The War on Cars

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 21 1998 3:30 AM

The War on Cars

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       The problems associated with automobile use are not a figment of the imagination of some supposed snooty elite of irrational car-haters. Rather, these problems, and the issues they raise, go directly to the question of what it means to be civilized.
       In the past century, we have transformed the human ecology of America, from sea to shining sea, into a national automobile slum. This is the terminology we must use to understand what has happened to us. Chiefly, we have degraded that portion of our everyday world which belongs to everybody, the public realm. The public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good, and by degrading it we consequently degrade our ability to conceive of the common good or the public interest--or to solve many of our abiding social problems. The result, in plain English, is that we have created thousands of places in America that are not worth caring about, and these will soon add up to a nation--and a way of life--that is not worth defending.
       I would quarrel with many of your assertions, but I would begin by challenging your general point of view, which is one of simplistic quantification. Many of the problems posed by car use concern the quality of our lives and of the greater culture we are a part of, and they do not lend themselves to understanding by mere statistical analysis or bean-counting.
       For instance, the debate about cars in America has revolved mainly around the issue of air pollution. It is easy to count the number of carbon particles in a cubic foot of air and determine whether the air is dirty or not. It is not so easy to quantify the social and cultural damage that is being done to children who live in an everyday world that they cannot use without the assistance of the family chauffeur (i.e., Mom). Children older than, say, 7 need more than a place to ride their bikes. They need shops, cultural institutions, and a public realm worth caring about--the berm between the Kmart and the Rite Aid is not good enough--and they need access to all these things on their own. In short, this is how children develop a sense of their personal sovereignty, of their ability to use their everyday world. The car-centered living dystopia of suburbia deprives them of this stage of development. A discussion of problems such as this ought to be at the center of our debate about car use. But our bean-counting methodology does not permit it.
       Your view of the nature of the city is consistent with many of the delusions, confusions, and misunderstandings now prevalent in our culture: Basically, we reject the city altogether as an unworthy human ecology. As a matter of fact, the city is the dwelling place of civilization. It is indispensable. Suburban sprawl has become the normal human ecology of America. Suburban sprawl is not country life but a cartoon of country life. It is not an adequate substitute for a human ecology that includes both the city and the country, and a culture that is able to make a distinction between the two.

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