Mobility and the Search for Freedom, Knowledge and Privacy
Updated: Nov 19
As surprising as it may sound to my fellow Americans, you can live and work in some places without a car. I moved to Amsterdam from Pennsylvania several years ago and missed the 6-month deadline for exchanging my U.S. license for a Dutch license. This meant acquiring one would involve starting the process from scratch with a theory test and a practical driving test. I never got around to these requirements because I was perfectly happy with public transport.
The system in Amsterdam is usually quite good, with trams, buses and trains mostly on time and seldom cancelled. Before the pandemic hit, the tram and/or bus usually got me practically door to door to where I needed to go whether to a park for leisure or work. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a class association with the public transport as there can be in other places.
If there is any comparison or competition regarding transport it is with those who choose cycling over those forking out the almost 6 Euros return for the bus or tram. The cyclists save a lot of money, stay in shape, can get up and go at any moment, protect the environment, and some of them claim they avoid the less than sanitary public spaces. In principle I would like to be toting my bicycle around everywhere for these very reasons; however, not everyone is a born cyclist as it seems with the Dutch who have their children on the road on “loopfiets” or walking bikes at the age of 2 or so.
What a humbling experience it is as a non-cyclist to see these toddlers out in the middle of city traffic and totally fearless. And I wonder does this feeling of command over your destiny that you get from cycling in the congested city traffic at such an early age have an impact on your perspective and approach to the rest of your life? Let’s not forget that these children are prepared from birth for this 2-wheeled entrance into society because their care givers cycle with them practically after birth wrapped around their chest and often with 2 other toddlers--one sitting in front and one in back
One of my main gripes with city cycling, however, is the danger brought about by the heavy traffic, having landed bike and all in the middle of the street a few times in the past. Granted I wasn’t born on a bike like most of the Dutch, nor did I bike throughout my life. Yes, there is the old and common phrase, “it’s just like riding a bicycle” which means it is something you never forget once you’ve learned. Ok, fair enough, but what they don’t mention is level of competence or the oncoming cars from the opposite direction on a one lane road.
Needless to say, I was quite grateful for the Dutch public transport system. I could afford the small fee (75% of which was reimbursed by my workplace), avoid the direct pollution from cars, not contribute to bicycle or car congestion, and participate in the move away from emissions when in the more recently introduced electric vehicles. Yes, I had to wait five or ten minutes at most for my connections, and yes there was the occasional rainfall. At worst but not often, I could not get a seat for one or more stops.
Of course, now with the pandemic, drivers and cyclists are getting the last laugh. Everyone I know is avoiding public transport except as a last resort because it invites groups of people in a relatively small space and the possible greater chance of getting an infection even as it is a requirement here to wears masks if you want to ride.
In reference to the relative safety and preference of the car currently, you would think then that a country hell bent on driving for the sake of freedom would have a lower infection rate than most other countries but that is not the case with the United States.
Loren Lomasky writing for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) states that drivers once drove for pleasure and now driving is a guilty pleasure:
“Drivers generate suburban sprawl, exacerbate the trade deficit while imperiling national security, foul lungs and warm the atmosphere with their noxious emissions, give up the ghosts of their vehicles to unsightly graveyards of rubber and steel, leave human road kill in their wake, trap each other in mazes of gridlock, and, adding insult to injury, commandeer a comfy subsidy from the general public.”
Lomasky portends that the common sentiment is that it is not their fault that they are dependent on cars so why should they do anything about it. “Talk to the next guy because he probably has worse emissions than I do.” In a surprising choice of words for this end-of-20th century article now quoted below post-2020 election, Lomasky writes
“Critics may contend, though, that the election has been rigged. They can maintain that it is the absence of public transportation and compact neighborhoods integrating commerce, industry, and housing that force us so often into our cars.”
But then Lomasky gets to the heart of the matter and that is that the automobile industry has marketed driving and cars as synonymous with autonomy and self-directedness.
“Therefore, insofar as we have reason to regard self-directedness as a valuable human trait, we have reason to think well of driving automobiles.”
To take it a step further, mobility is associated with knowledge so then automobiles are associated with knowledge. The educated and beyond have by now heard the concept, “Knowledge is power.”
“When the range within which one moves about becomes extended, so too does the range of one’s potential base of knowledge. And the automobile is the quintessential range extender, not only by lengthening the trips one can take but also by multiplying the number of available routes.”
Furthermore, the automobile promises privacy and by extension of that, a greater sense of control.
“I may be surrounded by other people, but if I am able to determine to a significant degree what they shall be allowed to perceive of me and know about me and impose on me, then to that extent I have retained a private self. Surely one reason for the fondness people often hold for their cars and for automobility in general is the scope afforded with regard to that sort of control.”
So driving in the U.S. is quite closely connected to one’s identity—autonomy, self-directedness, knowledge, privacy, control. Quite a lot for auto industry advertisers to play with and exploit. There is nothing wrong with the attributes associated with driving, but you have to wonder, and many others do, how those of us without a car manage and pursue self-development. In fact, a handful of Americans close to me have said over the years, “don’t you miss your freedom.”
But I don’t miss anything. In fact, I feel a greater sense of freedom. I’m free of needing the space for a car, needing to provide maintenance, needing to buy fuel and inspections and repairs and insurance, and then there is the back of the mind fear that you’ll get into an accident—offensive or defensive. On top of that there is the emissions and traffic.
So how do we nondrivers obtain self-development. We do it the old-fashioned way--We do it through interactions or relationships at home, at work with friends, family, colleagues and the endless number of acquaintances and strangers we come across every day—probably on foot.