Twisted Metal and Leaving Car Culture

I was in a spectacular car crash. Roads were deceptively slick from an overnight storm. A white Civic speeds alongside and darts suddenly in front of me, leaving inches. Then his brake lights come on. I cut right to avoid hitting him. My wheels go bald, my car skidding left into his with a sound like a crumpling tin can. His car careens left, slamming into the median. Mine slides right, out into the river — almost. A few pieces of well-placed wire keep me from going in face-first. (I guess we have Robert Moses to thank for something after all.) I walk away, but the car is totaled.

After the adrenaline of the accident wears off, panic sets in. I’m without a car for the first time since high school. Sure, I’ve taken public transit for long stretches before, but there was always the car out back just in case. Sayonara safety net.

And suddenly the amount of pro-car propaganda arriving by mail turns from a trickle to a flood. Since my car became a twisted heap, I’ve found myself awash in shiny brochures from everyone from Mercedes to Hummer to Hyundai. Heck, even my insurance company sent me a brochure with details of their “best rate” auto loans. Why were they all so sure I wanted a new car? That’s car culture. Even if you don’t need one, you want one.

Instead of running out to fill that auto void, though, I decided to go cold turkey. It wasn’t easy. My commute ballooned from 30 minutes to an hour thirty in each direction, and the up-front cost went from $15 a week to $30 a day. Going carless takes planning and cold hard cash. (Transit subsidy, anyone?) Plus, it just feels strange.

And it’s that lifelong programming that still has me subconsciously shopping for parking spaces a month later. What does that say about the creep of the almighty auto into our collective psyche? But things have gotten better, too. No more dealing with obnoxious drivers for an hour a day, no more traffic jams, no more worrying about the next car repair or getting a ticket. But my biggest worry driving a car has always been the ever looming possibility that you might seriously hurt or kill someone — someone who just happens to wander out into the street at the wrong moment: a kid chasing a ball, an adult who misreads a crosswalk sign. That anxiety is behind me, too.

As if to punctuate my first month of auto abstinence, World Car Free Day was this weekend. It’s nice to be on the right side of that equation for once, even if it started off against my will. And GM’s workers added their own inadvertent nod by walking off the job yesterday. Friday also saw the return of parking spaces to nature via Park(ing) Day. Signs from above, no? Well, at least I’ll take it that way.

image by jae lee

4 Responses to “Twisted Metal and Leaving Car Culture”

  1. 1 Ralph Beilstein

    I own a white Honday Civic Hatchback that is approaching the end of its life. Recently, my plate sticker fees and insurance came due. I must say there was some thought put towards what else I might have done with the money. Just imagine what will happen if I decide to trade it in. If someone else kept a tally of all the money I spend on my car and showed me, I’m not sure I could handle it. Was is worth all the money? Sometimes yes, but I believe if there was an alternative, I would do without the car. Maybe I just don’t see that there is one right now. Everyone, if they drive or not also pays for cars. There isn’t much about it that is free enterprise. Cars need highways, and highways need government who needs money. Maybe we should consider planning the beginning of the end of the car culture.

  2. 2 Jason

    Thanks for the story, Ralph. I had similar thoughts before my car disappeared. I would love to see us plan the end of car culture. It seems like the auto is so entrenched that many folks flip when you threaten to take it away. It’s like you’re threatening to remove their freedom or a child. Sometimes I think we should really force more Americans to travel and see that places that aren’t so car dependent do indeed function and function beautifully.

  3. 3 Tracee

    That sounds like a harrowing way to give up your car. Frightening. I’m glad you’re ok!

    Ever since I started working at home, I’ve really started looking at my car differently. I still use it every day to drive a mile and a half to pick up Max from daycare. Eliminating the drive to work makes me look at the mile and a half to daycare a little differently… and my car in general. I’ve not taken car of my car the way I used to (the driver’s side window is somehow broken but stuck in the closed position). Ordinarily, I would have this fixed, but now… why? for a mile and a half drive?

  4. 4 Jason

    Thanks, Tracee! Yeah, it was pretty crazy.

    I know what you mean about the car taking on a different role. Ever since I moved to NYC, I viewed mine a little differently. Being around all those folks who only ever need to take the subway to get to work probably had something to do with that. :-)

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