Cars as freedom

Had a fascinating conversation with my wife last night. In it, we were talking about how as children it always felt like places were so far way and had confusing directions. I admitted that as a kid I was a fan of maps, and so I managed to have a good view of what the Twin Cities were like. However, I totally agreed that it always felt like it took forever to travel distances that we do as part of our normal commute now.

In my case I think this was exacerbated by the fact that we didn’t own a car while I was growing up. That meant that we took the bus system everywhere, except for the occasions when a friend would drive us to the grocery store or Target. I got to be pretty good at finding my way around the cities by bus, and would even take long trips to the mall on my own. However, the bus system is far from convenient in our city, due to the geographical nature of having two complete downtown areas only 10 miles apart. That meant that an 8 mile drive to the mall involved going completely through one downtown to catch another bus that took me back north again. It took close to 90 minutes to get to the mall this way, but it was the main option we had.

When I was 15 we finally got a car, and as soon as I turned 16 I set my eyes on getting my license. One of the first Saturdays after I got my license I hopped in the car and just started driving. I must have been out for an hour or so, just driving out towards Stillwater and back on various roads, and enjoying the freedom. There’s a line in the movie the Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Jack Sparrow explains what a ship means to him, that it is more than just a hull and a mast, but it means freedom. For me, a car was freedom.

As a teenager I wanted to get out and explore. I wanted to go where I wanted to go and not worry about catching the right bus at the right time. I wanted to just ‘go’. Having a car gave me the freedom to escape, and also the freedom to escape poverty. Soon enough I had to get a job to support owning a car, and that job started me on the path of working and bettering myself into adulthood.

It seems silly that someone like myself, who is a tremendous proponent of rail transit, would wax poetic about having a car. I complain about our congested roads and traffic, and long commutes to work, or about how badly planned out our metro area is for public transit. Yet I can’t deny the freedom that having a car gave me when I was young. Even to this day I’ll sometimes just go for a drive, just to escape and see roads I may have never traveled before.

Cars can be brutal taskmasters. They cost tons of money, depreciate in value, and pollute the air. Yet, they can also be a gateway to freedom and escape. Soon cars will probably start driving themselves, and we’ll all adapt to a new future where cars simply take us where we want to go. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the occasional drive, with no destination in mind, just because.

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