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Lifestyle column: What a car is good for

Posted by on April 3rd, 2014 at 10:49 am

Cathy Hastie
Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie.

When lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie’s job pushed her to switch to a car commute for the first time, we wondered if it’d change her perspective on getting around. Here’s what she’s concluded from the first month.

I have recently rediscovered that the typical car is much more than what I remembered it to be. The car serves a multitude of purposes that have become essential in the modern world.

For example, the average workplace doesn’t provide a private place to eat lunch, make personal calls or take a nap, let alone have a cigarette, watch an episode of “Archer,” or ogle the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition (not necessarily in that order). What better place to perform these important lunch-hour tasks than inside your parked car, anonymous amongst thousands of others, ordered and sorted in the acre-wide company parking lot? The car gives us the isolation that our gadget-driven culture demands and our efficiency-oriented employers force upon us. It even serves as a makeshift hotel room for those frenzied moments of desire that can’t wait.

It really does make the world turn, from the hundreds we spend on auto repairs to the fitness club membership we are obligated to buy.

The car is a great place to store garbage. Instead of using the receptacle way across the parking lot, the backseat floor works just fine as a temporary home for burger wrappers, parking tickets and empty adult beverage containers. It also does a great job of storing bags of Goodwill donations, that sweater to be returned at the store, and the Christmas inflatable borrowed from your sister. Delivery errands can be put off for months when the items are all crammed into the trunk, invisible and forgotten.

The car is also a great economic stimulator. It really does make the world turn, from the hundreds we spend on auto repairs to the fitness club membership we are obligated to buy because we have gained 20 pounds from sitting on our asses while driving an hour and a half every day back and forth to work. Gas money funds far more than the weekend partying of the corner store gas station attendant. It buys politicians, bankrolls foreign despots and funds wars – always a profitable endeavor for someone.

Even therapists see financial benefit directly related to the car and its use. The car screws with our heads. It encourages vanity, but shames us mercilessly. Like it or not, it serves as a calling card, an Avatar, and a symbol of the driver inside. Our image to other drivers on the road is wrapped up in the size of our ride, the shininess of our grille, the eternal youthfulness of the latest, sexiest model. Forcing us to keep up appearances, the car inspires us to embrace peer pressure, compete for attention and try to impress upon the world how awesome we are, all while wearing mustard-stained sweats and a sweaty baseball cap behind its tinted windows.

The car makes us independent — so independent that we can drive 45 minutes to work in a neighboring city every day for a month without knowing a single thing about the place.

The car pumps us up with bravado, then turns around and humiliates us as we sit in mile-long traffic jams, making us feel like insignificant sheep, following the car-commuting herd. Powerless behind the steering wheel, we endure boredom, anxiety, unpredictability and impatience on the inescapable auto-Alcatraz of the freeway during rush hour. Solitary and frustrated in a sweltering, fume-emitting metal box, who wouldn’t need a little therapeutic venting? It blows away our calm. It eats away at our pride. The car is a malicious trickster, wooing us with its allure of promised studliness and then slapping our widening cellulite thighs in cruel mockery.

The car makes us independent — so independent that we can drive 45 minutes to work in a neighboring city every day for a month without knowing a single thing about the place, its people, or what happens there. We use the unexplored city without connecting to it. The car distances us physically from the place we call home, so we ignore the community where we spend 8 hours a day. As a car commuter, we just don’t care.

The car inspires efficiency. It puts the destination ahead of the journey. With GPS and a seemingly endless supply of combustion-driven energy, we are not limited by how far we can go without asking for directions or stopping for a milkshake at the roadside diner. Driving alone becomes an empty chore to get us to a point on a map. The surrounding communities are hidden beyond noise-barrier walls that line the Interstate. Everything but the flashing dot on Google maps is invisible to us. The car makes us forget that, wherever we go, there are children playing, dogs barking, lovers meeting. We just pass on by.

— Read Cathy’s past columns here.

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  • Austin April 3, 2014 at 11:05 am

    A reference to “Archer” gets you an A+ in my book.

    As much as I love riding my bike, my car is the only place that I am ever truly alone in a closed space. And I really do like being alone sometimes. Also, the only place that I can listen to loud music.

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  • Case April 3, 2014 at 11:28 am

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  • rainbike April 3, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Walk, bike, drive, bus, train, taxi, airplane…they’re all modes of transportation that I use to get from point A to B. My choice of mode depends on a number of conditions.

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  • wsbob April 3, 2014 at 11:34 am

    “…or ogle the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition…” Cathy Hastie

    I wouldn’t have figured you for that kind of girl, but these days, sometimes it’s hard to tell.

    Cars are really nice for many situations. I’m glad there are people willing to do the ‘car free’ route, even when they have the means to buy and maintain a car, but the car is awfully nice when it’s cold, dark and wet outside. Or when someone needs to go to the hospital, or they don’t stand much chance of riding a bike because of arthritis or any other of a wide range of physical or mental maladies human beings are susceptible to.

    I wouldn’t say cars are a great place to store garbage, but they do have a propensity for accumulating it. In my pickup for example, all those pretty gold wrappers from chocolate I munch on when on the way to work, get tossed onto the passenger side floor mat. Got to get them hauled out any day now, but they don’t amount to much weight, so no big deal.

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    • scott April 3, 2014 at 1:19 pm

      “…that kind of girl,…” – wsbob

      What are you insinuating here, wsbob?

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      • wsbob April 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

        What are you insinuating?

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        • scott April 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm

          “What are you insinuating?” – wsbob

          I am asking what “kind of girl” you are supposing the author is.

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          • wsbob April 5, 2014 at 7:08 pm

            What she wrote, suggests she may be the the kind of girl that likes to look at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue inside the privacy of a motor vehicle. Got a problem with that? Take it up with her. I thought the way she mentioned the issue was kind of funny, as was my comment about it written to be. Sorry if you didn’t get it.

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  • Craig April 3, 2014 at 11:43 am

    You forgot nose picking.

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  • charlie April 3, 2014 at 11:55 am

    I supppose if you have a velomobile you can do all this stuff in there too.

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    • Spiffy April 3, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      love in a velomobile? sounds like an Aerosmith song…

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      • q`Tzal April 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm

        Where are they growing people skinny enough that 2 people can fit in a velomobile and still have room for… ahem… recreational activities that aren’t covered by the warranty?

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  • Oliver April 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    ;-)

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  • Austin April 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    spare_wheel
    You should really try headphones.
    Recommended 3

    On a bike? Nope.

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    • scott April 3, 2014 at 1:21 pm

      What’s wrong with headphones on a bike?

      I must ask even though I believe spare_wheel was only offering another way to enjoy music at high volume whether on couch, log, park bench, bike, or car…

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      • Austin April 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm

        Honestly, for me, it is because I like to be as aware as possible while riding. Whether it is a car sneaking up on me or another cyclist trying to pass me, my ears give me a lot of feedback that I feel benefit me.

        In the car though? I’m invincible like everyone else so the volume on the stereo is all the way up.

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        • gutterbunny April 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm

          I use to think that too, but with all the electric and hybrid cars out there I find it harder to rely on hearing for information on what’s going on behind me even without headphones.

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        • John Lascurettes April 3, 2014 at 5:28 pm

          I can hear more ambient sounds on my bike with headphones on and music playing than you can in any car with the windows up and the radio off.

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        • scott April 4, 2014 at 9:37 am

          I disagree. Visual assessment of traffic situations is the best by far. If you are getting snuck up on by anything it is because you are not checking your six. Ride with headphones in, loud music of your choosing, and experience how much more aware you become. Head on a swivel, Austin.

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          • LESTER April 4, 2014 at 10:25 am

            I’m all about the eyes also. The car that’s going to hit you sounds no differently than all the other cars on the road that aren’t going to hit you.

            Pedestrians depending on audio cues too much is the cause for many near crashes I have while riding my bike. Peds will barely glance before crossing the road and tend to step right in front of cyclists all the time.

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          • Justin April 7, 2014 at 3:58 pm

            Your eyes can deceive you. I keep my blast shield down, stretch out with my feelings and act on instinct.

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      • Chris Anderson April 4, 2014 at 3:09 am

        I prefer my handlebar mounted Bluetooth loudspeaker.

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  • nuovorecord April 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    It’s rather sad, I think, that we’ve created a world that requires so much dependency on a mechanized device that costs us so much – individually and collectively – and isolates us from each other. Yes, the car enables us to do much, but much of what it enables us to do is because it’s not possible to do that thing without a car. Somewhere, E.C. Escher is smiling.

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    • nuovorecord April 3, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      M.C. Escher, I meant.

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  • Mark Allyn April 3, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Unfortunately, cars have also become homes for those who are homeless. Bicycles can’t by themselves; you have to find a place to camp.

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    • JV April 3, 2014 at 1:36 pm

      Having been on some epic road trips (but luckily never needed to call my truck “home”), this is very true. I have slept safely in sketchy parts of cities and open fields across the country. But for some people today, including families, their car is the only space they have, and it contains and carries all their life.

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      • pixelgate April 3, 2014 at 7:21 pm

        Reminds me of the most recent episode of Portlandia where the bike messenger finally caves in and buys a car, and in his long-bottled-up elation at now owning a car he rejoices “I’m a homeowner!” I died laughing

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  • GlowBoy April 3, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    You know, I was just about to skip over this story but decided to click the link anyway and get past the first few sentences shown on the home page.

    Best Cathy Hastie post yet!

    (Full disclosure: I won’t say I don’t sometimes indulge in the tunes-cranking and lunchtime-privacy features of the automobile on the occasional days when I do drive to work, but I still agree with her perspective overall).

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  • Paul April 3, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Very well-written, entertaining column. Reminded me of bike snob NYC.

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  • Adam April 3, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    The biggest thing I miss about not having a car is not having anywhere to store things. I run, and attending track nights etc by bike is a monumental pain in the ass. I’m not going to leave my iPhone/wallet/keys/library book/300 dollar showers pass rain gear etc just sitting on my bike while I take off up Terwilliger Blvd with my run group. I wish bikes came with better storage solutions.

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  • Glenn April 3, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    I frequently find driving on the low traffic rural roads where I live a bit like meditation. I wonder how many people will need serious therapy in the U.S. when they can’t afford to drive alone anymore.

    Bicycling those same roads is a totally different experience. More involved, and less meditative. Possibly better for my sanity though.

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  • Dave April 3, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    Seen it–in daylight–on a turnout near the top of Chehalem Mountain near Newberg–them in a Mazda RX7, me on my Davidson rolling silently by.

    q`Tzal
    Where are they growing people skinny enough that 2 people can fit in a velomobile and still have room for… ahem… recreational activities that aren’t covered by the warranty?
    Recommended 2

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  • pixelgate April 3, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    I don’t care for the article. Lazy generalizations of drivers and car owners. If the O published a car-centric one ridiculing cyclists people here would be aghast.

    This last weekend when we had record breaking rain. Yeah, I’m driving my car.

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  • Deeeebo April 3, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    Sarcasm. How witty.
    I was actually hoping that this might be a reasoned treatment of the pros and cons of driving a vehicle but instead what we get is the old litany of Evils that we already know so well. Stories like this are hypocritical as they only feed the “us vs them” mentality that other sources such as the Oregonian has been accused of fostering. It is also pandering to a known audience that the author knows will likely just uncritically nod in agreement and as such is lazy.
    Heres the thing: (shhh don’t tell) most people who bike in Portland also drive/ own cars and they do so for a variety of reasons. Maybe they want to participate in the Gorge Rubaix in the Dalles. Maybe they want to take a job that is 13 miles from their house and aren’t willing to ride that far. Maybe they are just not willing to be miserable riding in chilling rain for large portions of the year.
    We need to realistically characterize the pros and cons of driving vs biking so that people can make an informed decision that may result in a positive life change. I agree with most of the points inferred in the article but but along with those are the implications that car drivers are unmotivated, socially inept jerks. The bikeportland community as I have experienced it does a bit too much self-congratulatory navel gazing for my taste. Gloating about how evolved we think we are accomplishes nothing.

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  • Matt April 3, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Until recently, I had been car free for six years in Portland; taking a calculated guess with all my commuting to work and recreation, I probably put 12-14,000 miles on my bike and that doesn’t include road rides with friends in between. I did everything on the bike, albeit, I suppose I had a little luck. Work was close, school closer and New Seasons right around the corner. Plus, my wonderful girlfriend with a car has always been willing to drive across town to see me :) Then life got really busy. I have a new job that pays much better than the old, but the trade off is a 22 mile round trip commute into Washington five days a week. I have school two days a week, but unfortunately, it’s at Rock Creek PCC, so I have to commute 15 miles out there and back. So, on some days I travel 50 plus miles in the car, something I never could have done on the bike (trust me, I tried everything to not purchase a car– bus/bike combo, carpooling, difference school scheduling, ect..) However, the car allows me a sense of freedom that I never enjoyed with the bike. I don’t have to dress down to ride to work and then put on my nice dress clothes upon arrival. I can carry all my food, school work, text books, and computer without the heavy weight and the worry of stuff getting wet, dirty, or stolen. I can zip around to work, school, and spontaneous meet ups with friends. Everything doesn’t have to be so planned, I have more flexibility. Sure I miss the exercise on the bike, but now I run more, work out in the gym, and ride for recreation–all with an intensity that bike commuting never could provide ME. Sure, I still commute occasionally on the bike just not nearly as much as before. Hopefully I’ll go car free again when I get accepted to graduate school and all I do is study :)

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    • Kari Schlosshauer April 3, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Choices…

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    • pixelgate April 4, 2014 at 12:44 am

      Recently bought a car too and really am enjoying it. I still ride on weekends but I don’t miss showing up everywhere sweaty and tired. After 14 years I think the novelty of riding everywhere has officially worn off.

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  • JEFF BERNARDS April 4, 2014 at 1:42 am

    I get the piece was to meant for fun, but. “The car is also a great economic stimulator” Really. We’ve buried ourselves in $17 trillion in debt, subsidizing the so called “economic stimulator.” I personally don’t feel good about borrowing anymore stimulator money, just saying.

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  • Joe April 4, 2014 at 10:03 am

    2 times, car time, and bike time… :) two diffrent timezones

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  • LESTER April 4, 2014 at 10:29 am

    When lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie’s job forced her to switch to a car commute for the first time,

    Her job didn’t force her to switch.

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  • TOM April 4, 2014 at 10:50 am

    I’ve been a little critical of Cathy’s past offerings, but this one is easily her best , and I agree with the vast majority of it.

    the only quibble is “The car gives us the isolation that our gadget-driven culture demands”

    well, not really… loud arguments on cell phones in public are common , restaurant (at least fast food) goers are almost all hunched over their devices while the food gets cold. They are in their own little worlds and oblivious to all else.

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  • Jack April 4, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    This seems really condescending and out of touch. Yeah we all like bikes, but people have reasons for driving that are perfectly valid. This is just self-righteous and not really even very funny.

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    • pixelgate April 4, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Completely agree. I know it was meant to be funny but it doesn’t work.. it almost sounds bitter.

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  • jsmith April 5, 2014 at 9:05 am

    I Loved the article. In fact, I think Cathy missed her calling, she needs to be a lifestyle columnist for a Car blog. We’ll all miss her a Great deal, as we All absolutely Love her lifestyle columns, but it really is for the greater good. Wait, this will never happen, the editors of bikeportland are hopelessly enamored by her and will chain her to her desk if she tries to leave

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    • wsbob April 5, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      Your comment is I suppose, sarcastically written? So, you don’t really love Hastie’s article, and would prefer that kind of material were exiled to some “Car Blog”, or at least away from a exclusively bike focused weblog that perhaps you’d like the private owned bikeportland weblog to be.

      A nice, cozy ‘us against them’ womb that people thinking similarly to yourself can flee to, away from the harsh realities of a world where people choose to, or are obliged to travel by means that may include motor vehicles.

      I prefer to think that besides sarcastic, your remarks were meant to be funny. And that you really wouldn’t want the sort of viewpoints Hastie shared here, to be excluded from bikeportland. Knowing that, if people of so called ‘modern’ societies are ever to be able to hope to dig themselves out of being frequently completely overwhelmed in one way or another by excessive motor vehicle usage, they’ve got to be able to think about and consider divergent viewpoints on this issue.

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  • Beth April 6, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Car use has become a very difficult subject for me to think and talk about.

    On the one hand, we are all getting older. If we choose to stay in a colder climate, then the combination of cold and the aging process will force many of us who currently rely on our bicycles to begin to lean more heavily on motorized transport — cars, trucks, busses.

    On the other hand, an economy and infrastructure that is so dependent on the automobile has become a Faustian bargain; in the long run, as the saying goes, we are all dead. The car will simply get us there faster.
    But how MUCH faster?
    Is this simply a long slog towards what will ultimately become a zero-sum game? Will we be unable — or unwilling — to adapt when the oil runs dry and auto-dependent infrastructure fails, forcing us all to live MUCH more localized lives than we do now?
    How long will it take us to get there?
    And in the long run, does it matter?
    Is the name of the game to try and die before things really change that drastically, or to adapt ahead of the curve so that if we’re still here when things really begin to shift we will be at least a little more prepared for it?
    The answers elude me. Or maybe they don’t and instead they worry me a little.

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    • wsbob April 7, 2014 at 12:02 am

      Beth…build communities better, and people won’t have to be forced to live within them locally. People will choose to live in them for that being the better option over spending many minutes a day stuck in long lines of traffic on the freeway.

      Society would likely have been much more inclined to build better communities, if doing so wasn’t based so heavily on making money. Motor vehicles wouldn’t have become the self defeating transportation evolution they are, if producing, selling and sustaining them hadn’t been turned into the all pervasive business they’ve become.

      To an extent, I love cars, but not associated with what I see when I climb up on the Tualitan Mtns and look down into and across the valley, seeing the far reaching impact that cars have been used to have a direct bearing in creating.

      By the way, Cathy Hastie…enjoyable, funny at times, sad at other times article. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.

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  • cathyhastie April 6, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    I enjoyed reading the wide variety of comments to this piece, from earphones to swimsuits. The article describes my new life – conflicted! But I don’t consider myself a former bike-commuter, just one who is taking a very long break.

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  • Charley April 7, 2014 at 9:07 am

    I think this is another good one. She’s right about all of it.

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