My Car, My Crutch (Editorial)

Increased freedom at the price of decreased romance and artistry? Thanks to Sam Burnett for this evocative Creative Commons photo.

Recently I read an outline for a friend’s thesis on the use of vehicles as a prosthetic component of the human body. Her argument, still in development, is predicated on Rebecca Solnit’s belief that “the car has become a prosthetic… for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale” and that walking has become an “indicator species for various kinds of freedom and pleasures”.

My experience with my car merges comfortably with the typical negative statements made about vehicles, such as disassociation with community and the natural world, and increased material consumption. However, life with my car has also been reflective of the many freedoms it allows me: escape for the weekend or access to nearby cities or other areas to which transit does not provide admission, to name a few.

That said, lately my contemplations regarding my four-wheeled friend have been moving in a more soulful (or soul-less) direction.  As I’ve grown older, and slower, Solnit’s more dramatic articulation of the vehicle makes more and more sense. Particularly I’ve noticed that my vehicle is very good at shielding me from life’s daily inconsistencies; like corporate branding, it has eliminated the gritty, blemished points of interest that add romance and artistry to any personal story. When I opt to use my car for transportation, it is easy for me to control my experiences and keep them uninterrupted by the vast, unimagined plethora of possibilities that otherwise wait for me in relatively safe Canadian cities. Instead of using my mind to assimilate and conduct unexpected, interesting stimuli into equally unexpected and provocative thoughts, I wait for lights and sit in traffic. Head in hand, elbow resting on the door’s window ledge, I fill the time by pondering my achievements, my assumed obligation to fulfill those achievements, or the nagging belief that I haven’t or won’t or can’t fulfill them. Perhaps my subconscious propels me into this space partly because of the monetary pressure my vehicle exerts on me. Or perhaps, since I never have to think about becoming waylaid by the irregularities of public transit, this car gives me the sense that I have temporal invincibility in my task-oriented approach to life.

Is our experience of the city fundamentally different from behind the wheel of a car? Thanks to Tylor Sherman for this wonderful Creative Commons photo from Vancouver!

Whatever it is, I am convinced that my car erodes my access to creativity and inspiration. Instead of touching, hearing, tasting, smelling, and seeing a diversity of sensations created by an ever evolving and fluctuating urban environment, I only feel the textured plastic of the steering wheel, hear the engine perform its frenzied rhythm, taste the stale mints I leave in the side console, and breathe in the toxic mixture of synthetic fabrics and spilled lattes. True, I have seen some incredible things from my car – sights I might not have be able to see as a pedestrian. But those experiences are exceptional, and I suspect my dependence on the vehicle has eradicated a wealth of previous possibilities which would almost certainly have impacted how I think. In this sense, the vehicle is not just a prosthetic for a conceptually impaired body, but a reason for its development.

Modern transportation is absolutely a blessing for human experience, but with climate change, pollution levels and a wealth of environmental disasters (BP, we are all looking at you) the negative consequences are now sitting, greedy, at the head of the table, all the while flattering luxury into thinking it is more than it will ever truly measure up to be.

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5 Responses to “My Car, My Crutch (Editorial)”

  1. Christine said:

    Sep 15, 10 at 5:21 am

    Great perspective to take, thanks for sharing!

  2. William said:

    Sep 15, 10 at 9:50 am

    I’m wondering if this is a growing perspective…

  3. UrbanWorkbench said:

    Sep 25, 10 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for sharing your essay on cars. I’m struck by the difference on reliance on cars in urban and rural areas, between a feeling of convenience and lifestyle or necessity because other transport options are impractical. Either way, the idea of a prosthetic to our lifestyles is rather fitting.

  4. John said:

    Sep 25, 10 at 3:26 pm

    Your essay makes great insight into the diminishing returns of car use. I think you are incorrect, however, in characterizing the car as “Modern transportation.” The car, invented in the 19th century, has long ago peaked in effectiveness as a mode of effective and humane transportation. Car travel is being kept afloat for now by generous government subsidies (under-priced gas tax, free parking, cash-for clunkers, manufacturer bailouts, under-enforced traffic laws, subsidies for sprawl, punishment and death for pedestrians, etc). In truth, the most modern form of transit is a usable, walkable city in which the majority of people can live without a car. Walkable urbanism is the future, and the hallmark of true modernism.

  5. Asrai Ord said:

    Oct 04, 10 at 11:28 am

    Thanks everyone for the comments. John: I don’t think I could agree with you more. You bring sharply into focus some of the troubling realities in our transportation system/economy. I suspect yours is not a commonly-held perspective, at least within North America (or within the growing numbers of non-western countries increasingly dependent on car related transportation). I will certainly be sure to incorporate this kind of thinking into my further writings. Cheers.