We are in the midst of a reconsideration of the automobile. Cities experimenting with carless downtowns make the rounds on social media every few weeks, to a chorus of “why don’t we do this?” Urbanists trace a significant portion of the problems with American cities back to the mass adoption of the automobile in the ’50s and ’60s, when neighborhoods across the country were torn down to make room for highways, and land use considerations started to feel the inexorable squeeze of parking requirements. Activists pushing for government action against climate change frequently point out that even the electric vehicles out of Elon Musk’s most Space Age dreams are a far less efficient and environmentally friendly solution than investment in mass transit. Journalists have begun beating the drum about the degree to which traffic design and growing vehicle sizes cause an increasing number of preventable pedestrian and cyclist casualties.
At a more visceral level than the chattering commentariat’s reasonings, many people are fed up with cars — or at least with aspects of our collective dependency on them. Gas price increases are difficult to mitigate when your access to work depends on a car. A year or two of remote work taught many how much of their life was lost to the daily commute. And the type of physical community that an automobile-centric society tends to spawn is most notable for the at once alienating and suffocating ennui it produces. In practical terms, the anti-car coalition is still a small boat pushing against the great current of political and bureaucratic inertia. But even in theoretical terms, there is notable dissent.
Insofar as there has been pushback to the great reconsideration, its most persuasive forms have focused on the emotional significance of the automobile. Ari Schulman writes movingly in these page [“GPS and the End of the Road,” Spring 2011] of the degree to which the increasingly digital driving experience — soon to be complete with the advent of driverless cars — threatens both our mastery of and sensitivity to the road: “location awareness and augmented reality, paired with GPS navigation, transmit us to these interesting places with the minimum possible requirement of effort and attention paid to the boring places that intervene. We can get where we’re going, and see what we want to see, without having to look.” Matthew Crawford’s most recent book, Why We Drive, posits that the mechanical mastery, agency, and negotiation of shared space involved in driving, or at least good driving, form a kind of school for democracy. Ross Douthat, in a recent New York Times piece titled “What Driving Means for America,” goes further. The car and the ability to drive it are one of the few near-universal rituals of independence and self-direction, of an entrée granted into the adult world. And they are on the decline: “That anxious, hopeless sense seems particularly widespread among younger Americans, the same group retreating from car culture, refusing or delaying the licenses that their parents and grandparents so eagerly obtained.”
Gen Z is at risk of stalling out, in the immortal words of Clueless, as a bunch of virgins who can’t drive.
It is a testament to the powerful mystique of cars that appeals to their intangible goods can be made at all. No matter how much you hate them, it is impossible not to see the scene rising up before your eyes: the rusted and busted ‘70s Ford F-100, rolling down a road that disappears in an unbroken stretch into the horizon, while the mountains of Wyoming or the deserts of New Mexico roll by. The windows are down. There is one person at the wheel, and perhaps a dog.
This picture has been reproduced and paid tribute in film, in song, in novels and essays and, perhaps most importantly, commercials. It is irresistible. It also gets at the contradiction at the heart of the car’s socio-emotional role in American life. The license is indeed an important rite of passage into adulthood, especially in places where the car’s status as the premier socially imposed technology — followed by the credit card and the smartphone — is especially coercive. The car is also a powerful vessel of mystique.
But the logic of the car mystique and the social function of a rite of passage pull in opposite directions. Yoked together, they form an unstable chimera. In the context of a rite of passage, the mythic lone driver on the desert road becomes the wild youth, hemmed in by the city and adult expectations, desperate to escape in Tracy Chapman’s proverbial fast car. The road ballad quickly becomes the car wreck anthem.
In fairy tales, the magical age of 16 tends to signify your readiness for adventure. You can be married off, ascend the throne, go in search of your lost father, start talking to geese who answer in riddles. In America, whose fairytale dreamtime is the ‘50s, you can get your license. You can get behind the wheel, a combustible mixture of potency and vulnerability.
“Everybody’s going nowhere slowly / They’re only fighting for the chance to be last / There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, baby / But we should be going nowhere fast” writes Jim Steinman, perhaps the premier bard of the car wreck. This verse is at the heart of the car crash ballad — the youth whose precise excess of potency and vigor sets him at odds with social norms, with prudence, rendering him ultimately pathetic and poignant. In contrast to accepted modes of negotiating mortality at the quotidian level — “fighting for the chance to be last” — the youth vulnerable to the car wreck is willing to go anywhere, as long as it’s fast. The flames are the glory. The best car romances are about its annihilation.
Even the happier moments of the youthful car romance — the Beach Boys’ odes to driving around picking up girls, endless summer — share a theme with the flaming wreck of the Jim Steinman song. It is the possibility of freezing time, whether through an endlessly extended moment of carefree delight, or the premature arrest of its passage in a catharsis of destruction.
The original and primary ideal of the car, the Ford barreling along the endless New Mexico highway, also bears traces of this theme. Time is most relevant in the world of human construction, of enduring objects and social institutions built by human hands and human networks. Human life is segmented by the structures that you enter and leave, by the sight of others growing and aging, by the gaze of others watching you hit milestones that come only once. In the desert there are only the stars. You do not decay so much as mummify.
Time and space are the axes of the social as well as physical world, and it is true that the acquisition of a driver’s license does in fact give you the ability to direct your movements in space in a new way, or certainly at a new rate. Douthat points out that the car allows you to know your home in a different way: In the freedom from the predetermined routes of public transit and in the need for active navigation, you will see and know more of your country than the un-carbureted life allows.
“There’s still no feeling quite like the moment when the snarls of traffic and the dense-packed buildings fall away and you enter space that feels unmanaged, unscrutinized, independent and anonymous, with roads leading almost anywhere, north, south and west,” Douthat writes. It is “a tonic for anxiety, an easily available antidote to the sense that the world is pure chaos, beyond anyone’s control.” This hopeless feeling is especially acute among the younger Americans who, as it happens, are not driving much anymore.
Insofar as all this is true, I am a part of the stalled-out generation. I received my license only a few months ago, and have yet to buy a car or do any real driving. I should, in theory, be looking back with regret on a lifetime of passivity, of a failure to test my own powers in unpredictable situations. I should be breaking out of the cocoon of self-imposed isolation, ready to compensate for years of immobility with a new zest for engagement with the world. And while it is true that I look forward to borrowing a truck to pick up a bison in Montana or a busted-up refrigerator in Spokane, in my day-to-day round I find myself overwhelmingly content with my first technology of independence: my legs. I cannot remember a time when I was not walking everywhere I could, but the most distinct memories begin around eight, around my home at the edge of an East Coast city.
Up and down the main drag, constrained on a weekend only by the endurance of my sturdy little legs, I’d go up to Bella Italia, the unkillable pizza and hoagie place with pictures of Padre Pio all over the walls. My parents sometimes took us there for special occasions. How much more delicious to scrounge up the exact change for an order of fries, to sit on peeling vinyl licking the salt and the blistering hot golden grease off my fingers — a savagery never permitted at home — watching the pedestrian traffic out the window, the soccer on the corner TV, the staff shoving pizzas into the oven with the jerky, dancing efficiency of practiced movement in confined spaces. They were kind to me when I counted out the price in nickels.
Then on to Harry’s, the junk shop that seemed, to a child’s eyes, interminable. There were dark caverns leading into dark caverns, filled with a hoard — glass bottles, neon signs, elaborate iron bottle openers in the shape of mermaids — it would take a hundred years to catalog. Harry himself had a thick, greased side-part and a bushy moustache partially obscuring a red face. He let me browse unattended and unbothered.
There was the horologist, a shop and profession dimly redolent to me of Old World courtesy and fabergé eggs. There was Nick’s Tailor Shop. I liked to watch him through the shop window bent over his sewing machine, his moustache quivering with concentration. Later, I would bring him threadbare wisps of chiffon whose heyday had been 1933, scrounged from the thrift store down the block. English was not sufficient to his fury at the absurdity, the criminal folly and impossibility, of what I was asking him to do. The Sicilian dialect of his youth gave some vent to his feelings, he shouted himself scarlet at me for a few minutes, and then mended the decrepit silks for free.
There were other destinations, other trips — the supermarket, the church, the library, the basketball courts and public pool, the park, the other library, the other park, and later and illegally, bars. But mostly, I walked to walk, free and friendly, twisting and turning, delighting in the Persian carpet emporium and shabby brick twin alike.
Some walks went badly. Once I was hit by a car in the crosswalk. Once, almost twenty years earlier, a man tried to lure me into his car. I bit him and ran into a shop until he left. This is, of course, every parent’s fear in allowing their child the run of the open street, but on my end I do not regard it as a disaster. I learned that confrontation with evil is sickening rather than exciting. I learned more on a practical level: That there were dangers on the street, and I could defend myself from them — with my teeth, but more importantly with the goodwill of my neighbors. The evil of the predator was exceptional, the safety of the open shop door was normal.
It was impossible not to develop a habit of watching people under these conditions, but it is not a one-way exchange. The people I saw on the street showed up in church, in my home, in the bars where I had my first jobs, and later my first drinks. You could never simply observe from a distance. You were in it with them, up to your neck.
There have been other streets, other places over the years: New Hampshire, New York, Paris, Tbilisi, Mexico, Idaho — a world prised open by the oyster knife of a willingness to walk.
Lately, I have been getting to know a different set of neighbors on my walks. Oregon-grape, yarrow, aster, salmonberry, nootka rose, golden currant, snowberry, mock-orange: plants that grow wild and domestic where I live, as characteristic, once you can see it, as any architecture. It takes time to see it, walking the same routes, casting your eye into the crannies only visible at close quarters, beginning to notice the same recurring spiky dark leaves, seeing the seasons change in the proliferation of delicious, tart red rosehips where blossoms used to be.
In a car you can go anywhere you want, as long as there’s a road, and you can see all there is to see, as long as it’s visible through your car window. But you are never much more than a spectator of the world beyond the road, interacting with others within narrow parameters and strictly qua driver, insulated from the movements and lives of others, and from the full layered variety of ways their pursuit of their own ends can interact with yours. Vistas flash before your eyes, but the crannies of close quarters and unhurried time do not. You see — you don’t participate. And in the kind of societies in which cars predominate, in which the acquisition of a car really is the fundamental way in which we direct our own movements and our own lives, there tends to be less and less to participate in.
Adulthood, as something conferred or wrested rather than a mere fact of endocrinal change, is a matter of the social cosmos. It involves being seen — and being seen in a new way — by erstwhile superiors and newly created peers. It carves out a place in what Hannah Arendt calls the “shared world.” All rites of passage into maturity are profoundly, inevitably, social. But the allure of the car is not. Its sun is the retreat into the desert, where a man is either a beast or a God; its moon is doomed Achilles, nowhere to go and getting there fast.
An adulthood worth ritualizing is not mere independence but the ability to direct oneself within the consortium, and to eventually participate in directing it. It requires a type of movement at once more free and open-ended, and less powerful and armored, than the car offers. It is not to become the atom, but one of the fully vested electrons within the human atom, buzzing around and ceaselessly knocking against each other, giving form to the world.