Car Culture

Posted: October 10, 2011 in History, Idle Nonsense

This blog post was originally published on February 3, 2008, at Creative Destruction. This republication is somewhat modified.

The movement of middle class whites from city centers to suburbs starting in the 1950s is one of the many effects cars and their infrastructure have wrought on social organization and landscape. Those of us born during the baby boom and after (which is most of us by now) have difficulty imagining any other possible way of living besides climbing in the car every day and driving where we go. A handful of U.S. cities have significant enough public transportation to enable some to forgo owning car, and I know a few die-hards who try to ride bicycles everywhere, even in the winter.

Jim Kunstler has a phrase he repeats regularly to describe the acute blindness most of us share regarding the inevitable changes to the economics of owning and operating automobiles: happy motoring. We act as though the era before cars — the one we can’t remember — is permanently behind us and the availability of cheap energy, whether gasoline, ethanol, or electricity, will never disappear. Peak oil experts tell a different story, and because of that, Kunstler has prophesied that the suburbs are already dead but we don’t yet realize it. All that remains to be played out. What’s clear right now at least is that we’ve put all of our eggs in this one particular basket, and until the basket is irrevocably ruined, we’ll continue to act like there will be no end to happy motoring.

In the meantime, a couple curious behaviors related to car culture have caught my attention. In Chicago, we get a couple heavy snows each winter that pretty much grind traffic to a halt. Many people park on the street, and when they dig out their cars, all sorts of junk appears on the street to claim the cleared spot: lawn chairs, broken furniture, orange hazard cones, milk crates and boards, etc. The unspoken contract seems to be, “I cleared this spot, now respect my labor and don’t park here.” It isn’t legal to stake out a parking place, and it only happens in the winter after large snowfalls, but it seems pretty clear that one would have to be pretty foolish to remove the lawn furniture, park in the spot, and then leave one’s vehicle worth several thousands (at the very least) unattended and vulnerable to whatever vandalism inflicted by the person(s) who cleared the snow.

Personally, I would never stake out a spot, though I’ve been disappointed a few times to lose one I cleared, and if I did stake one out, I’d never go the extra step and vandalize the car parked by someone who moved my lawn furniture out of the way. Do I expect others to exercise that restraint? Not on your life. I’m undecided whether this tradition is basically harmless or an instance of hoarding in scarcity. Since I have a dedicated parking spot, I guess I don’t have to decide.

The other curious behavior having partly to do with car culture is the line of vehicles on the shoulder of the highway into O’Hare International Airport. Folks are waiting in their vehicles 1-2 miles away from the airport for a phone call from the person to be picked up rather than circling the terminal or parking and walking to meet their party. It seems like a reasonable approach until one considers that these cars are waiting on the shoulder of a highway where drivers routinely travel 60-80 mph. Blocking the shoulder may not be much of a problem, but merging into traffic from a dead stop is not a maneuver I trust most people to execute either respectfully or safely.

I don’t attend to the local media closely enough to know whether police are ticketing drivers waiting along the highway or that City Hall declared a moratorium on claiming parking spots after snow removal. Perhaps these behaviors pose no particular issue for most. I’m still wondering what will happen when the price of oil spikes and few can afford to rack up 25k+ miles per year. If it’s anything like the horribly stupid movie Blood Car, it won’t be pretty.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s