The school year has begun and each morning I see one of our teenage neighbors leave his house, get into his car and drive to high school less than a half mile away, a distance I could walk in about 10 minutes.
Three blocks from the high school's front entrance lives a family with a driving-age daughter. Her father recounted an incident where the daughter drove to school because she was hauling gear for an after-school event, realized later she'd forgotten something, drove home to get it, then drove back to school again. Her dad pointed out she could have retrieved the item just as quickly by walking home, given the time it takes to maneuver and park the car.
Obviously, for teenagers, just as for the rest of us, driving a car is more about status than necessity. The number of adults who engage in the same kind of behavior is legion.
On another front, I attended a meeting a few months ago to discuss plans for a new subdivision. Each two-bedroom townhouse would have a two-car garage and space on a driveway to park two more cars. How many people, and therefore how many cars, would be involved? In America today, you can assume two people in a household equals at least two cars. Our own household follows that model: Two bedrooms, two people, two off-street parking places, two cars.
It's the part of the American addiction ... er, dream ... that I've fallen into. But, when I saw it all laid out on two-dimensional paper, it became obvious how much land and building materials for streets, driveways, and garages we're willing to devote to cars. World Watch magazine confirmed my impression: Nearly half of urban space is used to accommodate motor vehicles.
We're in a bind. Our "dependence" on the private automobile is like a snake eating its tail. The head of the snake allows us to live a distance from our workplace, in places more affordable or more beautiful; the suburbs boom and now farmland further and further away from metropolitan centers is going under asphalt. The tail of the snake, where we're getting eaten alive, is that those land use patterns now require you to have a car just to complete normal tasks.
America's westward expansion depended on transportation, whether the horse, the railroad, or the freeway system. Part of our cultural paradigm is that independent transportation is part of self-determination. That, combined with our growing insistence on immediate gratification, means cars are as much a part of our lives as water is to fish.
But the economic, political, environmental, and even social implications are far from positive. A recent broadcast of NPR's "Philosophy Talk" discussed the notion of altruism and received a call-in from a woman who commented on how many people travel alone, isolated in their cars, and act as if they know no one and therefore care about no one but themselves. Her point was how can we expect Americans to be altruistic or even cosmopolitan in our attitudes given the loneliness of the short-distance driver.
It's true that many people see the time spent in their cars commuting as the one time they have peace and quiet, but my hunch is we'll have neither quiet nor peace if this behavior continues. Right now the U.S., with roughly 4 percent of the world's population, is using 25 percent of the world's energy resources, and obviously a good portion of that oil isn't under our own soil. Many observers speculate that part of the reason the Bush administration chose to invade Iraq is that it sits over the world's second-largest oil reserve. While trying to show an Iraq/terrorism link, the administration has downplayed the fact that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia; maybe this inattention is because Saudi Arabia has the world's number one oil reserve and we already had military bases there "protecting" it.
Worldwide, half of oil usage is for travel by car. China is beginning to emulate the American model of widespread car ownership and could have 20 million cars by 2010. Certainly, there won't be enough oil to go around.
Unless we Americans demand more fuel efficient vehicles and are willing to change our day-to-day habits, like walking to our neighborhood schools, we're going to be in a series of conflicts - and at the same time justifiably perceived as the lazy, self-centered imperialists some of our enemies say we are.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco where she walks for errands as often as possible.