On the ride home to my busy suburb of Philadelphia, I was especially excited about one item that would be awaiting me. No, it was not my bed; it was my car. Although it is thoroughly beat-up, almost as old as I am and the check engine light stares me down every time I drive, I am emotionally attached to that hunk of steel. However, I do not believe that it is the car itself that I love—I wouldn’t be particularly upset if it suddenly transformed into a 2015 Jaguar. I don’t even think it’s the act of driving, as driving can prove to be more stressful than your toughest midterm some days.
For me, driving is a symbol of freedom, as it is for most Americans who just couldn’t wait to pass their driving test and be rewarded with a little piece of plastic complete with one of the most unflattering pictures they’ve ever taken. Cars are an American infatuation, which has been evident since they became a staple of life nearly 100 years ago, especially with the proliferation of suburbia. Living car-less at Vassar for almost two months and meeting others who live completely different lifestyles has made me realize how much having access to a car can affect one’s experience.
Although I grew up in suburbia, I did not enjoy the conveniences of a housing development; we lived on a busy road without sidewalks where cars zoomed past at 50 mph. There were no neighborhood kids to play with, and the concept of going out and playing in the street was something I only witnessed on TV. My parents drove me to school and to my friends’ houses: Without the car, I would’ve been a prisoner in my own home.
Living a life dependent on cars can be limiting to children, especially when their parents work and they live in a place without any other children. Playing with friends becomes an ordeal that has to be organized, coordinated and planned around, rather than an everyday occurrence. First, your parents have to set up a play-date and decide at whose house it would be, when would be convenient for both parents, what time it will begin and what time it will end. For children whose parents have to drive them to see their friends and go through this trying process just for a few hours of playing tag, social interaction can become scarce.
These children are not familiar with where they live because they are often not allowed to walk anywhere for fear of dangerous drivers and because of sheer inconvenience. I recall having a friend who lived a few doors down from several of our other friends, and how exhilarating it was when we walked to their houses in fourth grade. There were no parents consulting with one another via days-long phone-tag, no schedule conflicts, no waiting for dad to get off work—we just got up and went on our own accord. At that age, cars can be more of a restriction than a liberating tool, and as people choose to live further and further from one another, they must take into account the effects that this will have on their children and their socialization.
Driving also affects a person’s relationship with their environment. It is entirely possible to drive to the same place every single day and not notice any of the landmarks on the way there—when we drive, our attention is everywhere and nowhere all at once. You change the radio station, insert a CD, turn on the wipers, change lanes, honk at the person about to merge into you, make obscene gestures at that same person, glance at the clock obsessively, calculate how late this traffic jam is going to make you and mentally flagellate yourself for lying in bed for those five extra minutes. This happens daily, if not several times per day, wearing them down and stressing them out. Amidst all that action and stress, it is easy to miss the beautiful sights we speed by.
Conversely, when walking to class at Vassar (so long as you’re on time), one can have a very peaceful experience as they pass by countless exotic trees, picturesque buildings, oddly friendly squirrels and the occasional “womp womp” sunning itself in an open expanse of grass. Walking down Raymond Ave., one can peek into store windows and run into a classmate on the way to the bank.
Even taking public transportation facilitates more of a relationship with wherever a person happens to be. Whenever I take the Port Authority Transport Corporation train into Philly (because driving there is a veritable nightmare, and my car dons the battle wounds to prove it), I can learn about different events, hear about a popular new restaurant and make a friend who knows a shortcut to wherever I’m heading.
While visiting a friend in Washington, D.C. over October break, I really enjoyed taking the Metro and walking around the city—by the end of my weekend, I felt like I knew the city a lot better than I did when I was driven through the city. Walking encouraged me to stop into odd little shops on my way to my destination and sample small local eateries rather than just driving from one known point to another, while the Metro provided a glimpse into the local culture and a few encounters with locals and other college students.
I noticed more than just the monuments and museums and got to know D.C. as more than just the place that I visited during my eighth grade field trip. I felt a lot less like a time-pressed tourist and more like a curious visitor, partly because none of my trip was wasted searching for parking spots or sitting in stagnant traffic.
Driving is a very solitary activity—even when driving with friends, it is easy to feel confined and anxious while behind the wheel, navigating traffic and trying to beat the clock. Those factors, coupled with the cost of driving and its environmental impact, make it a lot less romantic and may persuade future planners to make suburbia more walkable or at least provide better public transit.
In my experience, I have found that these methods foster a sense of community and allow one to truly take in the area and its people, rather than zooming past them. While driving allows one to get to know a large area more quickly, they often only know those few points to which they have traveled. Other ways of transportation allow one to meet new people, encounter old friends and stop and experience places that are off the beaten path.
Driving shouldn’t be the only way that we can be free to travel and explore the area around us, and no one should be restrained from these experiences because they cannot afford a car. While cars probably won’t lose popularity in the near future, we should consider ways of transportation that won’t just get us form point A to point B, but allow us to experience who and what is in between.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is currently undeclared.