(Driven to Destruction is a series outlining how America became so dependent on the personal automobile, and how we must break this dependency if we want to create a sustainable way of life for future generations.)

When I was a child, I became fascinated by the Interstate Highway System. On family trips, I would sit in the backseat with my Rand McNally road atlas, carefully charting the passage of each town, exit, and rest stop. At home, I would spend hours pouring over the maps of all 50 states, memorizing the numbering system and dreaming of one day travelling on each and every Interstate across the country.

Admittedly, most people never achieve this level of obsession. But as a nation, we have become quite attached to our system of high-speed, stop-free highways. In fact, for my generation and younger, we’ve never known life without the ubiquity of Interstate travel.

As a result of the Interstate’s omnipresence, and also because they have had many positive benefits for the country, the majority of us have never even stopped to consider if we should be looking for alternatives. A 1996 publication by the American Highway Users Alliance calls the system “The Best Investment A Nation Ever Made”, highlighting economic growth and increased mobility for more Americans as two of the key benefits – claims which are certainly true.

But 14 years after that publication, we are growing more aware of the many downsides that now cancel out these benefits. For example, the construction of urban Interstates has devastated many inner city communities:

The interstates quickly became fuel for generating vast areas of car-dependent suburbs that created a “donut” form of development, turning some inner cities into semi-abandoned areas. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of many who decried the inherent racism of these road schemes. In his speech “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” delivered on March 31, 1968 , King said “These forty million [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.”

In many cases, efforts by Civil Rights leaders to stop Interstates from slicing through urban centers were successful, giving us hope that passionate and dilligent organizing can overcome the power of the car culture. And there are quite a few current issues on which the car culture is a chief obstacle, most notably climate change and peak oil:

Transportation planning in the United States — the epicenter of oil combustion — has been remarkably impervious to rising gasoline prices and growing awareness of climate change and the geological reality of finite fossil fuel supplies. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been committed for massive expansions of the interstate highway system. The plans for these “NAFTA superhighways” and Outer Beltways assume limitless cheap oil, a trillion dollar mistake that must be corrected if there is a hope for a renewable energy society after petroleum.

Despite the obvious warning signs, Americans are undeterred in their petroleum-based love affair. Calls for more and bigger highways and expanded offshore drilling drown out the voices suggesting that we look for new and more sustainable ways to travel. We are addicted to our Interstates. And like so many addictive substances, our Interstates are slowly killing us. Philip Goff sums up the situation well:

Many of humanity’s most pressing problems can be traced to the overuse of automobiles and unchecked suburban development. Cars are here to stay and they certainly have their uses, but, too many people have deemed these uses to mean every single trip, whether one mile or one hundred miles.

The daily bombardment of automobile images and our government’s obstinate attitude towards alternatives has allowed us to accept the auto-dominated landscape that surrounds us all. Until this type of behavior is curbed, our decadent lifestyle will continue to decimate communities and cities, and precipitate the ongoing destruction of the natural world.

Clearly, then, it is time for the end of the Interstate Age. It is simply a destructive and unsustainable model for our long-term future. Not that we have to completely abandon our highways – we can still use them recreationally. I for, one, would love see a 500-mile NASCAR race go straight down 1-85 from Richmond to Atlanta. But the practice of using Interstates and personal cars for the bulk of our travelling must start winding down.

In coming installments of Driven to Destruction, we will examine exactly how we can transform the car culture. Topics will include fostering the bicycle culture, raising children who aren’t in love with the automobile, and designing cities and neighborhoods in ways that discourage driving instead of requiring it. For next time, however, there’s one more element of our current car culture to deconstruct: Individualism.

(Driven to Destruction is a series outlining how America became so dependent on the personal automobile, and how we must break this dependency if we want to create a sustainable way of life for future generations.)

When I was a child, I became fascinated by the Interstate Highway System. On family trips, I would sit in the backseat with my Rand McNally road atlas, carefully charting the passage of each town, exit, and rest stop. At home, I would spend hours pouring over the maps of all 50 states, memorizing the numbering system and dreaming of one day travelling on each and every Interstate across the country.

Admittedly, most people never achieve this level of obsession. But as a nation, we have become quite attached to our system of high-speed, stop-free highways. In fact, for my generation and younger, we’ve never known life without the ubiquity of Interstate travel.

As a result of the Interstate’s omnipresence, and also because they have had many positive benefits for the country, the majority of us have never even stopped to consider if we should be looking for alternatives. A 1996 publication by the American Highway Users Alliance calls the system "The Best Investment A Nation Ever Made", highlighting economic growth and increased mobility for more Americans as two of the key benefits – claims which are certainly true.

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Jim Moss

Jim Moss