Car Culture

Image: EA /

North American cities are built around the automobile, with few exceptions.  Where I live, everything is spread way out, and the city has a relatively large geographical footprint. Plus it is cold.  It is hard to commit to walking or biking when the temperature gets below -15 °C (5 °F).  So people mostly drive.  Everyone drives here.  Even those who cannot afford a car, have a car.  Without a car, you feel trapped.

We live in such a car culture.

Lately, I have been rethinking this.  It started when we all heard out the massive BP oil spill in the gulf.  Everyone blamed BP.  “Plug the hole already!” we cried.  As hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil continued to spill into the ocean, we got angrier and angrier.  But then we started looking at ourselves – BP is only out there extracting that oil, because I drive, you drive and we all drive.  So aren’t we also to blame?

I recently went and saw an amazing art exhibit called Burtynsky Oil. Edward Burtynsky is a world renowned photographer. His exhibit led me through a visual journey of oil extraction, oil refinement, car culture, and the waste left behind. He offers up images of things we know about, but don’t really see in our day-to-day lives. Have you ever wondered what a million discarded tires look like? How about a collection of oil filters, or car engines? Have you ever seen an aerial view of a tailings pond, or an oil field? What about the circuitry of our freeways? His images are massive, and overwhelming. When I walked out of the exhibit I felt emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to curl up somewhere and process what I had seen.

But people love their cars. They spend lots of money on them. They insure them, maintain them, gas them up. For some, they are a status symbol. For others, they are convenient people movers. Those that live deep in the suburbs spend an hour or two in them per day, so they want them to be nice. For many families, a large percentage of income is spent on their cars.

Cars can also be very frustrating. They are big pieces of mechanical machinery that most of us do not understand. When they break down, it is expensive and annoying. For example, we got stranded with the kids on Christmas Eve, because our van would not start. We got stranded today; because our annoying van would not start (it now has a new battery). Just this week I unknowingly drove my husband’s car on a low tire, and destroyed the tire. We just got it fixed today. My sister was without a car last week because her tires deflated. Last month I went down to the parkade after work and was greeted with a flat tire. That was fun – trying to change a flat tire in a skirt and heels. My other sister recently got rid of her lemon-y vehicle because it was such a “piece” (her words) and she could not take it anymore. When she went to go deliver it to the dealership, guess what? The damn thing would not start. My other sister hit a guardrail two weeks ago in blizzard conditions and crunched the back corner of her car. In addition, she cannot open her trunk for fear it will not close again. It is all so annoying and frustrating and expensive. Why do we do it?

I don’t know. Our cities are set up wrong. The further out you go, the fewer things you can get to without a car. We don’t have great transit, and here at least, transit is looked down upon. Why take the bus when you could drive?

Hello… have you ridden the bus lately? I used to, back when I was a student and did not have a car. It was actually nice. I will go so far as to say relaxing. Coffee in one hand, reading material in the other, and perhaps a little snooze mixed in there as well. Why did I trade that all in for rush hour traffic?

Let’s face it, cars and transportation make up a huge chunk of total CO2 emissions. HUGE. We cannot reduce the emissions to the extent we need, without reducing the driving. We have to reduce the driving.

So how about you – are you also in a love-hate relationship with your vehicle?


9 thoughts on “Car Culture

  1. Sherry,
    Great Blog. I also recently went to see the Edward Burtynsky exhibition, which really does capture elements of our oil dependent culture that we don’t think of. Overall I found the exhibition depressing as it illustrates so many negatives about our car culture. There are advantages, however, which is why we all continue to struggle with it. The ability to go to individual places in a schedule of your own making and own itinerary are significant, particularly for those with kids who have a variety of activities that are never in centrally located places. Nonetheless, in the longer term this may be unsustainable. It certainly will be if we remain dependent upon oil in the longer term (although there is little other realistic option for the next 20 – 30 years).

    • I found the exhibition depressing as well. It totally confirmed what I thought was the case, but it really hits home when you see it massively displayed in front of you. I agree it is really hard to get around without a car here, unless you purposely set up the places you need to go close to where you live. For example, living more centrally, and shopping and using more services within your neighbourhood. But it is hard with kids, especially when you have to drive them to swimming lessons and music class and all the rest. But hey! At least we walk to school! I have also found a music class and a dance class that are within easy walking distance, so we will sign up for those local options instead. Besides saving emissions, it is just easier on the whole family to have things close, and gets us outside walking a bit more. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, also.

    I also have a love/hate relationship with my car. Well, you know. It’s not like my junky Sunbird(s) is a status symbol… or is even remotely reliable. I don’t drive it for weeks at a time (especially in the summertime… I went a whole month without driving, and didn’t miss it) but I still have to hold onto it, because I need it to go out to see Sebastian, or to visit mom and dad.

    My friend Dani recently moved into an apartment downtown with her boyfriend. It’s walking distance to her work and lots of stores. Her boyfriend has a car, so she decided just to get rid of hers. Her lease was up, and she chose not to renew it or trade it in. Now she takes the bus, or cabs, or gets rides if she needs to go somewhere further than walking distance. Mind you, she doesn’t have a horse anymore and has little need to leave the city. But I really admire that choice. To just quit her car cold turkey. I think when I move in with Eric, I might do the same.

    • Central living is the way to go without a car! Taking a cab here and there is still less expensive than owning, maintaining, insuring and gassing up a car. Just make Eric come with you to the barn. 🙂

  3. The Burtynsky exhibit is really great, thanks for sharing that. I think people are slowly starting to see their contribution to the oil problem. It’s almost not our fault because like you said, the infrastructure is set up to alienate those without cars, and there’s also the social cultural pressure. I’ve been living car-free in SF for the past 6 months and I love it! But I wouldn’t want to live in SF forever, and would prefer somewhere less populated, which means greater distance between people. I can’t see myself living car-free forever. There are places I want to visit that I wouldn’t want to bike to.

    Even with electric cars, there’s issues about where the electricity comes from, and a whole lot of energy and resources were used for the manufacturing process.

    It’d be nice if cities were designed better, with bike-friendly neighborhoods.

    • Totally right? About 5 years ago I travelled to Europe and was amazed at all the bike lanes. The city that really sticks out for me is Vienna. There were pedestrian signs to cross the bike lanes!! Also – look at Amersterdam, they love their bikes there and everyone uses them to get around.

      Good for you for being car free! I don’t know how I could do it, especially with kids… But! There is still a lot I can do to reduce the trips I do take. This is a goal for me for 2011.

  4. I agree my friend. We really need to change our perception of what we call “The American way of life” or “The American Dream.” It doesn’t have to evolve around isolated, white picket fenced suburbias that force us to jump in a car every time we need/want something! Nice post.

  5. I agree my friend. We really need to change our perception of what we call “The American way of life” or “The American Dream.” It doesn’t have to evolve around isolated, white picket fenced suburbias that force us to jump in a car every time we need/want something! Nice post.

  6. Pingback: Bus Ride | One Earth to Live

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