Challenges to Humanity

Car Dependency

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Few pieces of technology are more ubiquitous in American life than the beloved automobile.

Consider the statistics: Last year, Americans collectively spent 93 billion hours driving their cars over 3.1 trillion miles — all while individually spending almost $900 a month to own and operate a new vehicle. If time and money are indicators of what our society cherishes most, cars top the list.

But for all the time and money we spend on our cars, I’m amazed at how little attention we actually give to the nature of our vehicles. We easily forget that a car, at its root, is a piece of technology, which is like a smartphone or a computer in that it gives us the capacity for “effortless power,” as author Andy Crouch describes it.[1] For many of us, our cars are just something we live with—or better yet, something we can’t live without.

We’ve developed this attitude in part because the American landscape is, by and large, designed around the needs of our vehicles. Urban planners call this phenomenon “car dependency;” this is the urban sprawl that has been around since the 50s, the wide lanes and vast parking lots that make daily necessities inaccessible to anyone without a driver’s license. We see our cars as “something we can’t live without” because in a very real sense, in most places in America, cars aren’t something we can just get rid of. Consider the last time you did a grocery run without your vehicle, and you’ll likely see my point.

In recent years, both Christians and non-Christians alike have begun to recognize that overreliance on modern-day, “effortless power” technology is causing hidden damage to our communities. Though we often parade our technological devices as examples of our progress, we’re finding that their overreach not only harms the planet but also leaves us feeling empty, lonely, anxious, less than human—certainly not promoting human flourishing as we desire.

This is exactly what car dependency—our overreliance on automotive tech—is doing to us. Consider at least two ways our car-oriented environment is harming us as we seek the common good.

It’s hard to feel invested in my local community when the radius of my community is defined by my vehicle.

1. Car dependency harms creation

Most of us are already aware that cars aren’t so great for the planet. But I think fewer of us are aware of the ways car dependency is damaging our landscapes.

Cars don’t only pollute; they also take up space—lots of it. In cities such as Raleigh, for example, where the average household owns two cars and 95 percent of commutes take place by private vehicles, we’re stuck with numerous problems: How do we get people quickly from point A to point B with so many vehicles on the road? What do we do with all these vehicles when they’re not in use?

This is how we end up with urban sprawl, which notoriously makes the city bleed into the countryside. We don’t have enough car storage, so we cut down trees to build more parking; we have too many cars on the road, so we uproot farmland to build more roads. Our overreliance on automobile tech has caused us to transform our landscape into asphalt, because at some point we decided that we would rather damage creation than place limits on our tech.

2. Car dependency harms community.

What happens to our towns and cities when the vast majority of people drive to work alone?

As Crouch points out in his book The Life We’re Looking For, we’re now more likely to recognize a familiar car during our commutes than a single human face.[2] We now have the option to wake up, drive to work, sit in an empty office, drive back home, and sit alone in front of a TV for dinner without once having a real, face-to-face interaction with another human being. It used to take effort to avoid our neighbors; now, it takes effort to meet them. If the U.S. is indeed facing a “loneliness epidemic” as described by one Surgeon General, I wonder how much our car dependency is contributing to the issue.

Consider what our overreliance on this technology does to our places, as well. It’s hard to feel invested in my local community when the radius of my community is defined by my vehicle. I have no particular attachment to the people who are in my face, right next door, when I could be literally anywhere else in a matter of minutes. The businesses down the street don’t matter quite as much to me, either, if the Costco ten miles down the road gives me a better deal. And so, I help create what critic James Howard Kunstler calls a “geography of nowhere” by valuing what’s someplace else and neglecting what’s in front of me.[3]

Ultimately, my fear is that the concept of “community” is largely becoming an abstraction. More and more, our communities are being defined by shared ideologies rather than shared places. No longer bound by our geography, we gravitate toward anyone who shares our way of thinking— even if they live, work, or worship in a completely different town. And when we group ourselves together by ideology, we never really learn to live peaceably with anyone, because we never learn to live with people with whom we disagree. Communities of this sort aren’t really communities at all.

Building community around shared places, on the other hand, allows us to recognize the hand of God in placing us where we are. When we accept the limits of our own two feet and focus on valuing the “here and now” rather than the “somewhere else,” we are acknowledging that God has called us to a particular people in a particular place. Even if we don’t necessarily agree with these people, they are still our neighbors. We still take an interest in seeing them flourish because their well-being is directly tied up in our well-being.

As Christians, we need a better vision for our shared places. Technological overreach isn’t a problem going away anytime soon, but recognizing that this problem even exists is key to seeing our communities flourish. If our technological advances come at such a high cost to our communities, maybe it’s time to take a step in a different direction.

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[1] Crouch defines “effortless power” as modern technology’s ability to “vastly increase the sensation of strength while vastly reducing the sensation of effort.” Think of how little work it takes to solve a math problem with the help of an iPhone, or how easy it is to go from 0 to 60 mph in our vehicles—that’s effortless power. Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For (New York: Penguin Random House, 2022), 42.

[2] Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For, 26.

[3] James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

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Samuel Heard

Samuel Heard

Samuel Heard serves as editor for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. He grew up overseas, spending eighteen years in Central Asia before moving to Greenville, South Carolina, to study at North Greenville University. He and his family now live in Wake Forest, where he is pursuing an M.Div. at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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