Driving Us Mad

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I recently drove a morning commute for the first time since 1996. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to walk, take the bus, train, or cycle to work or school. Currently, my daughters’ nursery school is about 20 minutes away (the cause of great enmity between my wife and I – now mostly resolved), and it was my turn to drive her there. I came home frustrated and angry – and in disbelief that we’ve decided to set up our urban life in such a de-humanizing way.

While preparing to get into our old Volvo and head out, I fantasized about the commute. I would be driving on a cool September morning, hot coffee in hand, with NPR on the radio and my daughter happily looking out the window. I’d be part of the excitement and hubbub of the day – part of the morning rush. We got in the car, buckled in, and headed out.

Initially, my fantasies played out. I enjoyed the meandering drive from my house to the freeway. There was dew on the car, and or neighborhood seemed fresh. Then, we got on the freeway, and I remembered that commute times do not facilitate courteous driving. As we slung on the freeway, cars rushed at us and wouldn’t let us merge to the left. We were almost directed onto another freeway. I got the bird when I finally forced the issue, using the indicator and relying on the old 240 wagon to push its way over in its trademark dorky, no-nonsense manner. Throughout the drive, motorists tailgated, slammed on their brakes, honked, and exceeded the speed limit. There was a sense of danger and dissatisfaction that permeated the experience. People had looks on their faces that reminded me of what one might see among slot players at a third-rate casino – sheer boredom mixed with hopelessness and misery.

We got to school, and I saw my daughter off. Then I headed back home to get on my bicycle for the short ride to work (I don’t have a parking permit). As I drove home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we are all slaves. Now, we are not slaves, but there is a submission that seems especially acute during drive times – a submission to a system of production and consumption that sustains itself and forms an infinite loop. We herd ourselves to work, consuming fuel, driving cars that cost tens of thousands of dollars, over an automobile-based infrastructure costing tens of millions of dollars, so that we might go to work, make more money, pay taxes that support the infrastructure that makes the commute possible, and earn money so that we might buy more things, like cars and petrol.

I’m being a bit unfair. Our economic system relies on a certain level of conspicuous consumption. But my car commute brought the system into sharp focus. Perhaps, as I do the commute more often, these issues will melt into the background. But I do know that even though I’m riding to work on my bicycle so that I can sit at my desk and do my work, there is an inherent sense of independence, efficiency, sustainability, and freedom that I etch out into my day on the bicycle that I can’t get in a car. Walking is almost as nice. I only wish that more people – perhaps some of the hundreds that I encountered on my motor-commute, might give themselves the chance to feel it.

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3 comments

  1. Beany

    This was simply beautifully written.

    But then I feel the same way, so I suppose you’re simply preaching to the crowd that is me and others like me.

    What surprises me about San Diego is that people just haven’t bothered to think about their mode of transportation. People just get in their car and drive 5 blocks (yes, 5) without any thought. That it hasn’t occurred to anyone that bicycling is a very viable mode of transportation. I find that to be a real head scratcher.

    Plus there is this obsession with not sweating. A little stinkiness never killed anyone. For me it works well because I get to avoid having people infiltrate my personal space 🙂

    I find it encouraging that seeing me ride everyday to work and back seems to have given passersby a light bulb moment. I am noticing more commuters than I did when I first began commuting earlier this year. Obviously I don’t think I am the reason there are more riders on my route, but I like to pretend and have fantasies.

    I remain positive about the fate of transportation choices in San Diego but recognize that this is going to be a slow, plodding journey.

  2. Johnny

    Great post. I experienced something similar this past weekend, riding as a passenger in a car going to the beach, and I think you nailed the feeling/experience really well. I used to think the term “cagers” to refer to people in cars was mean, but in light of people being chained inside of them (literally and figuratively), I think it’s pretty apt. 🙂

  3. Antoine

    I occasionally take the car to work if it’s really bucketing-down and as I’m only traveling five kilometres it’s not too painful. I listen to the fools on the radio and arrive relatively relaxed but not as alert as If I had cycled.

    But when it comes to the end of a long day sitting around a windowless air-conditioned studio, the last thing I want to do is sit in a car. I don’t finish until ten or eleven at night and the roads are almost deserted at that time. I really enjoy that silent ride home and miss it awfully if I travel by car.

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