Driving has Eroded Local Communities and Created Social Distrust

by Leroy on April 15th, 2024.

The need of owning a car for daily life, outside of select cities, has only been a requirement for the last 60 years. Cars have of course been around longer, but the pervasiveness of car infrastructure, such as highways, is relatively young. To put it into perspective, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was passed 1956 and ARPANET, the percursor to our Internet, was created in 1969.

My generation was the first to grow up alongside the Internet's most popular innovation, the World Wide Web. Our generation saw the Web's humble beginnings of decentralized websites and communities turn toward centralized, controlled applications riddled with dark patterns and have worried about its affects on us, our children, and later generations. But have we done similarly with cars and highways infecting our communities? Unlike growing up alongside technological innovations occuring on a per-decade basis as with the Web, we were born with highways as a given. Most likely our parents drove to the hospital where we were born.

What's surprising to me is how embedded cars are in our society. I personally never questioned their place growing up. Complaints about cars seems to circle around air quality, traffic, safety, and noise. But I've rarely heard anyone complaining about how central they are to our society. Cars and roads and traffic signals and driving is so deeply nested into our culture that cars are given to children as birthday presents when they turn 16, the minimum age for a driver's license in many states.

Unfortunately, the truth is that car infrastructure has spread like a disease. Communities sprout endless roads from main highways hoping to catch commercial and real estate taxes like a plant sprouts leaves hoping to catch sunlight. Cars are required because our infrastructure has been built to require them but we haven't paused to think about what our cars are doing to us.

This is my experience with being born in this automobile dominated world.

Driving has replaced walking

We happen to be in the middle of an obesity epidemic. The average person is woefully misinformed about nutrition, diet, healthy foods, the cost of food, and much else. But the average pre-car citizen wasn't informed about these topics either and they happened to be much skinnier.

The obesity epidemic can be blamed on many factors but I think the one important factor is that people aren't moving all that much. It doesn't help that driving has replaced walking for most people. Instead of walking 20 minutes to the nearest grocery, or 15 minutes to a friend's place, or even 5 minutes between stores that we drove to, we can instead walk thirty seconds to the car door. The car has become the default method of transportation in a world filled with highways.

To offset the lack of everyday movement that driving replaced, many people elect for daily exercise. We now drive to then walk. Many of us still walk or run in neighborhoods, but even that activity is something in excess of our typical day. Our time walking to work or school or the store has been replaced by driving. Moving our body has to fit in somewhere -- for many, it doesn't.

Instead of moving to achieve some purpose, like going to the grocery store, those of us who choose to move now move for movement's sake. It's this simple realization which explains why so many people complain about exercise. When you break exercise down, the act is kind of meaningless and people hate meaningless activities. You can nearly hear the question, why should I be healthier when I don't even need it? After all, one's 5K time makes no difference on their drive to work. In our modern society, health is rarely a requirement for a job where you answer phones and type on keyboards. General health also doesn't seem to be a consideration for getting a driver's license in any state in the United States.

(If you personally struggle with the mindset that exercise is meaningless and boring, I recommend joining a local sports team so at least your exertion has some kind of meaning. Many also get a dog so they have a good excuse for their daily walk. Of course, it'd be better if we didn't have to tack on this kind of activity just to offset the hour of traffic we sit in every single day.)

Safety concerns of driving are an afterthought

Not only has driving replaced walking, driving has become as casual as walking. What I mean by this is that since driving has replaced walking, driving is seen as a regular, non-life-threatening, easy-going activity -- the same as walking. This fact should be apparent by the number of texting-and-driving accidents. The casualness of driving is why many people think that piloting a two ton automobile while looking down at a phone screen is as easy as walking and looking down at a phone screen. But, if you need some more convincing, look to any tourist boulevard which will inevitably have signs saying "No Cruising Area". Driving has long replaced the stroll down main street.

The problem with casual driving is that safety becomes less of a concern for many individuals. The most dangerous operations -- think engineers with hard-hats and clipboards -- have processes, regulations, and multiple keys turned by separate people before finally hitting that big red button. But to pilot a machine capable of shutting down six lane highways because of a split-second accident -- this requires nothing but the key.

The casualness of driving is especially apparent if you pay attention to bars. How many homes are in walking distance to bars? (How many would actually walk to a bar when they could drive?) Our infrastructure and the requirement of driving exacerbates drunk driving. If cars have functionally replaced walking, how are the drunks getting home? They're driving.

Driving has destroyed much of the basic social fabric

Everyone might be annoyed at how slow their grandparents may walk but understandably excuse them out of respect and their age. This deference doesn't carry to driving. People assume the worst of drivers because they don't know them and, most of all, don't care for them. No driver on the interstate is apart of my community despite most other drivers living in the same city. Driving makes everyone anonymous by default and someone who is anonymous might as well not exist. There is no recognizing another person going 70mph on the interstate and stopping for a quick hello.

The act of driving is still stressful despite how casually we regard it, especially when trying to get home. Your work day is finally done and you're tired and mentally exhausted. Instead of being driven by professionals in a bus or train you're instead piloting a vehicle alongside everyone else -- all of whom are tired. And everyone is racing to get home too. Every minute of free time is precious and you're wasting each one in the car. Questions begin to surface in your mind, "Who even are these people? I don't recognize them from work." There are thousands of people and they are simply in my way.

This anti-social behavior can be seen in the arms race for larger and larger vehicles. The large truck phenomenon is simply a recent spike in cars getting larger every single year. Many have speculated reasons why large trucks are becoming more and more popular but the single biggest reason is because these large trucks make the driving experience better, period. In a larger vehicle there is a better view, more room to relax, and, of course, there is the psychological impact of being larger -- I don't dismiss the threatening nature of simply being in the larger vehicle. At 70mph it makes sense to sell the safety and luxury of large, wider, heavy vehicles. But buying one doesn't save you from driving.

Unfortunately, this arms race for larger, meanacing vehicles exists because of the competition that traffic creates. People want to get their destination and will sacrifice others' safety (and their own) to get it, especially where everyone is anonmyous and there is little repercussion. There is no rational sense for weaving in and out of lanes between cars to save thirty seconds to a minute of driving, but we know how it feels behind the wheel. But this competition is more than shaving off a few seconds of drive-time. We see it when someone doesn't let us merge, when someone cuts us off, when someone doesn't signal, when someone tailgates us. When these things happen to us we don't feel good. When these things happen to us we don't forget when we arrive at our destination. Instead we remember and this forms the opinions we have about our fellow men and women in our communities, those anonymous individuals on the road -- we hate them.

This hate is maladaptive. What we really hate is driving and traffic and noise, but we project that onto potential friends in our local communities. Even though we are not walking around and seeing the very people that make up our neighborhoods, we find reason to hate and distant ourselves from them.

Our communities have little interaction because of the automobile

I've personally seen more than one community field -- simply a plain patch of grass used to host children's sports, games, cookouts, races, and fun nights -- replaced by a small strip mall and parking lot. The small oasis of the unmaimed patch of grass, surrounded by residences, should be the locus of the community. But I found out the reason why they were sold in the first place: no one was using them anymore. Unfortunately, I do believe them, however nefarious and selfish their agenda may be. The "local leaders" sold off this neighborhood-owned land to fill the coffers of whomever hoping to draw in people who will actually use the area.

If we aren't walking around in our neighborhoods, if we aren't seeing and talking with our neighbors, and if we unconciously hate our neighbors, then who is running your neighborhood? Who is your community?

Not only has driving made our communities anonymous, it has enabled communities to be ursurped, spread-out, ineffective. Instead of seeing and working with the differences of people in your immediate community, driving has made it easy to cherry-pick parts of a community. For example, instead of attempting to fix up the local community pool you can instead drive to the private pool on the otherside of town instead. This creates pockets of people in hyper-focused areas but lacks any sort of real community. The pool isn't filled with the children from the local residences, but people from wherever. The pool is now as anonymous as the highway and one starts eyeing the kids splashing about similarly to how they'd eye the red sports car darting between lanes. This avenue destroys any inertia of collective agency in the local community and this is the last cut through the social fabric that all of our highways eventually led towards.

Our automobile infrastructure created our anti-social malaise

I don't think that in a perfect world without excess cars and traffic that everyone would be singing merrily as they marched to work every morning. But people could recognize one another and do something about it, like talk with each other. I recognize many cars on my daily commutes, but what can I do about it? What people don't seem to realize is that there is a community but they are cut off from it by the iron grip of the automobile. All of your neighbors and everyone in your local community go to work every day, but do you see them? No, you see their car.

The automobile has replaced how we interact with our neighbors and community with nothing.

We have curtailed our communities to make avenues for these large, metal predators which cause us fear and anger daily. We have anonymized and insulated ourselves from others in these cars. We weren't meant sit in traffic along with hundreds of others directly around us, yet totally separated, daily. We as humans need to see our community, our neighbors, our people. We owe it to ourselves to start changing our infrastructure for the better and get rid of the physically and socially stultifying reliance on machines which also cause us daily stress.