driving is done in places where they enjoy blissful anonymity (thanks in part to police not caring about citizens’ reports of drivers acting badly).

Congestion is an increasing problem, but the carmakers have made it less apparent, thanks to layering on many amenities that allow the car to be almost as much fun to be in while stopped as while traveling the maximum speed limit (plus the guaranteed police tolerance of another 20%).  These features and accessories can easily increase the base price of the vehicle by 50-70%, all of which have higher profit margins than the base car, a fact that further reflects the ‘small indulgences’ aspect of rewards.

If we look at the ultra-rich, we see the old pre-auto practices still in place: these people are driven to various destinations blithely ignoring the excitement of moving in what are usually very ho-hum traffic conditions, reading a newspaper or being pampered by a staff member in the backseat.   They don’t worry about the road conditions, about where to park, or about what is making a funny noise from under the hood.  They use cars to get places, and don’t confuse driving in traffic with any personal rewards at all.  If they want to ever drive, they use a different car that they store at a private race track where they can have the road to themselves for a couple hours at a time.  Their chauffeured car impresses, but does so anonymously, since the tinted rear windows mask their identity, and they would never use a vanity plate to take credit for their pampering opulence.

Since I am a proponent of not just living car-lite but of a vision for the future where the self-driven urban traveler is relegated to bicycles and what I call ‘bringhies,’ I would like to start a movement of people trying to quit driving, and cease their serial purchases of cars.   Like Carr, I need to find the ‘hooks’ that the industry and society use to get us to want dearly to do both, and unmask them, so completely that each person experiencing my lecture will want to join me and bring common sense to our population and community to our cities and towns, once again.

Maybe Carr would like my new slogan: “Don’t Drink OR Drive!”

Any thoughts on how to do this?

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