And which auto-driver has not felt the temptation, in the power of the motor, to run over the vermin of the street – passersby, children, bicyclists? In the movements which machines demand from their operators, lies already that which is violent, crashing, propulsively unceasing in Fascist mistreatment. – Adorno, Minima Moralia
The United States is not just a flag, a history, or an idea – it’s a physical landmass roughly 3.8 million square miles in size, with 12,380 miles of coastline stretching across six time zones, containing more than 25,000 cities and towns and more than 323 million people. It is the fourth largest country in the world by landmass, and the third most populated in the world. The most common way to travel within its borders is generally by car.
With more than 2.6 million miles of paved road and the world’s largest controlled-access highway system (46,876 miles of it in 2014), the US runs on the automobile. Unless one lives in one of the few metropolitan areas where owning a car is mostly unnecessary, those without cars face difficulties including unemployment, poverty, and undue costs associated with finding alternate transportation. Though the United States has hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad track connecting cities to one another, much of it has fallen into disrepair or been abandoned.
NO PLATFORM will, at first, mainly follow the I-10 corridor from Jacksonville to Los Angeles. If I followed the route by train, the project would begin and end in Jacksonville. After Hurricane Katrina, the passenger rail between Jacksonville and New Orleans still remains closed. Without access to a car, a sick family member or job offer in New Orleans would necessitate a 21 hour bus ride via Atlanta.
If one cannot pay for a car, plus insurance, plus gas, then one has to honestly answer “no” to the question on so many US job applications: do you have access to reliable transportation?
The best numbers I could find said that a little over 90% of households in the US have a car, with New York being the metropolitan area with the least cars – about 44% of households.
Economic apartheid in the US is reinforced via automobile. Very few have the luxury of living well without access to one. Additionally, for-profit toll roads and express lanes, which make up around 12% (5,882 miles in January 2015) of the highway system in the US, help those who have enough money to bypass traffic. Suburbs outside of major cities generally offer more living space for less cost per square foot, but are nearly impossible to live in without owning an automobile.
Car ownership is often conflated with patriotic and dominating behavior in the United States
There is a violent culture that goes hand-in-hand with driving. I find myself in traffic with maniacs, people who are furious at strangers. A man pulls up twenty-four inches behind me while I’m driving 80 miles per hour. He flashes his lights. He edges closer. I compare it to a man on a subway platform threatening to throw me in front of the train. How is it that a man angrily holding a gun to my head is charged with felony assault, but a man threatening me with a two-ton hunk of metal traveling at 82 miles per hour is considered merely a nuisance, an antisocial norm of everyday life?
Driving through South Carolina on my way down to Jacksonville, I saw a sign that said more there were more than 400 auto fatalities so far this year. In Georgia, the 2016 number thus far is more than 600. Almost 19,000 people were killed in the US in 2015 by cars, and 2.3 million were “seriously injured”. While people die from public transport, trains, walking and cycling (720 of US cyclists were killed by cars in 2014), it’s hard to make a case that automobiles are a safe component of life in the US. Walking and cycling encourages good cardiovascular health, and public transport encourages communal interaction – all are more environmentally friendly, less fatal, and more cost-effective publicly. Cars, on the other hand, encourage atomization, alienation, wars for oil, environmental degradation, rage and obesity.
Since World War II, most of the United States has developed geographically with the daily use of the private automobile as a major focus. The environmental impact is probably impossible to properly quantify – though it does not take a study to see the very obvious damage highway construction, gasoline use, wars fought for oil, empty suburbs, and other car-related construction have caused. To scale back car ownership, a serious investment in public infrastructure and restructuring of human geography would be necessary. Though the technology has existed for many years to operate cars without gasoline, no serious public initiative has been taken to replace cars currently on the road, or those being manufactured today. Instead, the press is agog with stories of self-driving cars and trucks. We will be driven to work, but not by train, bus or metro. We won’t have to socialize with anyone, and we won’t have to share space with anyone we don’t want to share space with. At least road rage would be considerably reduced – as would one of our last non-economic interactions with strangers in the US.
For more information about the automobile and its history in the US, you can watch the 1996 documentary “Taken For a Ride” here.