Taking a harder look at car culture

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, July 14, 2011 12:51 EDT
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Via Atrios comes this story about how the Spanish city of Murcia has decided to approach their traffic congestion problem by offering free lifetime passes on public transit if you turn in your car.  (I'm unclear on how it works, but I'm going to assume that you actually can sell your car at market value, because otherwise people are going to balk.)  But one of the things I love that supports this campaign is advertising and public stunts to emphasize how shitty it is to actually drive a car around a city.   Things like this video:

And this adorable public art project that draws attention to how hard it is to park in the city:

I like this campaign because it addresses one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when tackling the overuse of cars, which is that people are acclimated to the hassle and don't really stop to think about alternatives.  When my family was up visiting and I was taking them around on the subway, there were a couple jokes made about how I never liked driving, which is treated by Texans as an eccentricity on par with not liking tacos or Patsy Cline.  Like it's not the end of the world, but what kind of weirdo are you?  

But the thing is, I do like driving…..long distances at  high speeds.  Driving and puttering around a crowded city in a vehicle that is fifteen times the size of your body is what I hate.  I especially hate how driving has turned walking even short distances into an unimaginable taboo.  In fact, the thing that raised my consciousness about how silly driving culture gets is the unquestioned tradition of circling around and around a parking lot, trying to find the closest space, ignoring spaces that are literally only a minute further by foot away, because you need to conserve your steps like they're fucking gold-plated diamonds.  I've seen people spend 5 and even 10 minutes circling around trying to avoid walking an extra 60 seconds.  Once you see the stupidity in that, other things stop making sense: people insisting on dropping you off at your door instead of on a convenient corner, even in cases where dropping someone off at their door requires you to turn the car around in traffic, driving up both your blood pressure and wasting time that could be spent doing something more productive, like picking your nose or playing a round of Angry Birds.  And once I realized while living in Austin that I could walk, take the bus, or ride my bike instead of parallel park downtown, there was no going back.  I never really learned how to do that well, probably for the same reason that I bark my limbs on immoveable objects more than the average person.  

People are naturally conservative.  I mean small-c conservative, of course—we do things because that's how we've always done them.  People who are constantly wondering if there's a better way to do something are a distinct minority in our culture.  Crafting public policy requires an understanding of this. In the U.S., I think, there's a tendency to assume that people are rational actors and if you give them two options, they'll just gravitate towards the superior one.  And that's true, if the options are on a level playing field.  If people perceive something as a problem, they will move to problem-solve.  But people don't perceive the time they waste in the car as a problem.  Suggesting that they have a better use of their time than sitting in traffic and circling around looking for parking reads to many people as suggesting that it's a waste of time to sleep at night.  So you have to really work hard at getting people to actually look at what's right under their noses. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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