Are Cars a Drug?
by Richard Risemberg (September 1997)

What is it that makes the average person such a rabid defender of automobilism? Is it the obvious good sense of devoting a quarter of your income to buying, maintaining, fueling, and insuring a car? Is it the convenience of spending long hours of your life sitting in traffic on the way to or from work, the beach, the store? Is it the pleasure of gray-brown skies over vistas of bleak concrete and cracked asphalt littered with fast-food wrappers? Recently a local police department ran a sting operation where a plainclothes officer would step into a crosswalk and try to cross a street notorious for flattened pedestrians. When the officer was brushed back by a car, a motorcycle cop would zip out and write a ticket. Drivers were indignant that they would be fined for such a minor offense. Most telling was the excuse they invariably gave, one that will be familiar to bicyclists and motorcyclists everywhere: "I didn't see him." This was repeated as a valid excuse even after a passenger in one car said, "I did see him, from a block away."

I think the driver didn't want to see the pedestrian. I think he didn't want to be bothered by such a minor detail. Because it would distract him from the essential value of driving, which is monotony. He was stoned on boredom.

We Know What We Want: We Want What We Know
Someone whose name I have forgotten once drew an analogy between the drug experience and TV. He said they had in common these things: that they provided a generic pleasure, that they required no active involvement by the participant, and that they were predictable. You could go into them knowing what to expect, and knowing that there would never be anything new to interpret. Now, when I was younger, most of my peers used marijuana, and some of them made a sacrament of it. It's been a quarter-century now, and I have seen their like in later years, sitting stoned before the tube with the bong and the stash on the side table and the bag of chips on the floor, their eyes reflecting the blue flutter of some all-night cable channel. The food, generic: grease, salt, and starch; the culture, generic: another formula show, another movie copied from another movie; the sensation, generic: a meaningless pleasure imposed chemically on the brain, disconnected to anything outside, anything that actually happens. I believe the analogy has some point. I think the driving experience has something in common with it too.

Most people who drive, drive their own cars. The inside of your car is always the same. In fact, with few variations, the insides of most cars are close to the same. The wheel, the seat, the curved glass, the roof posts. No matter what is going on outside your windshield, inside it is always the same, the same.... Nowadays, the air conditioner is usually turned on, or the heater: softly-humming appliances that cover up what little sound of life might penetrate the glass and steel, that warp the weather to an arbitrary standard that is always the same, the same.... Perhaps the radio is on, playing the latest hit that has been assigned to your demographic group, in heavy rotation, the same beat, the same themes, the same song, the same, the same.... Whatever is happening outside, inside it's the same.... The car moves through the world, the driver stays in the same seat for hours. Lulled. Nothing to do but keep from running into the car ahead. And in the car ahead, the driver....

It is no mistake, I think, that the sprawl the automobile has facilitated has as its essential quality, sameness: "travelers" coming out of their cars want to find the same Denny's, the same Holiday Inn, the same AM-PM, that they would find back home. In the strip malls they want the same Taco Bell, the same Seven-Eleven, the same videos in the video store. At night the same drinks in the same red vinyl ambience. The Interstate looks the same everywhere. The freeway looks the same everywhere. Flat concrete channels, the lane stripes, the car ahead, the same, the same.... It's easier that way.

The American Dream. The little house in the subdivision, stuck between two other little houses. The air conditioner, the two cars in the garage. The drive to work where you do the same thing every day. The drive home where you see the same TV shows every night. Your children are nervous and you don't know why. In school they're taught to sit still and pretend to listen. They hate it. They'll learn to do it though. You did. On the weekends there's nothing to do. Watch more TV. That's safe. Go for a drive. Where? McDonald's? Sure, let's go. Distant scenery in the windshield. Sure looks hot in those hills. Whaddaya want? Big Mac again? The radio, the sound of fans, the curved glass screen.... The American high.

Prescription Only
Maybe cars should be available only by a doctor's prescription, to those who really need them. Maybe life would be richer if we saw the world in detail, if the grass by the roadside were something more than a green blur, if the man on the sidewalk were a neighbor and not an interruption of momentum. What good is the mobility we've gained from cars? Now we live farther from work and spend longer getting there than in the days of bikes and trolleys, and we travel alone and isolated from each other and from the earth that bore us. We have gained nothing by structuring our world around the car. The worker who would have walked to to the office in twenty minutes years ago now spends an hour driving in, and misses the company of fellow workers on the sidewalk or the tram. The homemaker who would have walked round the corner every other day for bread and lettuce now drives along a glaring concrete sheet to a supermarket where the tomatoes are expensive and tasteless and the bread is a limp sponge. Even the mobility brought by the car is an illusion, sustained by grace of oil companies and Arab fundamentalists, and paid for by the neighborhoods we've thrown away, the lost charms of accents and eccentricities in different towns, the discarded richness of a life where each of us once made a corner of the world our own, rather than buying an image of it off the rack. Why go anywhere, after all, if everywhere looks the same? Like the addict, we have thrown away the actual details of our life for an intense but meaningless sensation. It is time we give it up.

One Small Step
Come back to life. Just for today, don't drive. Walk to the mailbox, bicycle to work. There is still the perfume of flowers mingled with that haze of gasoline. Those shadows waiting at the crosswalk still have faces, souls, a story. They are your face, your soul, your story. We have ignored each other and the earth too long. Time's a-wasting. You'll soon enough be dead. When you're lying on your deathbed, will you wish you'd spent just a few more hours stuck in traffic?

Richard Risemberg