walkinginfo.org -> part of the pedestrian and bicycle information center
sitemap about us links join email list ask us a question
  search     go to bicyclinginfo.org
community problems and solutions design and engineering digital library education and enforcement health and fitness insight transit research and development rails and trails policy and planning pedestrian crashes news and events outreach and promotion
insight home

features & articles
car culture
: page 1
: page 2
: page 3
: page 4

PBIC Currents

fact sheets

find a ped/bike coordinator

ped/bike websites

who's who in the walking world


Features & Articles : Car Culture

page: 1 2 3 4

The Way We Were
We can't look back at these decades without thinking of the cars that guided us through them, our collective memories tangled with that of a prized Bel-Air, a double-finned Thunderbird, a dangerously cool Corvair, Herbie the Love Bug, the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, Knight Rider's KITT. I wasn't born until the mid-Seventies (just after the gas crisis, in fact), but I have my own nostalgia cars: the 65 Dodge Dart GT with Slant Six engine that I just sold, the bright orange Volvo station wagon my friends' mother drove, my grandfather's El Camino and also his lemon yellow Volkswagen, another grandfather's old green Ford truck, the Chevy Nova my mom drove 'til its bitter overheated end. (My father, as you might guess, never held on to a car long enough for me to form a real attachment.)

However, unlike many kids growing up today, my automobile memories are dwarfed by those of roaming through our town and woods every day, by walking home from school with my friends, biking to the store and swimming pool. In her book Asphalt Nation, The Nation architecture and planning critic Jane Holtz Kay cites a study which pitted the lives of ten-year-old children living in an unwalkable southern California suburb against those of children growing up in a walkable small town in Vermont. The researchers found that the California children watched four times as much television as did the Vermont children. Their inside world was simply much more inviting than the unsafe outdoors.

Are today's kids going to wax nostalgia about the sight of a clogged highway as seen from the backseat of the minivan? Of eating dinner in Mom's SUV? I sure hope not. But that seems to be the way we're headed. As a child I remember being enchanted by displays of custom vans with beds, televisions, and mini-bars. At that time, that kind of excess was rare, as novelty and foreign to me as a bubbling jacuzzi in a stretch limousine.

Living Rooms on Wheels
"Cars have gotten too comfortable," fumes septuagenarian Ina Evans of Chapel Hill, N.C. "I recently read an advertisement for a car with chintz seats. Chintz seats! I thought it was a living room."

For many of us, that's exactly what cars have become.

More than an SUV, it's an office on wheels. With a power outlet located in the dash, center console box and rear cargo area, you can connect your fax machine. Plug in your laptop. Then tell your assistant in the back to hold all calls.

A vehicle so large, it has two separate climates... You must admit those heated front seats are quite inviting after yet another corporate takeover.

       —Ad copy for the 2000 Lexus 470

The Lexus is one of the most egregious examples of car comfort. But many drivers would not consider its amenities the least bit outrageous. Cars have always been vehicles for dozens of things other than their intended purpose.

We live in our cars. We blast music and listen to books and the news. We try to learn languages. We rehash the day's events-- or try to forget them. We talk on the phone: we conduct business. We chat. We argue. We eat and drink. We shop. We check our e-mail. And- oh yeah- we drive.

In Atlanta, Ga., a city notorious for its out-of-control sprawl, commuters spend an median time of 31 minutes in their car every day, more than any other large city on the planet. Some people spend more time in their vehicles than they do with their families.

And at what cost? By some estimates we average upwards of $6000 yearly to own and operate an automobile.

Every second we drive 60,000 miles, use 3,000 gallons of petroleum products and dump 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the amount of energy used and waste procuced to manufacture 15 million vehicles a year is not well documented. We give over half our cities to roads and parking lots.

       —Jane Holtz Kay, "Overheated Car Culture"

Only every so often do we stop and consider the impact that car culture has on our planet. Environmental awareness really took hold in the 1970s when cars formed huge centipede-like lines at the gas pumps during that decade's fuel crisis. It caused some Americans to opt for more fuel-efficient vehicles- for a while at least. But when money is aplenty and gas prices are cheap- which, until this spring was the case- it's easy for many of us to ignore the environmental organizations and others who point to statistics about the damage caused by our automobile dependency.

next page:  The SUV...much maligned and much admired...