How Cars Drove the American Dream to Nowhere, U.S.A.

By Henry Downes

Americans love their cars. I'm not entirely sure whether this bond was forged out of some vague sense of American individualism or perhaps was simply the offspring of our nation's industrial genius, but it is indisputably a part of our national character. Maybe the car is so beloved because it is the legacy to our pioneering history -- the idea that anyone can hop in the Chevy and go almost anywhere, especially since Americans hold the concept of social mobility so dear. From any perspective, owning a car has become an indispensable piece of the American Dream.

However, our love affair with automobiles doesn't come without a cost. Many problems have come to be closely identified with the ways in which we use our cars, which has included everything from the damaging pollution of our environment to frustrating traffic backups in major cities to tragic levels of vehicular homicide caused by drunk or reckless driving. In my opinion, however, America's infatuation with cars has produced an even more devastating consequence: the degradation and demoralization of civic life in our towns and cities. I argue that this single, particularly insidious outcome of American car culture is, in many ways, the ultimate source of a whole slew of societal ills that plague us today.

When was the last time you really walked somewhere? If you're like most Americans, you probably spend more time going up and down the stairs in your house each day than purposefully using your legs outside to get from Point A to Point B. Most roads aren't safe for pedestrian travel anymore, and there are several reasons for this. But, most importantly, people don't walk anywhere nowadays because there's nowhere to go.

The first thing someone asks you when you meet is often: "Where are you from?" Well, where are Americans really from nowadays? No one lives in any actual place anymore. We sell off our once pristine farmlands to be converted into residential "developments," which essentially consist of cookie-cutter boxes with no character, yet these are somehow supposed to pass for a "home." These vanilla suburban developments might receive pastoral names like "River Run" or "Forest Estates"-- even though there are no longer any rivers or forests to be seen.

To me, it is apparent that the alarming frequency with which our once classic American towns and cities are becoming nondescript no-places can be chalked up to the way we use our cars. Everyone commutes to his or her job by using the freeway. By sleeping in the suburb by night and working in the city by day, we've separated the private and public spheres, yet we have convinced ourselves that they remain somehow connected. This is an artificial connection at best, nonexistent at worst.

Our love of driving places has detached us from the places themselves, and what we're left with is an appalling society that is devoid of the sense of "home." Most people move at least once every five years. The historical character of Main Street, U.S.A. has been ravaged to worship the car and cater to automotive convenience at every turn. Gas stations, muffler shops, parking lots and drive-in fast food "restaurants" have replaced once valuable real estate in cities and towns, and banal raised ranches in tasteless residential developments have been substituted for rural communities. You might see identical houses in similar neighborhoods in Memphis, Detroit, San Jose and Syracuse. This kind of civic deterioration is demoralizing to the American spirit and has bastardized the American Dream.

The car has been the driving force of our glorification of modern suburbia, which has increasingly resulted in a decentralization and degradation of culture. This is not only a threat to the fabric of society, but it promises dire economic consequences, as well. Pedestrians are becoming extinct. Small businesses are dying. Traffic congestion on major freeways is symptomatic of maddening systemic inefficiency, and this system of automobile infrastructure costs billions annually to maintain. Dangerous exhaust fumes are likely warming our planet. Our dependence on gasoline has frightening political consequences. The list goes on.

What can be done to reverse these grave trends? If the U.S. followed the lead of most other developed nations and began emphasizing high speed and efficient public transit projects like trains and subways, we would undoubtedly be in a better position twenty years from now. Local governments can incentivize people and businesses to relocate to our remaining towns and cities and ensure a return to meaningful civic life by enacting progressive zoning and development statutes. Most importantly, however, the American people need to return to a core attitude that once made our civilization great: proud individualism tempered by a greater concern for the public good. Maybe then, citizens will be able to leave behind their "house" in Nowhere, U.S.A. for a true "home" on Main Street, U.S.A.