Think Tank: Two Thoughts on a Car-Centered Culture

Today was the first day of fall quarter, and of course, it was just my luck that I had car issues and had to be towed home at the end of a long day at school.

How I felt when I came over the hill before my freeway exit and my entire dashboard lit up and all of the meters fell to zero. Also how I felt when the parking and transportation services officer gave me a battery jump that died 10 minutes later.

All day, I was frustrated and stressed out about not having a car that works right. But on the way home, sitting in the tow truck with a guy named Dave (who, although incredibly nice, needed just to button one more button on his shirt for my own personal comfort level) that reeked of cigarettes and really loved country music, I ruminated on one thing and realized another.

Public transportation options outside of the metro area suck, in part because our culture isn’t built on it.

My journalistic instincts and English major training prompted me to immediately Google “transportation issues in Los Angeles” when I got home.

Well, that's comforting.

Well, that’s comforting.

People have a lot to say (complain, rant about, etcetera) about this, mostly in relation to traffic issues within the metropolis. Apparently people in L.A. spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the United States (which I believe), and there are quite a few initiative to make L.A. friendlier to cyclists, from the daily commute to special events.

I live in a suburb about 30 miles away from the downtown area, and go to school in a city slightly closer, so there are three options for me sans a car: getting dropped off by a family member (which doesn’t always work out), a local bus route, and a rideshare program run through the university. I’ve never looked into the rideshare program, but my schedule is so weird that I wouldn’t want to make another student, faculty or staff member wait for me.

An extension for one of the metro rails is slated to come closer to me in 2016 come through my town eventually, but that doesn’t help me or any of the people in my area now.  The local bus system is a little gross, and I would have to leave incredibly early to make it to school on time. In one way, I’m making excuses. But in another, none of these options are particularly convenient for my own life, and I’m sure there are a lot of people in the same boat.

This is more or less accurate.

This is more or less accurate.

But throughout the day,  I realized that there are a lot of larger issues at hand that have contributed to just how terrible the public transit system in L.A. is. The people of L.A. have made the culture very car-centric, which is due in part to how big the geographical area is and the local economy. Getting people to use other options when they’re comfortable with the option they have now is going to be nearly impossible: if someone already has a car, it doesn’t matter if the public transit system is good because they don’t need it. Plus, county budgets are tight and manpower isn’t readily available. If there’s only thing I learned while in college, it’s that something that is incredibly complex with multiple factors and has a wide sphere of influence is not going to be easy to dismantle. It’s a little disheartening to realize and understand that, but maybe something will change eventually.

Not completely relevant, but it speaks the truth.

Not completely relevant, but it speaks the truth.

Although they build and perpetuate horrible systems, people are still okay. 

To keep an eye out for Dave the tow truck guy, I was standing next to my car for nearly 30 minutes after I called AAA. I thought I would put the hood of my car up so that he could see me better.

It was about 5 p.m., so a lot of people getting out of a 3 p.m. class were heading to their cars. Noticing my car hood, so many people stopped to ask me if I was okay and needed help. A few guys even offered to jumpstart my battery, and just about everyone wished me luck— as if they knew exactly what it felt like.

Of course there were people who just walked and drove right past me, and I wondered if I would have done the same thing if I had seen the same scene. I think I would have stopped and asked if they needed the campus police’s phone number or to borrow a cell phone, but that’s beside the point.

Although we all perpetuate the same problem by making no attempt to get rid of something that negatively affects everyone eventually, I thought it was incredibly significant that complete strangers felt that they needed to offer me a hand. Call it morality or social conditioning, but it was comforting to know that if I really was in distress that someone would help me. It was the universe’s cosmic way of saying “I know that the culture you live in is a little messed up in more ways than one, but there are still glimmers of hope that the human race has an inherent ability for camaraderie,” if you will. So although I am still stuck waiting to find out the fate of my car, at least my faith in the world is a little bit stronger.

The bumper sticker I'm going to have to buy now, obviously.

The bumper sticker I’m going to have to buy now, obviously.

Does this make any sense to you? And what do you think — about traffic in L.A., about postmodernity, about life? Let me know in the comments.

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