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. 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.