American Drive

Reflections on an exhilarating drive and the future of the American road.

This article originally appeared in Culture11, 5 October 2008.

The Blue Ridge Parkway winds along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, skirting Asheville and Roanoke above the hidden hollows and little towns. And on Thursday afternoon, thanks to Bayerische Motoren Werke, three friends and I were driving along the parkway, scattering wild turkeys left and right, carving turns and going flat out on the straightaways in a BMW 335Ci convertible. It seems that BMW periodically turns up at upscale resorts to let the (presumably free-spending) guests try the company’s cars for free, for no obligation beyond the painful duty of returning it at the end of the drive. We were attending a conference at a such a location, already stretching the limits of our decidedly middle-class budgets, at just the right time. After filling out a surprisingly informal questionnaire, the keys were ours and we were off.

As we gasped and laughed at the difference between our borrowed joyride and our real-life cars (as the owner of a base-model 2000 VW Passat, I have the most fly car of the bunch), we were well aware of several layers of irony. Down in the valley motorists were waiting in long lines for scarce gasoline at the stations that were open at all, due the supply crunch in the Southeast following Hurricane Ike. We, meanwhile, were burning gas like it was going out of style (which, come to think of it, it soon may). Then there was the improbable identity of the four merry riders: all of us activists in the growing environmental movement within evangelical Christianity, concerned not least with the reality of and remedies for human-induced climate change. That climate change is caused in part, of course, by the carbon dioxide that we were gleefully generating every time the Beemer let out a particularly gratifying growl. Let’s just say there was a hint of guilt in the pleasure.

Something else struck me as we pushed the car to its limits (or at least ours). Driving a BMW on the twists and turns of the Blue Ridge Parkway—even at the speed limit, but all the more so prudently or imprudently above it—combines an earlier, slower time in American motoring, when lanes were narrower and turns were tighter, with the latest, greatest automotive engineering. The designers of the parkway surely could never have imagined the way BMW’s engineers can keep a two-ton car glued to the road. Whipping along those sedate old lanes is truly going back to the future.

Yet at the same time as cars have become more exhilarating, opportunities for this kind of driving have become more rare. Even as the luxury car industry has piled on horsepower in a performance arms race (the 2008 3-series cars pack 300 hp, compared to 138 hp just ten years ago), American roads have gotten straighter, flatter, smoother, and notably more crowded, leaving little room for the kind of driving adventure that set my heart racing last week. There is nothing more pitiful than the impatient owners of overpowered sports cars sitting in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, nudging their way along at a few miles an hour every weekday morning.

This has been the American condition, or at least an influential upper-middle-class version of it, these past few years. Four-thousand-square-foot houses became routine as family sizes were shrinking. Horsepower spiraled ever upwards as the average speed on the highways dropped. It was an age where, at some times and in some places, even the Brobignagian excess of the Hummer H2 did not seem entirely ridiculous, just “aspirational.” I wonder if we will look back at the epic prosperity of the last decade and marvel not just at the financial bubbles that sustained it, but the grossly inflated bubbles of overcapacity, the grand vehicles and houses purchased to ward off imaginary dangers and to signal unattainable joys.

It is becoming clear that the next century is going to require something different of us. The worst scenarios would have us, Jimmy Carter-like, putting on our cardigan sweaters in the cause of environmental sustainability, shivering our way through a grim and narrow austerity, bathed in the hospital-like luminescence of CFL bulbs. But this is not the only viable sustainable future. The more interesting alternatives would require more cooperation, but also offer more common joys. And changing the way we drive cars would be a good place to start. As Wall Street Journal automobile columnist Joseph White has observed, most drivers, most of the time, need neither a living room-cum-entertainment-center on wheels nor a half-ton pickup truck suitable for hauling a cord of wood. Likewise, few of us can spool a BMW up to even a tenth of its potential power in our daily commutes. So why always have one in the garage?

My city of Philadelphia is home to one of the most encouraging experiments in another approach to the American–auto love affair. Just a few blocks from my house—in the suburbs, no less—is a Toyota Prius owned by the nonprofit organization PhillyCarShare. More than once it has saved the bacon of our one-car family, giving us the additional capacity we might otherwise have to supply by owning another vehicle. For students at the college in our town, that single Prius makes a car-free life possible and attractive, and not even, in point of fact, car-free.

But the real genius of PhillyCarShare has been the steady expansion of the models in its inventory. A few miles away from our house sits, yes, a BMW 328i that will respond to the same keyfob that opens the Prius. Not far away is a Toyota Tacoma pickup, perfect for the occasional Home Depot run that would exceed the capacity of our own car. At the moment these vehicles are still scattered a bit too widely, and the public transportation system is a bit too unwieldy, to make total dependence on PhillyCarShare practical for us. But there is no reason that these conditions cannot, slowly and with good planning, change.

They will have to change. We cannot, as a people, go on living this way, burning excess fuel for no reason other than a fantastical level of autonomy. The market will not let us, and that is actually good news. In the carbon-constrained future that is coming (whether through policy or sheer limits to global oil resources), we have the option of creating new alternatives that could eventually give the majority of American families, especially in the metropolises where more and more of us live, access to not fewer and worse options for transportation, but more and better—and most importantly, fit to purpose rather than one-size-too-large-fits-all. Just as cell phones offer a kind of mobility that makes landlines less and less necessary for communication, car sharing programs could eventually make multiple-car households the occasional carefully-chosen exception rather than the rule. It would be less costly and more, not less, satisfying.

Here’s what I wish for my children, when they’re older and our society is wiser: a few rides like their dad had last week in all its exhilarating and fleeting glory. I am no environmental killjoy. Every once in a while we should be turning onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, turkeys scurrying out of the way, with the curves and hills ahead of us. The top is down, three friends are jammed into the passenger seats, the leaves are beginning to turn. We are old enough to drive responsibly, and young enough to let it rip on the straightaways and to laugh out loud when we take a tight turn. We step on it, the engine growls, and the acceleration catches our breath and refuses to give it back. The car is perfectly suited for this moment, these friends, this road.

Tomorrow we will go back to our gas-sipping hybrids, our subcompacts—or better yet, to our bikes, buses, and trains. Not for us the folly of hoarding this sweet little machine, wasting it on the quotidian life that, most days and times, is every decent human being’s duty and delight. It’s better this way: today it’s ours, tomorrow it’s yours. Enjoy. Our isolating bubble has burst, and none too soon. We’re in it together, and we’re going to learn to share.