On July 20, 2022, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spit out a doozy of a love letter to driving. After acknowledging the multiple downsides to cars and noting that driving has become at least fleetingly less popular among young Americans, Douthat proposes that receiving one’s license and getting behind the wheel are essential steps toward adulthood and, of course, toward subsequent discoveries of what makes Americans uniquely, well, American. He warns us not to back away from formative time behind the wheel.
But driving as a rite of passage? Driving merely requires physical coordination, rule comprehension and a set of keys. It resembles learning to ice skate backward on a crowded rink, not a sacred coming of age. Every Midwesterner has known children who wanted nothing to do with their sterile social lives and who used their newly minted licenses to get the heck off the farm or cul-de-sac to see friends, not to gain “freedom, familiarity and mastery by navigating swiftly through a complex landscape.”
Driving is important because we’ve made it essential for nearly every activity outside cities. Post-war communities sprawled away from formerly walkable or streetcar-served town centers, and the endless fractal expansion of inaccessible suburbs and 45 mph shopping continues nearly 80 years later. I guess we enjoy big homes and vast monoculture lawns. And maybe we experience a kind of terrible, limiting clannishness as a result.
“If you do not drive your neighborhood or region, what form of adult mastery and knowledge are you seeking in its place? If you do not drive your country’s highways and byways, what path do you have to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble?“
Douthat finds non-drivers neutered, limited and unaware. In this he shares common cause with most Americans, romanticizing the curious sex appeal conferred by the purchase and operation of an expensive, loud, smelly, murderous vehicle that speeds them across the landscape with a feathery touch of their toes. His desired “nonvirtual experience” is largely of interminable stroads lined with surface parking and commercial decrepitude. Except when it isn’t, as when his tool of discovery clogs rural byways, parks and scenic viewpoints with gawking coastal trippers.
“Whereas its [driving’s] possible replacements, especially the supposed self-driving utopia, transform democratic agents into isolated passengers moving under algorithmic power, no longer ‘mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion,’ ruled, scrutinized and passive.“
Mr. Douthat, the true nonvirtual experience of America is to be had on a train or a bus. The ultimate self-determination is experienced via self-locomotion from a bicycle seat or on foot. Non-driving travelers experience the world directly, without protection from shock absorbers, noise-preventive metal exo-cages and explosive safety pillows. To truly understand America “beyond your class and tribe and bubble,” for heaven’s sake do not roar off in a sealed, private internal combustion or electric-powered land rocket.
- Walk somewhere.
- Bike somewhere.
- Get on a local or regional transit conveyance and meet your national neighbors.
- Heck, meet your next-door neighbors. It’s a revelation.
Douthat wraps up with a hard-partying carbon case that “abstemious ecological piety” keeps young people from attaining their licenses. Speaking for my Boomer peers, who so often sit firmly in our bucket seats when walking our talk would prove wiser, we would be fortunate to live with the restraint and reverence for our planet that these young people embody. Instead, Douthat drives for dozens of hours on his family’s great American road trip, burning buckets of fossil fuels and torturing his children with boredom punctuated with visits probably not to the newly hallowed civil rights monument known as George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, but to the nearby suburban, Canadian-developed megamall-adjacent water park.
Development is determinism. Because many of us live in grandly, sometimes nightmarishly dispersed places, to experience more than perpetual family interaction and the domestic arts we drive: the daily commute, the school drop-off, constant trips to the grocery store and big box palace, the Sunday drive, the small-town Friday night Main Street cruise, the muscle car tailpipe concerts and tire-burning events and yes, certainly, the cross-country road trip.
Douthat says driving is an essential step toward adulthood. I’d say that it’s a waning social survival strategy in a country where our human-scaled communities and national transit system — long decayed — are valiantly struggling to come back. Let’s hope they make it.