Driving Sucks

This video looks at the propaganda and truths that lure us into assuming cars are the best way to get around. Examining and deconstructing this indoctrination, we’ll look at how the stories and messages around us blend with our own experiences to create our faith in cars as a solution, then question that faith by comparing the mystique to the day-to-day reality. Acknowledging it is difficult to escape the convenience of the automobile, we’ll look at the benefits of the alternatives.

This piece is also on YouTube, where you can discuss or comment on the video.

Additional reading and watching:



This is a transcript of the video’s voiceover.

Time is money, that’s what we say in America, and that our time is valuable.

And that’s why we hate traffic. Traffic wastes our valuable time, and thus our money, being stuck in it.

In endeavoring to save money our government perpetually spends money widening roads so that we can go faster. Except that it doesn’t work because of something called Induced Demand―I’ll link to some videos that go more in depth, but in short, “if you build it, they will come.” Existing travelers adjust habits and routes to take advantage of any new capacity, and development along new and expanded highways is spurred on by the awesome new fast convenience. But doing so produces―"Induces"―more traffic, filling up the new capacity so in just a few years we’re stuck in traffic again.

Car companies propose to solve this with fully self-driving cars. Instead of driving ourselves, we will tell the car where we want to go and it will do the driving for us. It may not be faster but we will be free to use travel time to make calls, text our friends, check TikTok, play candy crush or do whatever the latest waste of time is.

That is, if self-driving software ever becomes reliable and safe enough that it stays on the road and stops running people over. I have my doubts about that, as do all my software engineering friends. Driver assist? Sure. Full-on automation? We’re all very skeptical.

But, why do we need the automation? We really already have a sort of self-driving thing: it’s called a bus or a trolley, and it doesn’t rely on artificial intelligence, instead working with real intelligence.

Okay, to be fair the control system is a human, but here’s the thing: it’s not me. From my perspective, I wave my card or put a few coins in a slot, and thereafter it drives itself. I can read, surf the net, check my e-mail, or watch cute cats on YouTube, without risk of running someone down because I’m distracted or because of a bug in the code or the AI missed something.

If you’re American, there’s a good chance you’ve done this before, riding Big Yellow to school when you were a kid. For me it was a chance to talk with friends, read my assignments, or look out the window and study the new wires the cable company was hanging on poles―Asperger’s, what can I say? In middle school I often browsed the latest issue of TRS-80 Microcomputer News, or continued plowing my way through 6809E Assembly Language programming―more Asperger’s.

The bus worked then. What made us break from that in adulthood?

In 2001, I had a tough tech job maintaining drivers and kernel modules. On top of 40 hours every week for work, there was another 3 to 5 hours commuting, plus the week’s personal trips for groceries or whatnot.

Cracking under the stress, I stopped driving and switched to the bus for the work commute. It took an extra 5 hours a week, however all that commute time could be used to read, stare out the window decompressing, think, write in my journal, or talk to fellow passengers. What I had imagined would be wasted or “dead” time, was instead relaxation time.

So the problem isn’t just the time it takes to commute, it’s the work of commuting. Driving in traffic sucks: staying alert, getting stuck in slow-downs and construction zones, being cut off by assholes jockeying for a position, dealing with slick roads when the weather sucks. It’s no freakin' fun.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love driving on the open road. I was born in America, and in America, cars aren’t just transportation, they’re part of the culture. And as kids, we’re all indoctrinated to the car propaganda.

Movies like Grease, where Greased Lightening is the celebrated hot rod that ensures the guys gets the girls.

Like Baby Driver, all about the hot-shot young getaway driver kid.

Like “Gone in 60 Seconds”, where the star of the movie is a 1973 Ford Mustang named Eleanor. And Eleanor, the car, gets first billing in the closing credits.

In the Dukes of Hazzard, the General Lee is an unspoken character, while KITT in Knight Rider has full-on character and personality.

The Lincoln Lawyer is named for the protagonist’s preferred automobile, and there are whole series that take place entirely in cars―Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In almost every action film there’s a car chase, or occasionally a cement mixer or dump-truck chase.

And it’s not just having any car, it’s having the right car for the role. In the series Lucifer, Mr Morningstar drives a black 1962 Chevrolet Corvette C1―convertible, of course. This is replaced later in the series by a lovely red 1963 Aston Martin DB4―also convertible.

We have whole shows devoted to cars―Fifth Gear, Top Gear, Jay Leno’s Garage, American Auto, Monster Garage―the list goes on.

Even Disney gets in on it, with the animated film “Cars”.

And when we’re not making movies, we instead sing about Little Deuce Coupes, drive daddy to drinkin' with Hot Rod Lincolns, brag about G.T.O.s and beg the lord for a Mercedez Benz. So snag the keys to her Ferrari and run it up and down the 101 before heading out for some kicks on Route 66. I just hope those 500 Italian horses won’t be shown up by a little-old Nash rambler stuck in second gear.

It’s no freakin' wonder America is like this. We’re indoctrinated as kids to worship the automobile.

Growing up in Connecticut, I was inundated with all these messages about cars and how awesome it would be to drive. I was promised freedom to come―no more relying on my parents to drive me places. One day, I would be able to go on my own.

These days, in 2023, roads are often so busy it’s not safe for kids to a bike more than a few doors down, but in the 1970s my parents gave me a lot of freedom. Still, how far could I really ride my bike? Growing up, my range was about 2 miles, or three kilometers―but many of the kids I went to school with were miles away. If I wanted to see those friends, our parents had to arrange times and shuttle us around. I couldn’t just call to see if somebody wanted to meet up on the playground and play tag, like I could with the limited number of closer friends.

So it’s no wonder that when I turned 16 and acquired my license, suddenly a whole new world opened up for me. I could go where I wanted, with whom I wanted. No longer was I obliged to tell my parents who I was seeing or do it on my parents' schedule, or be restricted by their bedtime.

The family car was only a 1984 Ford Escort, but it changed my life. It took me on dates with my first two girlfriends, Jennifer and Kathy. It’s how I got back and forth to my first job as a sales rep at Radio Shack.

Driving was fun―in the driver’s seat, all was new and novel, going places I’d never been before. Jennifer lived 3 1/2 hours away in New Jersey, offering exploration of new places and different routes. My preference eventually settled on the Merritt State Parkway, an insane 1930s limited-access highway that twists and winds through southwest Connecticut. Packed with rush hour traffic, driving it requires 100% attention; there’s no room for error. It’s stimulating.

All these experiences mean that Ford Escort is now inextricably woven into my memories of coming of age.

That same Escort later carried me to new adventures and friendships at college in Rochester, NY. I found another safe space and open-minded people at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which showed at midnights; had I lacked a car, the exploration and growth that happened there would have been impossible.

Fast forward a few years: I graduated college, landed a paying job in my field, and upgraded to my dream car: A purple Saturn sports coupe with a 1.9-liter 16-valve twin cam dual sequential-port fuel injection engine and a nice sound system and a sunroof. Fishie Car was with me while started exploring the night club scene, and for my first serious relationship. Devon didn’t work out, but Fishie Car stayed with me. That car took me hiking in the Adirondack Mountains, the Catskills, the Finger Lakes and the Appalachian trail. I went to a few Pagan events, some women’s events, and to the Serpent Mound, an earthwork in southwest Ohio where I asked Katerina to handfast for a year-and-a-day. She didn’t work out either, but when I wanted to explore kink, Fishie Car was my companion, traveling to my first play parties in Rochester and Syracuse, my first swim at Naturist Rochester, my first fetish munch in Toronto, and later my first Camp Crucible in Maryland.

These were novel, interesting new places to go with new adventures. Meanwhile, though, there was a growing discontent with driving.

Every day was the same slog, the same route back and forth to work. It wasn’t so bad when it was a short trip, but when I got a job 25 miles away, I was sick of the drive within 2 months. It didn’t help that it was winter, everyday coping with slow traffic on a slick 2-lane road. I worked 8 hours, add 45 minutes for lunch, and an hour and a half to-and-from work. At the end of a mentally exhausting day writing software, I faced an exhausting drive fighting traffic to get home. Subtract out time for breakfast, dinner, showers and chores and it felt like all I did was work, travel, eat and sleep.

Driving began to suck, but at first I never stopped to consider alternatives. It was an obligatory task, something I did because I needed to be somewhere. Driving was to transportation as cooking was to eating: one of life’s essential tasks.

My next job was only 10 miles away, but it wasn’t much better. The same slog, day after day, fighting rush-hour traffic through downtown. When the weather was cooperative, I rode my bike―which was nice, clearing my head so I’d arrive home feeling refreshed. But that meant driving was always in crappy weather conditions on bad roads.

And this is when I tried the bus one day. I expected it to be horrendous, and… well, it wasn’t great. It was slow, taking over an hour each way with transfers. But it wasn’t fighting traffic either.

I adjusted my morning routine to grab breakfast during a layover. I started bringing books and reading: in the year or so I took the bus, I plowed through The Hobbit, all 3 Lords of the Rings books, about 75% of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and more. After an epic D&D session, I used travel time to write a bardic song recalling the Battle of Unther, gaining my character a ton of experience points. Thinking I might want to run a campaign myself, I developed a world with a history and cultural backstories, which was a lot of fun.

The bus was slow, but once I overcame “Time is money” and “My time is valuable” thinking, the bus turned out okay. “Hurry up and get home so I can relax” was replaced with, “Okay, time to chill, right now.” Maybe the bus took longer, but since I could use the whole commute time to relax, I had more downtime than when I took the car.

Unfortunately the complex I worked in wasn’t as busy as it had been during Kodak’s heyday, and eventually the bus service was cut back. I worked there another year or so, but fighting traffic on the daily commute was one more daily stresser that eventually lead to serious burn-out. I left the software industry, never to return professionally.

Long-haul drives also lost their fun. When I moved to Rochester for college, I didn’t mind the 6-hour drive to and from my parent’s house. In time, though, that 300-mile drive became a slog. Sometimes I took different routes, sacrificing speed for the novelty of back roads through small towns: Cobleskill, Catskill, Hudson, Middleburgh, Livingstonville, Durham, Richfield Springs, Cazenovia. But eventually, those felt repetitious too.

Car commercials often show cars speeding around twisty, windy roads. In movies like Baby Driver, our hero clutches and shifts, jamming gears to eek out every bit of performance. Doing that on the Merritt State Parkway is fun―on the occasions I’ve done it. But I suspect if I was one of those poor commuters who drive that route every friggin' day, it would quickly become a high-stress, no-fun burden. That’s not what car commercials show us: they show us the open road, no traffic or traffic lights, just interesting curves and terrain that appeal to our senses of fun, adventure and exploration.

By this time I had owned my house for 10 years, and come to love my neighborhood: a diner around the corner, a regular weekend spot for me and my boyfriend. Across from that is a little hardware store that’s amazing. It’s jam-packed with hardware and helpful staff. I still need to go to a big box for large stuff like lumber, but 99% of stuff I need is a short walk or bike away. The bank is a little farther, convenient by bike or a nice walk on a good day. There are 3 bikeable grocery stores, it’s a 2-minute walk to a pizza shop, and there are several other restaurants not far away.

Prior places I lived, it was normal to spend 10 minutes or often more, each way, driving to the grocery store, hardware store, restaurant or a mall. It often felt like my car was where I really lived, and my apartment was just a place I rented to keep my bed and my stuff.

Several friends moved to the suburbs, and although I tried to stay in touch, distance had a toll. It wouldn’t have been hard to hop in the car and go visit, but after 8 hours of coding and more time slogging back and forth to work, none of us were inclined to make 20 minute drives to visit the other. Close friendships faded into casual acquaintanceships. Our actions, or lack of them, speak volumes about how much any of us really love spending time on the road.

Sick of the 6-hour-slog to visit family, I tried the train and bus. The ride was definitely an improvement, especially on the train with its generous space. Alas, the final connection through rural Connecticut has since been discontinued, making this less viable. Declining service is a long-running trend. There used to be trains and trolleys criss-crossing the American landscape, connecting cities, towns and villages. Most were privately owned and operated, viable because everyone used them. But when the motorcar caught hold, a feedback cycle started. The more people that drove, the less transit was needed, so service declined, so more people choose to buy a car and drive.

And now, here we are, stuck in traffic, waiting at traffic lights, getting nowhere in our automobiles because they’re a victim of their own success.

When I worked in tech I was bringing home good money, like all my friends, and it was a regular thing to have a car payment, so I didn’t think about it. It’s hard to question the status quo when we’re part of it. Since leaving tech, though, money is more dear, so I now look at costs of everything and stretch what I have. Besides, I loved my Saturn. So I ran it into the ground, keeping it alive 18 years.

Fishie Car cost $20,000 new. Maintenance over the years was $12,425―I keep good records―did I mention Asperger’s? I estimate insurance costs at $14,400 over the lifespan, and $12,400 for the over 4,000 gallons of fuel. The car cost nearly $60,000 over its lifespan, or $.41 per mile―about the IRS mileage allowance for that time.

I ran the used Mazda that replaced it 40,000 miles. My boyfriend Dave gave that to me for free, but it still cost 53 cents a mile―just about the current IRS mileage allowance. Of that, 11,159 went for repairs, 3,750 for fuel, and 6,400 for insurance. About $21,000 total, over 8 years.

Many of those miles were helping out at Dave’s office, about 25 miles away. 250 miles a week, 1000 a month. A tankful of gas every week. It adds up quickly; thankfully, he pays well. At that distance, at New York’s minimum wage at the time, just paying for the gas would be the first 3 hours of work each week. It would be 5 hours at the current federal minimum wage.

If we look at the total cost of ownership, it was costing me about 5 hours of pay. At New York minimum, it would be a day and a half; at federal minimum, 45% of my pay. And that’s before the taxes are taken out of the pay. Our cars are bankrupting us. And the perpetual roadway expansion to accommodate all our cars is bankrupting the country.

Well… Okay, there’s more than that bankrupting the country, but it’s one piece of the problem.

So right now, we’re at a crossroads. To save the planet we need to shift away from fossil fuels. This is our best opportunity to rethink things.

But first, I want to be clear: I don’t think the internal combustion engine is going away entirely. As a cyclist I know a bike rolls best on smooth asphalt. On rough asphalt or chip-seal it’s to pedal harder, even more-so on dirt or stone dust. Sand, mud and loose gravel are taxing, or an abrupt halt.

So imagine a tractor moving through a muddy field. And it’s pulling a harrow, harvester, rake or baler behind it, and maybe a wagon behind that. The machine it’s pulling is often connected to the tractor’s power take-off, running the machinery being pulled. Working fields requires immense amount of energy. Even the best battery tech we have pales in comparison to the energy density of fossil fuels. And these are fields, so there’s no electrical infrastructure. Even if we put in charge points, charging takes a long amount of time. When it’s harvest time, tractors have to run all day long, sometimes through the night. They can’t sit around hours a day charging. And it’s not feasible to cover 1.4 million square miles with overhead centenary. For farm uses, fossil fuels are not going away for the foreseeable future.

But in other areas, we can and do need to cut back on our fossil fuels. Cars are a big portion of that, but the idea being sold is to switch from internal combustion cars to battery-powered cars, and continue on mindlessly expanding roads in hopes it’ll finally fix traffic.

I acknowledge there will still be some private vehicles on the road: construction and delivery vehicles, landscapers and plumbers, electricians and handymen: it’s not viable to haul all their tools and supplies on a bus. And for these vehicles, switching to battery-electric solutions might be viable, even a good solution.

But for those of us that are office workers, clerks, managers, warehouse workers―we are all traveling the same routes. Each of us buying and driving our own battery-powered car is a short-sighted solution.

There’s misery in fighting traffic and driving the same route over and over. But there’s also the matter of the batteries: it takes a lot of material, much of it rare earths, to make the lithium-ion batteries. We’re not great at recycling, but we’ll get better; still, though, recycling isn’t 100%. There’s always some material lost or contaminated. And maybe we’ll find a new, even better battery technology, but if so, it’s just a different material that will need to get dug up and refined.

Switching to private battery-electric cars just swaps the environmental damage done by fossil fuels for environmental damage by digging up battery materials.

The carbon dioxide problem isn’t that I personally produced too much in my life, or that together we used too much last year. It is the cumulative damage of all of us living the high life in industrialized countries, year after year, that’s been ramping up for 200 years now. If we’re not careful we’re going to exchange climate change with a new environment problem relating to lithium or rare earths mining or other material needed for batteries. Thankfully, scaling back car-dependency is not only good for the planet, it’s a path to happier life.

We should rethink.

Cars can be amazing. I don’t know if I’d be the person I am without them. But there’s the catch: in this country, in the United States, I’m dependent on having a car. It’s super difficult to live without one because getting around is so difficult. But getting around with a car is also miserable, at least for the day-in, day-out commutes that we make over and over.

If there’s this many people all going in the same direction, why the hell are we each taking our own giant personal transporter, each doing the work of driving, each burning separate fuel that we must pay for instead of just sharing a ride together?

This is stupid, and it sucks. There is a better way. Stop listening to the car-culture programming we’ve all been indoctrinated with. My suggestion is bring a book, or a reading tablet―you can even install a book reader on your phone. Something fiction, something fun. Something where you can step away from the stress of the workplace. Avoid the Internet, 'cuz this thing is toxic and just gets us all angry at each other, with everybody arguing over stupid crap. Bring a nice, enjoyable book, hop on the bus and use the time to decompress.

The first few days, it’s going to be hard, you’re going to think, “I need to be there quick, this thing is way too slow.” But, breath. Calm yourself down. Enjoy your book.

When you’re leaving in the morning, walking past the car on the way to the bus may tempt you. Push the temptation away, and instead listen to the birds, notice flowers or clouds or if it’s early enough, the sunrise. Appreciate the moment, the crisp, fresh morning air. Don’t let the walk be a chore, make it into an opportunity, a moment of peace.

It doesn’t take long. In a week or two, you’ll start looking forward to that downtime, to learning what happens next in the book. Or maybe just appreciate time to stare out the window and think.

There is a better way… but change is hard, especially with how deeply we’re all indoctrinated to car culture and car ways. It’s a choice to reject automotive indoctrination and choose the better way. Making it work requires shifting gears in the way we treat travel time, from “How can I get there as fast as possible” to “How can I use this time?”

Good luck, en fijn dag.