URBAN EXPLORATIONS – FEATURED ARTICLE

IS THE SADDLE A GRAVE?

An article on our cultural obsession with the automobile with inspiration. Building our cities around this inefficient and deadly machine.
by Austin Miller

There’s a dirty little secret about driving: nobody likes it. Most are not able to admit it, for they are themselves unaware that congestion, the constant and excessive costs of car ownership as well as road rage are all avoidable. No survey has asked the questions that would generate responses such as “I only think I like driving because I see few alternatives, and all of those are threatening to my identity.”

However, the question in the title is asking about something seemingly more important than lives lost and bodies disfigured—if those aspects were what mattered, then the fact that cars are the leading cause of death for young people in America and worldwide would be enough to distance ourselves from the auto. Indeed, something more important than our lives must be at play.

Welcome to Springfield, Illinois. It is my hometown, and a city of sprawl, typical of much of suburban and small town United States.  It is an environment created in a way that forces me to cross a highway, Illinois Route 4, in order to access my credit union, my places of employment or the grocery store.  Lest the obvious go underappreciated, it is neither possible nor desired for a bicyclist to keep pace with the traffic rushing along at 50 mph (80.5 Kilometers per hour).  At such death speeds, the answer to the question, Is the saddle a grave?, becomes a demonstrated “yes.”

 

Figure 1: Google Maps image of my neighborhood. Red lines indicate high speed roads that I need to use to access basic goods and services.

 

The persistence and importance of the automobile, in spite of fumes breathed or the injuries incurred can be understood by what a middle-aged driver in a grey luxury sedan angrily yelled at me, adrenaline fresh in my veins from pedaling with traffic across the highway to my bank: “I respect bikers, but stay out of traffic!”

 

Figure 2: Cars going 50MPH on the highway that separates me from my doctor, groceries and credit union. Photo credits: Austin Miller

 

The illogic of this self-contradicting hail is worth discussing.  First, if one respects bikers, but wishes them to stay out of traffic, when and where does one respect bikers? Should no one ride a bike during the poorly-named rush hour, which often lasts six or more hours? According to the driver’s logic, it is impossible to properly use non-automotive transport. Additionally, her statement implies once a biker, always a biker; her command that I stay out of traffic reveals an us-and-them mentality with boundaries between driver and biker stark, unmoving and vital to defend.

How did we get here? We find ourselves in a time and place where the automobile is fiercely defended in all types of public spheres, from the streets to the halls of congress. The car has taken its place in the hearts of Americans in the form of road trips, soccer-mom vans and freedom narratives, yet we can argue, in both measureable and immeasurable values, that cars are harming us, our families and our communities. Cars kill. Cars isolate. Cars poison the air. Yet it is precisely because we have invested so much into the regime of automobility that we continue to squander our health and our wealth on this most greedy of family members.

 

Figure 3: Cars criss-crossing at the intersection of Route 4 and Wabash Avenue. Wabash, with a speed limit of 40 MPH, is the only road that leads out of my neighborhood. Phot credits: Austin Miller

 

Much of the United States is intoxicated by the dream of a nuclear family, in a single-family home, secluded along a tree-lined street. The car itself is an important symbol of happiness, citizenship and capitalistic success in this story—family vacations, dropping the kids off at baseball practice or coming-of-age stories for the children.  Equally endemic, the architecture itself seemingly necessitates the automobile.  Single-use development, coupled with spacious yards and garages inefficiently put large distances between us, our neighbors and the goods and services we wish to access. Thus, the same architecture that bolsters the hegemony of middle-class, white, and heterosexual normalcy supports and is supported by individualized and artificially cheap automobility.

Outside of the residence-only zones, we have poured immense amounts of concrete, in the forms of parking lots and speedways, excluding anyone who dares risk life (even more so than in a car) to visit the grocery store on a bike.  Looking at the map (Fig. 1), the red lines represent streets where cars travel at 40+ mph (64 kilometers per hour). The route from where I live to my most fundamental destinations is blocked by highways and seas of parking lots (covering more than half of the area in focus). The immensity of the infrastructure projects become a form of control, forcing automobile use and a specific lifestyle with it.

 

Figure 4: A small portion of the vast and ubiquitous parking lots in Springfield, IL. Photo credits: Austin Miller

 

When experts in the field look at the fatalities, the skyrocketing rates of youth asthma, diabetes and obesity, ever-increasing travel times and destruction of our landscapes, they wonder why, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, do we continue with the car. Auto and oil lobbyists pour millions into drowning out everyone else’s opinions; social pressures and limited knowledge of what constitutes viable transportation are only part of the explanation.

At the heart of our obsession with the auto is an obsession with ourselves. Many of us have possessive investments in maintaining our privileged identities, and the car is a constitutive element of this process—be it class, race, gender or sexuality. Due to explicit government residential segregation based on race, and the compulsory middle-class heterosexuality of the suburbs, car ownership and use have become symbols of a privileged identity. Building our cities around this inefficient and deadly machine has excluded those who do not have access to or do not wish to participate in a very specific lifestyle. When drivers hurl insults towards bikers from their car windows, their insistence on the permanence of the car actually represents a hope for the resilience of a society that has so favored those particular groups and individuals. We must acknowledge and understand its cultural capital in order to reduce car in favor of more equitable, healthy and sustainable cities.

About the author

Austin Miller

Austin Miller is an urban explorer fascinated by humans fascination of cars.

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