A merry dance of Catholic social doctrine, permaculture, distributism, and other odd answers to pressing questions

Vol. I, No. 6

If Cars Ran on Grass (part 2)

2008 Mar 31, 12:00 Mon tags:


From the Editor

  • Feature Article: If Cars Ran on Grass (part 2)
  • Distributist News
  • Action: Time Your Car Time
  • Resources: Walking Techniques from the Racewalkers
  • Selection: Chesterton: Families Are Strange
  • Backmatter


Happy Easter! Today we'll finish my article on cars. I'm especially disturbed by what a car landscape does to the community. But as "community" is such a fuzzy word these days, I'll move over and let Chesterton have a bit to say on the bracing demands of being in a family, since real communities are an equally strange adventure.

Let me know what you think,

Bill Powell, Editor

It pains Us, therefore, to observe the complete indifference to the true hierarchy of values shown by so many people in the economically developed countries. Spiritual values are ignored, forgotten or denied, while the progress of science, technology and economics is pursued for its own sake, as though material well-being were the be-all and end-all of life.

John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 176. (1961)


If Cars Ran on Grass (Part 2)

by Bill Powell

[Continued from part 1: http://pennyjustice.com/ezine/01/05]

In part 1 of this article, we saw that cars and other vehicular traffic kill more than forty-two thousand people every year, in America alone. We also looked at how car ownership in America usually seems obligatory because we've built a car-based landscape. Without a car, it's almost impossible to navigate most of the country.

Now it's also true that with a car, you can do some amazing navigating indeed. You can get into your transport pod on the East Coast, start driving, and in 4 or 5 days, you'll hit the Pacific ocean. You can traverse the continent of North America in less than a week, with less physical effort than a two-mile walk, all the while staying clean, warm, and dry, not to mention entertained by music and audiobooks.

This is a significant revision to the human condition. Perhaps the real change came first with trains, and maybe airplane travel is more wondrous still, but the point is that you can do this right now with the machine outside your house. That is the power of the car, and it is not to be taken lightly.

Do You Like Your Car?

This is why the ACTION item of our last issue suggested a simple question: do you like cars? How often would you like to use yours? If you really love your car, you'll cherish our car landscape (especially after you try to visit Europe), and you'll accept the risk of death as a small price to pay.

It's probably obvious that I do not love my car. I like driving around the mountains as much as the next guy, but on balance, I don't think the car's worth the price.

I don't like wondering whether my wife will survive every trip to the grocery store. Weaving a potentially fatal accident into every bit of daily business seems, well, dumb.

(The same people who fret over the West Nile virus and scour the backyard to empty rainwater from trash can lids usually proceed to buckle up and drive to work. In 2007, in America, this virus killed a grand total of 121 people.[1])

I also don't like being forced to have a mechanical member of the family who, altogether, costs as much or more to care for as one of my children.

And I don't particularly like making explosive toxins part of my daily routine, not to mention the possibility of helping out with coastal flooding or unjust wars. (Tangent Avoidance Alert: I said possibility.)

I emphasize the word daily, because that seems to me the central problem. Whenever there's talk of ditching the car entirely, my first thought is, "How would I take long trips?" But most of us spend most of our car time on short trips. (Or trips that should be short, like the drive to work.) Even if you do love your car, perhaps you've never considered the more subtle things a car does to your daily life.

Do Cars Kill Community?

We aren't exactly encouraged to make eye contact and chat with oncoming traffic. When you do occasionally see two drivers stopped in conversation, it's irritating. They're in the way. You generally can't drive around them, nor are you invited to nose your vehicle on up and join in.

The human body at walking speed is really quite different from the human body at thirty or sixty miles an hour, encased in two tons of steel. You can't interact with people driving in cars. Drivers aren't even supposed to interact all that much with their passengers. (I'm one of those annoying shotgun riders who steadfastly ignores driver eye contact. We're in a careening transport pod, and one of us, in theory, is steering.)

Walking, and to a lesser extent a bus or a train, all allow for the magic of running into people (in the pleasant sense). In a car, you're isolated. You're not going to interact with anyone unless you plan to, or crash. But a public sidewalk or public transit is just that--public. You enter the public space.

If we dislike the public space, we dislke community. Somehow "community" sounds cozy these days, while "public" has a faint stench of dumpsters and pork bills. Perhaps "community" has been somewhat insidiously redefined to mean "people who share my interest." The Internet allows you to join a gazillion "communities": the bird-watching community, the online poker community, the recovering gamblers community. Enriching, to be sure. Here we are doing it. But as Neil Postman points out in one of his books (Technopoly, I think), "community" used to mean, and still ought to mean, something quite different: the people with whom I live--the public.

Communities are hard work. It takes a wee bit more effort to get along with the people on my street than the people in my inbox. But cars make this far harder than it needs to be. Neighbors are awkward because we have no earthly reason to interact with them. Both we and they can sneak in and out of our garages; we might as well live on opposite sides of the country. When a new family moves in, guest and host alike dread the Barbecue Invitation Invasion.

Most humans don't seem to like to make a point of making friends. We're much more comfortable doing something else, and keeping our eyes on what we're doing. Time goes by, and we suddenly find we've become friends. Many pre-industrial communities had an obvious shared mission--grow food and stay alive. From this mission came forth harvest dances, folk tales, and sometimes cathedrals. How to make this happen in a world of supermarkets and television and a thousand religions is a whole other article; but sidewalks do share the mission of movement. Highways don't.

Without a public space, community is impossible. We still have public spaces, parks and libraries and such places, but they're almost all connected with leisure. We've left behind most productive public activities, like shared harvests and barn raisings. We'll have to figure out how to bring back such things or invent new ones if we want real communities out of life and not just blog comments. But we can start by taking a daily productive activity--travel--and sharing it. Communities are woven by thousands of nearly invisible threads, strands of conversations and greetings and eye contact. Do we really want to give this up?

One of the funniest bits in the Pixar movie Cars was presumably unintentional; they managed to feature a wistful montage of the good old days when passing cars could say hello. You can only stretch anthropomorphism so far. Using cars to sing a Randy Newman song about small-town life is like having talking streetlights sing about stargazing.[2]

Do Cars Ruin the Fun of Cars?

There are good reasons for streetlights, just as there are are good reasons for cars, not to mention trucks. Streetlights are great on the street. But a streetlight would not make a good reading lamp. Even if streetlight manufacture were subsidized, even if we installed a "free" streetlight in every bedroom for nighttime reading, the thing would be too bright. Too much light actually works against reading.

We have too many places for cars to go. A car-based landscape doesn't only work against eye contact. Too many car places also works against the very goods cars are supposed to provide. Cars are meant to bring you where you want to go faster than if you walked; but when everyone has a car, people build things farther and farther apart.

In one sense, they have to, since every building now has to be surrounded with wider roads and parking tundras. But they also just find it cheaper (in the short term) to sprawl out and pave more fields. Then we suddenly find it takes a twenty minute drive to get anywhere. Where's the time saved?

Sure, there are differences between a 20-minute walk and a 20-minute drive. A 20-minute walk can be wet or cold or tiring. But a few months' gas money would buy you some sweet weather gear and an off-road shopping cart. A lifetime habit of 20-minute car rides appears to buy you obesity. Imagine if you exercised every day without even thinking about it.

In short, cars seem great for long-distance travel, but horrid for daily use.


In part 1, I poked fun at "saving the world by car pooling". Of course car pooling is helpful, and often a sacrifice. Car pooling also forces you to interact with other people, to wait, to overcome the illusion that you have the God-given right to get wherever you want as fast as you want. Ordinary traffic should do this too, but somehow it doesn't count.

I poked fun, though, because our problems go far beyond car pooling, and it's sometimes proposed as a real solution. Car pooling doesn't make you consider how we use cars in the first place.

A more "extreme" solution is to move somewhere where you can use the sidewalks. That's a big part of why I've recently moved; I now live downtown in a small city where I can walk to places like the library, the church, many shops, the farmer's market, and even the train station. So far, it's been amazing.

Obviously, this solution won't work for everyone. Long term, I might lean towards the country myself. But I mention it because it might happen to be an option for you, and one you hadn't seen in this light.

We need a good landscape for everyone, not only those who sneak into our dwindling store of charming downtowns. If we want a human landscape again, we're going to do a lot of rebuilding. This isn't quite as impossible as it sounds, because after all, we're the ones who built the current landscape. (And much of it is so cheaply built it'll soon fall down in a strong breeze.)

What might we build instead? In the classic design manual Pattern Language, the authors propose plenty of car roads between towns and cities, but sensible freedom for other forms of travel within towns and cities. This means more than simply adding sidewalks. People can't get around at walking speed unless we build our necessities in walkable clusters. A suburb with sidewalks may still be fifteen miles from a grocery store.

Most of us, however, are firmly in a "non-construction" industry. Not having the option to rebuild our whole neighborhood, what else might we do? As always, the first step is to think about the problem.

Do you like the landscape where you live? What purposes does it serve well? What purposes does it trash? These are the questions that rarely get asked, except at isolated points of absolute invasion, such as a nuclear waste dump or a Wal-Mart. If we would rather live in a world larger than our home entertainment system and backyard, we need to look at our landscape, think about it, and be willing to speak up.

When you start paying attention to local politics, you may be surprised at the initiatives in your area. Maybe they're deciding between tax breaks for Main Street and tax breaks for Home Depot. Maybe they're considering money for public transit; even if you wouldn't use it yourself, it means more freedom for people who shouldn't have to afford a car, many of whom already pay taxes for the highways and roads you might be using. Maybe people are debating whether to allow alternative building codes, like the New Urbanist SmartCode, which will at least make it legal to mix residences and businesses in a walkable way.

This conversation is happening, and it's not always in the evening news. None of these ideas are going to make a place perfect overnight, but they're steps we can support right now.

Meanwhile, we have personal options. For instance, biking. I don't mean to give bikes a short shrift, but I've found biking much harder exercise than walking. I hesitate to praise bikes as a first step away from the car; it seems too easy to get discouraged. Also, bikes seem rather like cars in some ways: somewhat isolating, somewhat hungry for space and pavement, somewhat geared to speed above all, riding past the world as fast as you can--and so somewhat easy to get hurt. Still, bikes have many positives too, and they're a worthy alternative to cars. I just don't want to present them as a panacea.

Wherever you live, using your own car less can make a real difference. I'm not thinking so much of your "carbon footprint" as your mindset. Is there anywhere you can walk to? Or take the bus? If so, why not make it a habit?

Unfortunately, sporadic walking can seem the worst of both worlds; you risk rain, sleet, and exhaustion, and you have to maintain the expense of the car in your garage. But we might not have the courage to leave our cars behind until we've practiced doing without them. Walking is so different. You have to accept that it's okay that you're not moving so fast, you're still going to get there. It's a whole other way of experiencing the world. Everything in between you and your destination actually exists. You're walking through it, not driving past it.

You can also use your car less by going out less. I don't mean to suggest cutting back on get-togethers, but popping out to buy a missing ingredient or rent a movie isn't exactly a social event. Though cars promise the illusion of instant travel, those little convenience trips can add up to half hours and hours of needless driving. It's probably wholesome to maintain an awareness that every car trip does indeed excrete poison and immediately endanger your life. Awareness, I say, not guilt--this wasn't all your idea. But the least we can do is restrain from trivial uses.

The payback might be an extra evening hour, time to finish a book or make a call or play with the kids. Things you might rather do anyway. I always come back to this bizarre situation in today's wealthy countries, that so often the better, juster choice is the thing I'd rather do anyway. Maybe you'll find the same pattern.

Bill Powell


[1] West Nile Virus fatalities for 2007:

[2] MOVIE TANGENT: Since I've picked on the movie Cars, did anyone else find it a bit ominous that, unlike every other Pixar movie so far, there were no people? I doubt the Pixar folk are subliminally advocating race suicide; but it's interesting that they felt that a world of cars had no artistic place for humans.

True, humans might have been awkward, since we do drive cars.

(Although this was the whole fun of the old Herbie movies; the sentient Volkswagen bug was happy to let you drive most of the time, but he did get his own ideas. In other words, it was magical and enchanting and fantastic that our daily transportation might be sentient...like, well, a horse.)

I wonder if the presence of people would have just been embarrassing--to us. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an alien assumes the name "Ford Prefect", thinking that cars actually are the dominant life form on the planet. If the cars could talk, the term "dominant" might be an uncomfortably appropriate.

On the other hand, who the heck built all those machines those Pixar cars used? The only candidate is that little Italian tire-changer, but there were only a couple of his kind, and an awful lot of cars and car machinery to fix. Was there a hidden race of Morlock robots that crafted thousands of comfy appliances that could be operated by an inflated rubber tire? And what horrible price did they exact after dark?

And speaking of H. G. Wells, did he ever make the connection between his flabby aliens hoisting themselves into their tripods for their daily jaunt and the Model T? I wonder.



"While such lifestyle changes at times may seem irrelevant, every small initiative to reduce or offset one's carbon footprint, be it the avoidance of the unnecessary use of transport or the daily effort to reduce energy consumption, contributes to mitigating environmental decay and concretely shows commitment to environmental care."


"Bishops in Taiwan are urging the faithful to make better use of public transportation and "go green" to safeguard the environment."

ACTION: Time Your Car Time

Are you curious how many hours you actually spend in the car each week? If so, keep a notebook in the car. When you start the car, jot the time, and when you turn it off, jot that time on the same line. At the end of the day, total it all up. You can estimate by quarter hours if you like, and do the math in decimals (15 min = 0.25).

Whatever else cars may be, they certainly aren't instant. You might find your car time's just right, or less than you thought. Or you might find a new motivation to see what you're city's up to in the transportation department.

RESOURCES: Walking Techniques from the Racewalkers

I've talked a lot about walking in this article, and since my move here I walk somewhere almost every day. It occurred to me that there might be some techniques out there worth knowing if you haven't walked in awhile, so I looked around, and discovered once again that you can find a group for almost anything on the Internet--in this case, racewalking. It is an Olympic sport. In fact, there's a North American Racewalking Foundation. In fact, walking races apparently predate running races, at least in modern times.

While I'm not intrigued enough to start racing myself, my normal walking might benefit from some of the NARF tips on basic technique:

I also enjoyed their thoughts on why anyone would racewalk, rather than just run.

Depending on how far you're walking, stretches might not be a bad idea either.

And if you are considering biking, don't think you'll have to stop in the winter. Oh no. Not at all.



Chesterton: Families Are Strange

[What Chesterton says here about the family seems largely true of a real "community" too--the neighborhood kind, not the chat room.]

It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world. They are dismayed and terrified by the largeness and variety of the family. Sarah wishes to find a world wholly consisting of private theatricals; George wishes to think the Trocadero a cosmos. I do not say, for a moment, that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual, any more than I say the same thing about flight into a monastery. But I do say that anything is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own. The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is everything that its enemies call it. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there. So long as you have groups of men chosen rationally, you have some special or sectarian atmosphere. It is when you have groups of men chosen irrationally that you have men.

The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

Chesterton, G. K., Heretics.
Full document: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/470

Note: I'm sorry to add that the two pennyjustice links in this issue were broken when I mailed it out. They were written as http://pennyjustice/, not http://pennyjustice.com/. I've fixed them in the online version.

« If Cars Ran on Grass (part 1)  •  Let's Print Our Own Money »
  • Update

    Penny Justice is not currently active, but you can still browse the back issues. For a daily quote from the social documents, follow @socialteaching on Twitter, or use the RSS feed. You may also enjoy reading the Distributist Review.

  • Ezine

    Penny Justice is a free bimonthly ezine featuring thoughts, news, resources, and concrete ideas on how to live justice right now, one penny and one moment at a time.

  • Pennies

    Life is made of pennies. We think in terms of dollars: thousands of dollars, millions, billions, trillions. You might not even pick a penny off the ground. But the most gigantic corporation would wither and die without pennies. And for many a man, woman, and child, a few hundred pennies is the work of a day.

    We don't control great fortunes, but we do control our pennies. We don't control our years, but we do control this moment. Billionare or beggar, we live one instant at a time.