Inside Our Cars Is the Real America

Last November, the United States elected a president who promised to “Make America Great Again™” with a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan that has yet to take any sort of shape.

Of course, it is hard enough to agree on what America is, let alone how to define the erstwhile greatness we should seek to reclaim. A different “America” greets each of us when we walk out the front door. Some of us emerge to the squeal of the elevated train and the patter of a thousand languages. Others step out onto a dirt road, spurs a-janglin’, squinting into the horizon as the tumbleweeds blow by. (I’m referring to Staten Island in case that wasn’t clear.)

But there’s one place you can always find America, from sea to polluted sea, and that is inside your car. Americans — yes, even New Yorkers — love their cars.

But there’s one place you can always find America, from sea to polluted sea, and that is inside your car.

We buy cars because they’re supposed to make us free — free from public transit, free from timetables, free to go wherever we want, whenever we choose — but we soon find out that this “freedom” doesn’t really exist. There’s too much traffic in the city because cars really don’t belong in cities, and the interstates are falling apart because we refuse to pay the higher gas taxes necessary to fund them. There’s also nothing particularly liberating about car payments or gasoline dependency, even when that gasoline is artificially cheap, thanks in part to those low gas taxes.

In the meantime, we keep hanging on, because we are willing to believe that building a few new bridges will make driving just like the car commercials. Plus, we have been afforded all sorts of surrogate “freedoms” that almost make up for the inconvenience of car ownership. Perhaps the most important one is freedom from responsibility. As long as we are not too drunk, we are pretty much free to maim and kill with our cars, which is necessary when we’re dealing with a mode of transit that costs over 40,000 lives a year.

It’s like our cars are little American embassies and we have diplomatic immunity.

It’s like our cars are little American embassies and we have diplomatic immunity.

We sure take advantage of our beloved sanctuaries, too. Just walk along the curb and the detritus in the gutter will tell you exactly what people do in their freedom-mobiles while enjoying all that gratis parking. The three most common items you’ll find in no particular order are: fast food containers; piles of tobacco from gutted cigars used for blunt-rolling; Poland Spring bottles filled with urine.

Then there’s the antisocial behavior. Never mind the audacity to leave plastic bottles filled with our own urine in the street. There’s also the reckless driving, the double-parking, the incessant honking, the eternal idling, and of course the goddamn alarm blaring for hours in the middle of the night. (When I hear a car alarm, I open the window and shout at the thief to hurry up so I can go back to bed.)

And what about the rage? Oh, the rage! When was the last time you had a shouting match with a complete stranger that didn’t somehow involve a car?

When was the last time you had a shouting match with a complete stranger that didn’t somehow involve a car?

It’s truly a post-racial society inside of our cars. We hate everyone equally.

Driving a car in New York City is, in itself, antisocial behavior. We talk about manspreading on the subway as though it’s a crime against humanity, yet somehow driving an SUV into downtown Manhattan is perfectly fine. It’s okay to spread out, just as long as you do it inside your own vehicle and take up half the street in the process.

Yes, inside our cars is the real America. And all that stuff on the other side of the windshield? It’s a potholed wasteland, a mess that has to be made great, and which must always accommodate our wheeled Americas.

No matter who is president, you can be sure that we will keep voting for the promise of the open road. After all, nobody’s more easily manipulated than an angry person in a box. We hate everything we see that’s not a parking space, and we’ll support anything that promises to take the pain away.

This is also why bike lanes make us angry. Not only are they convenient scapegoats for our car-induced misery, but they’re also awkward reminders that our America on wheels is actually a Skinner box: tap-tap-tap the accelerator until you get a reward; circle, circle, circle the block until you get a spot. Yes, no authoritarian with any sense would want to lessen our dependence on a tool as powerful for control as that.

But don’t worry, because sooner or later the private sector will save us. Just ask Elon Musk, who wants to build a subway but for cars:

“We’re trying to dig a hole under LA, and this is to create the beginning of what will hopefully be a 3-D network of tunnels to alleviate congestion.”

Wow, a subway car that carries up to five people at a time.

Now that’s progress.

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