Thursday, December 16, 2004

An SUV in every garage until death

Living in California makes it clear to me just how much we need to rethink the necessary connection between individuality/independence and personal automobile ownership. On the one hand, this state is full of people making up for personality and other personal shortcomings--not all, but most, of them explicable in Freudian terms--with Hummers and Envoys and Armadas that don't nearly fit in freeway lanes, let alone city streets--why does anyone need to drive an entire navy? And why do so many men (and women) who never approach a farm need such big payload capacity?

In addition, San Diego with its beautiful weather is full of retirees. While I have the greatest respect for older people, especially those who have worked hard throughout their lives and quite often have sacrificed for their communities and the nation as a whole--so much respect that I resist the urge to tell them to get out of my way or hurry them along in the grocery store , a feat requiring great restraint as those who know me could attest--American culture has screwed up in leading them to believe that independence is equivalent to the continued driving of personal automobiles. Our highways are overcrowded and our parking lots are too small, leading people who cannot maneuver their too-large SUVS or their oversized but totally safe Lincolns, Cadillacs and other throwback monstrosities into parking places and instead "parking" them in the fire lanes in front of the grocery store, blocking foot and car traffic and making emergency vehicle access impossible if needed.

But asking people to give up driving, even when they have reached a point when it is no longer safe to do so--like the woman I watched getting into her car as I ate breakfast at a local diner this week--is tantamount to asking them to give up freedom. She was severely hunched over, in such obvious pain as it took her 15 minutes to get into her car after she had finished eating her meal, could not see in either her rear-view or side-view mirrors, was smoking and drinking coffee as she drove and pulled out into traffic without any possible knowledge of whether a car was coming or not. Surely she was not the safest of all possible drivers or even anywhere in the top 75%. But at the same time, having a car and driving one are so much a part of American life and what it means for most of us to be complete and whole, that to take away her car would be a near-literal imprisonment in her home, not unlike a psychical castration--back to Freud. But the answer can't be letting everyone drive forever--if the problem is in the American mind, then the solution has to be there, too. And not on the streets or the parking lots of America. (And, of course, the solution would involve a lot of Hummer drivers and, even, Hyundai drivers like me, hoofing it or getting on public transport a lot more and, instead of complaining about how slow and dirty buses and trams are, getting more of them.)

So, when I'm yelling at an elderly couple parking their Town Car in front of the local market--like I was today--remember that it's not just because I'm angry, wrathful and nasty, but also because I care.

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