The Dreadfulness of Cars

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Just a quick reflection on something I have been thinking about a lot lately… 

In Richmond, British Columbia, where I have spent a lot of time the past two years, pristine public paths traverse the city. Along these paths, the residents, young, old, Chinese, white, bike, run or walk up and down the paths toward the ocean waters that surround the city. Along these paths, Richmond offers plenty of lovely nature for the mindful and intrepid traveler. Along the dikes and trails, one can see marshlands and pristine ocean views of the Pacific; birds of all kinds, including Bald Eagles; and a variety of trees and flowers springing from the meadows on mild spring days. 

Richmond, you see, is an island, originally called Lulu Island. It is a small island, and within an hour or so by bike, you can reach the water. Because of this, Richmond is a special suburb, unlike any I have spent any real time within. Despite all this natural beauty, every walk, run, or bike ride when I am in Richmond is never quite as calming or serene as I might hope. The reason? Car traffic. 

My many sojourns through the Richmond trail, while often mindful, often feel disturbed, by the incessant hiss of motors spurring along the many roads that run parallel to the unsullied nature all around. Stillness, you see, I have to come to realize is healing. It is one of the reasons why I am such a meditation enthusiast. It is only in true quiet whether internally or externally, that one can hear one’s true voice, the voice that speaks beneath all the anxieties and troubles of modern life. And the truth is when cars are around, I never quite feel at ease. For every moment of real quiet, one use to reflect there seems to be a countering stream of endless revving that breaks through my consciousness. 

I think of Wordsworth and Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey and wonder how he would have felt if there a highway nearby that disturbed his romantic reflections? I imagine he would eschew and curse the modern world. I imagine he would long for real nature, undisturbed by modernity with all its roaring gadgets. I imagine that we would all feel a little less anxious without a little less noise pollution in our lives.  

Of course, I understand that cars are an accepted fact of modern life and that almost everyone in the Western world has one. Because I’ve lived in New York City for almost 20 years, I am one of the lucky ones who does not own a car because of the mass transit in the city. But like everyone else, I depend on cars sometimes, whether it’s a cab or an Uber. But I grew up in California and owned a car several years before moving to New York, and to be honest, I mostly liked it. My car provided me freedom from my parents in my teenage years in particular. I could escape the sadness of my dysfunctional home. I could just drive and be in a new place with friends or go anywhere my heart desired. 

But as I got older, that freedom became less appealing as the world of adult responsibilities was thrust upon me. Suddenly I had to commute! And as anyone who lives in the Bay Area knows, the traffic is horrendous, especially during the rush hours. So I spent many dreadful hours stalled for miles upon miles, inching forward like a sloth, wasting my life away in my vehicle. 

And there is the suburban sprawl that car culture encourages. One of the great things about living in New York City is its walkability. All within a half-mile of my apartment, I have access to numerous grocery stores, hardware stores, restaurants, bakeries, butcher shops, bars, libraries, and parks. This density creates a vibrant life where people and elan are all around. It is lovely to be around, although it doesn’t afford the quiet I often seek but that is the subject for a different post. Car culture promotes the opposite, the lack of density. Suddenly strip malls and parking lots and many mile drives are the norms. One isn’t surrounded by the vitality of a walking culture but trapped away in our vehicles, separate from our fellow man. It also promotes homogeneity. Everything looks the same. 

I am currently in California in my childhood home for a funeral, and in my time here, I keep looking for signs of life in my long walks, and I see are strip malls and cars. There are patches of beauty, sure. Yesterday I discovered a lone calla lily in all of its curved beauty, growing in a patch of overgrown grass. But those moments feel rare. I am surrounded by the trappings of modernity, of suburban life, and my soul doesn’t quite ever feel at peace. 

I have the sense many will disagree with me or are just resigned to the facts of our car culture. But I long more and more as I get older, to be rid of the noise of cars, the inconvenience of cars, to be rid of the steel and concrete of American life for something simpler: a quiet ocean view with no sounds around except the rush back and forth of the waves. 

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