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Sharing the Road: how driving keeps us emotionally distant from one another

When I was 14 ½ I signed up for driver’s ed, just barely old enough to take the class. The day I turned 15 I passed my permit test. The week I turned 16 I took my behind-the-wheel test. Anxious to get in the beat-down old hunk of steel my older brother so generously handed down to me, I was actually annoyed that I couldn’t get an appointment until a few days after my birthday. I needed to be totally independent, to get away from my country home and superirritating family. I drove fast, I raced other cars at traffic lights, and blasted my angsty teen rage music—sharing the road was not on my mind. And finally, I thought, I could really be me (or at least a super-cool version of me that other people would want to befriend).

bus-77188_1280 (1) When I was 24 I relocated to San Francisco and sold my car (a newer, “adult” car with super irritating payments). I couldn’t afford SF rent and deal with the hassles of parking nor did I need a car. But I was happy about this. Over the years, I had grown to believe in public transportation and even living in the suburbs, I had replaced some driving with biking and bussing. Now, memories of expensive gas refills, oil changes, replacing tires, and car washes have faded a bit. I’ve almost forgotten about driving stick in a traffic jam, and accidents (not my fault!). From time to time a job or a trip out of town puts me behind the wheel again. For a moment I feel that 16 year old’s liberation again, but within minutes the feeling is replaced by anxiety and a feeling of being trapped.

A recent 9-day car-sitting adventure revealed this:

  1. Having the car gives me this idea that I can suddenly achieve a lot more within a given day—that I should achieve more. I can generally get from point a to point b much faster so I should also throw in a point c, d, e, f, g…When I have to give myself 45 minutes to an hour to get most places and account for potential public transit failures, I end up with considerably more downtime. I don’t attempt so many errands, I read more or listen to my favorite podcasts. I arrive early and kill time checking out a new cafe. I skip the bus and walk, getting more exercise. Now there’s a positive spin on unreliable public transit!
  2. The car shields me from/deprives me of being part of the community. I noticed how different it was to completely skip over entire neighborhoods in minutes—neighborhoods my bus goes through, picking up all sorts of people I wouldn’t necessarily meet in my professional and personal life. Simply sharing the bus with a person doesn’t make for a relationship or cultural understanding, but the shielding of the car can actually give me a false sense that certain lives, quite different from my own, don’t really exist. I can pretend that racism and poverty are a distant third-world problem. I don’t have to face certain discomforts, prejudices, or feel empathy in quite the same way. I can assuage the guilt I might feel when faced with the reality of my privilege because my privileged reality is mostly all I know. (I would love to find a study that shows a correlation between public transit users and charity).

To be fair, I can bitch about MUNI almost any day of the week. For 9 car-sitting days I was very productive, but I also got a street cleaning ticket, and was burglarized. I am keenly aware of how much that shiny hunk of efficiency and independence did not make me a happier or better person. We’ve been lied to in our culture. We’ve been told that having our very own everything is the pinnacle of success and happiness. But at what cost?

Global warming is a planetary issue, a cultural issue, a class issue, a race issue, and a deeply personal issue. When we learn to examine how we are interacting with the world around us and why, we can begin to bring awareness to our choices and how they align with our values. My guess is that when we face up to our collective fear of deprivation, feelings of emptiness and low self-worth, and rage towards the hurt we’ve experienced individually and intergenerationally, our deeper values emerge more inclusive, compassionate, and altruistic.

All around the globe there are movements to reduce over-consumption and promote sharing as a means to better the planet and our lives. Car and ride sharing are booming in urban areas. Public transit systems are being improved, cities are setting up hubs for renting electric bicycles, people are downsizing their homes (search “tiny houses”) to simplify and prioritize what matters—relationships, meaningful work, art, growing food, and nature. Many people are finding that more stuff just means more barriers to joy and connection and more trouble for the planet that creates and sustains us.

I’m grateful to my smartphone and laptop for helping me connect with others and do my work. I’m grateful to my kitchen for cooking delicious meals for myself and others. I’m grateful to the occasionally borrowed car to visit my favorite nature spots outside of the city. Perhaps your car makes it possible for you to fulfill something that is essential for you. But at times our stuff can really create a huge barrier to connecting inside and out.

Play with this idea:

If you usually drive but public transit, biking, or walking are options for you, try it at least one day a week. Notice how it is for you, take note of things in your commute or trip to the store you hadn’t noticed from your car. Chat with people in your life who drive (or don’t drive) about their experiences.

Car or no car, if you were to make a list of your deepest values how does your stuff fit into the picture?

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco. She sees her work as a dynamic interplay of science, art, and relationship, aimed at opening up wholeness and a sense of choice for her clients. She specializes in working with sensitive, creative young adults struggling with eating disorders, substance use/misuse, perfectionism, and relationships. (LMFT #84885)

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