What is car culture and how does it affect us? – BikePortland

Shannon Johnson

I am struggling to root out some of these deeply entrenched car-biased behaviors and ways of thinking, even where I can see their dangers and negative consequences.

I suspect that for the average American, biking newbies, and outsiders to the pedestrian and cycling communities, the term “car culture” isn’t familiar or immediately understandable. It even sounds a bit exaggerated and hits the ear with the same hyperbolic unfamiliarity as “traffic violence,” where one is otherwise accustomed to hearing about “car accidents.”

What is car culture? What do cycling advocates mean by using the term? And, if I understand the term, how does “car culture” affect my life as a biking mom?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this terminology – car culture – and musing over its meaning and influence in my life and the lives of those around me. The more I have learned about cycling and bike/ped advocacy, the more the term has made sense, and the more aware I have become regarding all sorts of previously unconscious car-centric biases in myself.

I have come to think that “car culture” refers to the specifically car-centric, car-dominant, car-prioritizing, and car-biased beliefs/habits/behaviors and policies that make up the typically unconscious accepted norms of our wider society. Let me explain…

Car Culture: Much of American life is car-centric, that is, centered around the premise that people drive cars. Americans have cars, drive cars, like cars. If you don’t, you are abnormal and “counter-cultural.” A key part of the term “car culture” is that car use is the dominant mode of transportation, prioritized to the exclusion of all other modes, so much so, that we often don’t even consider other options, much less accommodate them. Infrastructure, development, and policies target fast, efficient, and mass use of the automobile, from freeways to parking lots. This is car culture in that such priorities and goals, which presume the good of automotive transport, are normal, favored, and often unquestioned. The culture is also car-biased, in that the negative and even fatal consequences of mass car use (from pollution to mortality) are regularly defended as necessary, acceptable, and unavoidable, while the benefits of other modes are devalued or ignored, and other modes of transport are even maligned.

I know this is familiar territory to BikePortland readers, but over the past year I have been continuously surprised at the sneaky and insidious ways that entrenched car culture has affected my own thoughts, habits and behaviors. How often do I justify an unsafe or less-safe driving behavior, because it’s the norm? How do I respond to news of a car crash or traffic death? Am I willing to have my own car commutes slowed down to give space and safety to more vulnerable and slower road users? Where do I fail to dream big about bike and pedestrian infrastructure, because I presume cars will win the day? In what ways do I negatively structure my own family’s life around car usage? What car-centered norms do I accept or participate in, which have negative consequences for myself, my children, and my community? Even today, I am struggling to root out some of these deeply entrenched car-biased behaviors and ways of thinking, even where I can see their dangers and negative consequences.

For example, just this week I left two cars in the driveway to ride my bike to my moms’ book club meeting – my first time making a personal winter night-time bike ride (sans kids). I had barely considered such a counter-cultural way to go out at night. It was energizing and fun. Why hadn’t I ridden before?

My book club meetings are all nearby, less than three miles away on very bike-friendly routes…but I had never ridden to one of them. I’ve been worried about being cold, and my unfamiliarity with riding in the dark; but mostly, I just always drive. I’ve never not driven. Everyone drives. No one thinks not to drive. Indeed, it was only because I was writing about car culture and its continued dominance in my own life that I forced myself to try the bike ride instead of driving. And guess what? It was fabulous.

I hadn’t been able to squeeze in a momma workout all day, and my legs loved the opportunity to pedal. It wasn’t that cold out, but the brisk weather invigorated me. I arrived at the book club beaming and full of pep and mental clarity. It could have been a dull five minute drive. Instead it was a refreshing 10-minute bike ride. And the ride home was even better: at 10pm there was almost no traffic at all. Riding on neighborhood streets almost the whole way, I felt comfortable and safe, just riding past people’s front yards. I think my fellow moms were apprehensive about my safety – riding alone, at night – but as my husband always comments, no one ever worries about my safety when I drive my car, even though it’s statistically far more dangerous than any other threat in our neighborhoods. Again, it’s part of car culture that we white-wash the driving risks and put all the fears on something statistically less likely. My husband smiled when I returned and poured himself a second glass of wine. He hadn’t been worried at all.

Changing the car culture around us is probably one of the hardest advocacy tasks. It’s slogging, slow, incendiary, and sometimes painful work. People who are deeply rooted in a culture are often unable to see the culture that they live inside of and from which they develop their thoughts and actions. It’s invisible to us. It’s the unquestioned norms. It can even convince us to like unlikeable things (once you’ve ridden a high-speed train, I suspect you will wonder why you liked driving so much!) Or, in my case this week: I thought I preferred driving to book club and that I was making a sacrifice to bike. Turns out, I had been missing out. Biking added something fun, refreshing, and healthy to my evening. I’m looking forward to the next ride, not dreading it.

So, how do we change the culture?

Most obviously, the best starting point is to change ourselves.

That’s what I am working on. I may write in this space, but I think of myself primarily as a grateful BikePortland learner and work-in-progress. For me, this BikePortland space has been, and continues to be, a challenging, stretching, and yes, even life-changing community and learning experience. I continue to reap the great joy and benefits of biking with my children – and on my own too! But riding a bike is also changing the way I think about our family and community life, our choices, and our culture – yes, our car culture. The term is valid and important, and instead of getting defensive about it (I drive a minivan), I’m looking for those sneaky ways car culture affects me personally, and then deciding which of those things should be changed by me personally. That’s not as straight-forward as trying to get in better shape in 2023 (I’m going to do that too) but maybe it’s even more important.

Happy New Year! Here’s some cheers for better bike and pedestrian culture in these parts! Thanks to all of BP’s readers, supporters, and commenters who make this a great place to learn and grow.

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