Not Driving as an Act of Compassion

A pedestrian walkway in Long Beach, CA where no one is driving

A few times a year, I drive a car to get to meetings in the fair state of North Carolina.  Sadly, most of the time driving is the only way I can get to far-flung meeting places without  sacrificing 2.5 days of my life each time.

Because I drive so infrequently, when I do drive I find it wholly lacking in vitality.  A typical hour’s worth of driving is a blend of 50 minutes boredom + 10 minutes nervous tension—as when rolling down a landscape-less highway lulls you to sleep and suddenly a much larger truck cuts you off.

Compared to an hour spent walking or riding a bike—which place me in a sensory world of smells, breezes, radiating sunshine, overcast skies, birdsong, neighborly chatter and car exhaust—driving a car is one deprived experience.

By the looks of things, I bet lots of people feel this way: driving is a banal utilitarian operation; whereas walking and cycling and skateboarding and other means of self-conveyance grant us contact with our surround, placing us in a locale rather than on one—as is the case with driving.

This felt realization might be why fans of people-powered movement extol its sundry benefits.  For such movement:

improves your health

saves you money

clears your thinking

saves the environment

connects you to people and places

Another way to look at how we profit from walking and cycling—and by corollary, not driving—is to consider what we don’t do when we forgo driving, what we avoid when we steer clear of the powered steering wheel.  Really, it’s like examining a photograph’s negative— recognizing what’s there while focusing on what’s not there.

As so, I propose we attune to what we don’t do—or what we avoid—when we forgo driving a motor vehicle. When we travel outside of a motor vehicle we don’t:

contribute to the pumping of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere

pollute the air all humans and non-humans breath

instigate the development and spread of various cancers through car exhaust

take the life of 30 thousand people each year—people who are simply trying to get around

disappear or degrade the habitat of birds, mammals, insects, humans

cause cities to overheat due to the need to store cars on soulless surface parking lots

pollute our waterways when it rains

make it easy for entire societies to gain excess weight through the promotion of sedentary lifestyles

suppress children’s—and adults’—desires to dart across the street to reach a favorite friend, flower, or feline

teach children that so-called “common” spaces, i.e., streets, are something to fear and avoid

interrupt conversation with the roar of hundreds of motors and the rumble of tires on pavement

I’m well aware that too many of us find ourselves in “must drive” circumstances and situations. As a culture, this reality is on us—and especially on traffic engineers and planners and policy-makers.

To those in power: allow us plebeians to express our natural compassion.  Help us create the places and culture that push us to experience life outside of cars.  It’s time we all wake up and recognize that human beings—not machines—must make a life here on earth.

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  • Jefftown37

    Seth, the safety aspect is much on my mind these days. Looks like 2016 has a chance to reach once again the grim statistic of 40,000 traffic fatalities, as an improving economy and cheap gas encourage more driving. How can we best discourage drunk, drowsy, and distracted driving? It seems to me that enforcement and education are important supplemental factors, but land use planning, low-stress ped and bike infrastructure, and reliable transit (ideally that runs later in the evening) are key for obviating the temptation to drive in the first place. -Jeff (from the bus)

  • SethLaJ

    Hey, Jeff (note: I really appreciate you written your thoughtful insights on the bus) sadly, I think you’re right: 2016 is on track to reach the 40,000 traffic fatalities mark. And yes, how should we best tackle demand for driving in the face of driving-centric physical, social, economic, and political conditions? Under the transportation system and its relationships with myriad other “systems”, it’s a difficult task indeed. And let’s face it: education and enforcement campaigns will barely scratch the surface of this deep issue. Given my professional position, I know I should promote—or at least support—educational and enforcement-related interventions. However, to what extent would we need to teach people to walk or bike or drive (education) or cajole them to travel safety (through enforcement) if we lived in places—and in cultures—designed for humans? You know, spaces designed by everyday people. Places that expose us all to nature, beseech us to reach destinations using our own human power. And what of social contracts (what we moderns call “policies”) that afford us time to deeply consider our actions, and treat the alien act of driving machines as insane and out of touch with felt reality? If together we shaped communities rooted in human and non-human flourishing, we would have no need for government-funded “education” about walking (how insane is that?) or “enforcement campaigns” meant to respond to the car-dominated political and physical landscape we’ve so wrongfully developed. By putting together this post, I hope to inspire a dialogue on the ethical—or inherently unethical—nature of automobility. That not driving shouldn’t be framed solely as a “personal preference”, but rather as a given for any just and sane culture.

    • Jefftown37

      I see it too much in the bike-ped world from well-meaning people: education as a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, quality infrastructure and placemaking. You’re right that education seems like cajoling in the context of an auto-dominant transportation network. I mean, some TDM organizations are even paying people cash to avoid commuting by car! That is kind of insane — even while maintaining that general subsidies of alternative transportation serve to counterbalance the massive subsidies for driving and storing one’s vehicle. What if we started with a premise: EVERY street should promote, as you say, human and non-human flourishing? Every street should, as another recent blog article put it, “make one’s heart sing”? And what if we worked with the urgency that cutting transportation-related GHG emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change should entail, instead of indifference, apathy, and complacency?

      • SethLaJ

        “What if” indeed, my friend. Our transportation system epitomizes what Illich termed “counterproductivity”—that at some point, the efficiencies gained by forging ahead in one direction produce negative externalities which wholly overshadow any and all of the system’s pre-determined benefits. I totally agree with you: starting with the “actual needs” and aspirations of people is a good place to begin the revisioning of our broken system.

    • Jefftown37
      • SethLaJ

        Thanks for sharing this cogent article, Jeff. “Beauty” is not to found in the engineer’s toolbox. Much “development” today is hyper focused on quick ROIs. And most cities’ budgets obsess over “efficient” delivery of “services.” Until places make beauty and human well-being explicit priorities, I’m afraid the status quo will prevail. To begin the shift, however, I truly believe we need to steer away from economic frames.