Why We Drive: The Past, Present, and Future of Automobiles in America: By Andy Singer, 160 pgs. By Sean Arenas

Nov 21, 2013

Driving in and around Los Angeles is a full-time job. The traffic is seemingly endless (and tedious), the drivers are absentminded, and just as a major road is repaved, a pothole appears somewhere nearby only moments after you’ve replaced your tires. Every time I start my ‘95 Toyota Corolla, I am met by a wave of anxiety that something will be horribly wrong (Is it my starter? My distributor? Will the whole damn thing go up in smoke?) And if my car is broken, then I’m stranded until help arrives. Andy Singer argues that it just doesn’t have to be this way and that cars, as a “romanticized object,” are a major source of unneeded stress—I’m one to agree...even though I realize I realistically won't quit driving.

Singer uses illustrations accompanied by hard facts to construct his argument. Firstly, he addresses the multitude of problems caused by cars. It’s not just pollution. It’s not just congestion and noise. Cars have irreparably altered our surrounding landscapes and our way of life. Highways have obliterated the possibility of efficient housing and drained city life of any color and vibrancy. Instead of pulsing downtown districts, we are left with commercial ghost towns and seven-story parking structures as highway systems have created a discrepancy between where we live and where we play. All of which is separated by miles and miles of pavement. This pavement, or the “open road,” is synonymous with freedom, but Singer argues that these desolate stretches actually tether and bind us in a death grip.

Thinking back, cars and commutes splayed my family into divergent directions: Every morning my parents went off to work and my brothers and I went off to school. Social interactions were mitigated into formal outings that always required money...and directions. Things have only worsened as I’ve gotten older. Singer illustrates that we are no longer a “community” but a society of islands, yet we have fooled ourselves into believing that we are more connected than ever before. But the rise of long distance separation is directly the result of our faith in automobiles. Singer’s cultural analysis is thought-provoking but too brief. The introductory portion needed to be twice as long and far more in-depth as it really cuts bone deep.

The second portion of the book delves into the political climates that created our dependency on automobiles. It’s no surprise that crooked politicians and corporate entities are partly to blame. General Motors and its partners successfully dismantled America’s public transportation systems making way for freeways. But the rest of the buck is passed onto our shoulders as willing participants. We have bought into the glitz and glamor of cruising. I inherited my car envy from my older brothers who inherited it from our parents who fell victim to the automobile industry's marketing. The issue is polemical. Cars are a status symbol and public transportation has been disparaged if not, in some areas, completely destroyed. We are painfully aware that we have opened our wallets and allowed for our cash to be siphoned off by the gas pump—but the major issue is that we do so because we think we must. Our impetus to drive has literally been institutionalized.

Finally, Singer provides various solutions and suggestions such as bike riding, becoming politically involved in your local government, and, frankly, the most radical notion is being content with where you live. Ignoring the glare of airline advertisements and weekend getaways and, instead, becoming a stable fixture in your community is a radical act in and of itself. Singer's suggestions are optimistic but his tone is never chastising; he remains steadfast and constructive.

Pick up this book if you’re interested in a slap of reality. It’s short, consistent, and concise. Singer’s art is pleasantly reminiscent of ‘60s satire like R. Crumb and Kim Deitch. The language is never obtuse or overly academic. The perfect read for while you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And, hopefully, it will compel you to take the next exit. –Sean Arenas (Microcosm, 636 SE 11th Ave.Portland, OR97214, microcosmpublishing.com)

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