Family Biking: What is car culture and how does it affect us?

Shannon Johnson

I am struggling to root out some of these deeply entrenched car-biased behaviors and ways of thinking, even where I can see their dangers and negative consequences.

I suspect that for the average American, biking newbies, and outsiders to the pedestrian and cycling communities, the term “car culture” isn’t familiar or immediately understandable. It even sounds a bit exaggerated and hits the ear with the same hyperbolic unfamiliarity as “traffic violence,” where one is otherwise accustomed to hearing about “car accidents.” 

What is car culture? What do cycling advocates mean by using the term? And, if I understand the term, how does “car culture” affect my life as a biking mom?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this terminology – car culture – and musing over its meaning and influence in my life and the lives of those around me. The more I have learned about cycling and bike/ped advocacy, the more the term has made sense, and the more aware I have become regarding all sorts of previously unconscious car-centric biases in myself. 

I have come to think that “car culture” refers to the specifically car-centric, car-dominant, car-prioritizing, and car-biased beliefs/habits/behaviors and policies that make up the typically unconscious accepted norms of our wider society. Let me explain…

Car Culture: Much of American life is car-centric, that is, centered around the premise that people drive cars. Americans have cars, drive cars, like cars. If you don’t, you are abnormal and “counter-cultural.” A key part of the term “car culture” is that car use is the dominant mode of transportation, prioritized to the exclusion of all other modes, so much so, that we often don’t even consider other options, much less accommodate them. Infrastructure, development, and policies target fast, efficient, and mass use of the automobile, from freeways to parking lots. This is car culture in that such priorities and goals, which presume the good of automotive transport, are normal, favored, and often unquestioned. The culture is also car-biased, in that the negative and even fatal consequences of mass car use (from pollution to mortality) are regularly defended as necessary, acceptable, and unavoidable, while the benefits of other modes are devalued or ignored, and other modes of transport are even maligned. 

I know this is familiar territory to BikePortland readers, but over the past year I have been continually surprised at the sneaky and insidious ways that entrenched car culture has affected my own thoughts, habits and behaviors. How often do I justify an unsafe or less-safe driving behavior, because it’s the norm? How do I respond to news of a car crash or traffic death? Am I willing to have my own car commutes slowed down to give space and safety to more vulnerable and slower road users? Where do I fail to dream big about bike and pedestrian infrastructure, because I presume cars will win the day? In what ways do I negatively structure my own family’s life around car usage? What car-centered norms do I accept or participate in, which have negative consequences for myself, my children, and my community? Even today, I am struggling to root out some of these deeply entrenched car-biased behaviors and ways of thinking, even where I can see their dangers and negative consequences.

For example, just this week I left two cars in the driveway to ride my bike to my moms’ book club meeting – my first time making a personal winter night-time bike ride (sans kids). I had barely considered such a counter-cultural way to go out at night. It was energizing and fun. Why hadn’t I ridden before?

My book club meetings are all nearby, less than three miles away on very bike-friendly routes…but I had never ridden to one of them. I’ve been worried about being cold, and my unfamiliarity with riding in the dark; but mostly, I just always drive. I’ve never not driven. Everyone drives. No one thinks to not-drive. Indeed, it was only because I was writing about car culture and its continued dominance in my own life that I forced myself to try the bike ride instead of driving. And guess what? It was fabulous.

I hadn’t been able to squeeze in a momma workout all day, and my legs loved the opportunity to pedal. It wasn’t that cold out, but the brisk weather invigorated me. I arrived at book club beaming and full of pep and mental clarity. It could have been a dull five minute drive. Instead it was a refreshing 10-minute bike ride. And the ride home was even better: at 10pm there was almost no traffic at all. Riding on neighborhood streets almost the whole way, I felt comfortable and safe, just riding past people’s front yards. I think my fellow moms were apprehensive about my safety – riding alone, at night – but as my husband always comments, no one ever worries about my safety when I drive my car, even though it’s statistically far more dangerous than any other threat in our neighborhoods. Again, it’s part of car culture that we white-wash the driving risks and put all the fears on something statistically less likely. My husband smiled when I returned and poured himself a second glass of wine. He hadn’t been worried at all. 

Changing the car-culture around us is probably one of the hardest advocacy tasks. It’s slogging, slow, incendiary, and sometimes painful work. People who are deeply rooted in a culture are often unable to see the culture that they live inside of and from which they develop their thoughts and actions. It’s invisible to us. It’s the unquestioned norms. It can even convince us to like unlikeable things (once you’ve ridden a high-speed train, I suspect you will wonder why you liked driving so much!) Or, in my case this week: I thought I preferred driving to book club and that I was making a sacrifice to bike. Turns out, I had been missing out. Biking added something fun, refreshing, and healthy to my evening. I’m looking forward to the next ride, not dreading it.

So, how do we change the culture? 

Most obviously, the best starting point is to change ourselves.

That’s what I am working on. I may write in this space, but I think of myself primarily as a grateful BikePortland learner and work-in-progress. For me, this BikePortland space has been, and continues to be, a challenging, stretching, and yes, even life-changing community and learning experience. I continue to reap the great joy and benefits of biking with my children – and on my own too! But riding a bike is also changing the way I think about our family and community life, our choices, and our culture – yes, our car culture. The term is valid and important, and instead of getting defensive about it (I drive a minivan), I’m looking for those sneaky ways car culture affects me personally, and then deciding which of those things should be changed by me personally. That’s not as straight-forward as trying to get in better shape in 2023 (I’m going to do that too) but maybe it’s even more important.

Happy New Year! Here’s some cheers for better bike and pedestrian culture in these parts! Thanks to all of BPs readers, supporters, and commenters who make this a great place to learn and grow.

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Boyrd
Boyrd
20 days ago

I enjoyed this essay. I think it’s a valuable exercise to interrogate our personal car centric biases that derive from a culture infused with car centric infrastructure, messaging, and media. But I take issue with the way that you frame the dangers of cars. Cars are remarkably safe for their occupants. With modern safety features, cars have been made about as safe as they can be for passengers without sacrificing the ability to drive excessively fast. But cars (and moreso, trucks and SUVs) are wildly unsafe for those that are not riding inside. They are incredibly lethal when they come in contact with pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occupants of other cars. So your three mile ride actually subjected you to innumerable additional risks imposed by people driving motor vehicles that you would not have faced had you also been in a motor vehicle. If you had driven, you would have been subjecting the people around you to danger. But you, yourself, would have been much safer.

Fred
Fred
20 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

So what’s your point? – that we shouldn’t ride bikes unless and until all cars are removed from the places we bike? Are you saying that safety of cyclists should be prioritized on the same level as car occupants’ safety has been?

Boyrd
Boyrd
20 days ago
Reply to  Fred

I’m saying the latter, not the former. I think we should understand that there are inherent risks that are imposed upon us by people driving in motor vehicles every time we venture outside. We should advocate for all prudent steps to mitigate those risks, including rules that limit the performance capabilities of cars, mandates for safety features that protect people outside of cars, separated infrastructure, roads that are engineered to limit vehicle speeds, and enforcement of safety and speed laws. And most importantly, we should be advocating for a shift away from communities that are built around cars. We should stop building new car infrastructure and replace much of what we have with mass and active transit facilities. Hundreds of millions of personal, private motor vehicles cause massive problems. Anything that can be done to limit the need for them and to stop catering to their use will be beneficial.

I don’t imagine the author would disagree with me on any of these points. But I took issue with her assertion that she would have been less safe if she had driven a car. I think that is inaccurate. Rather, if she had driven, she would have turned the safety issues into externalities that she would have imposed on others.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
20 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

Ah, I meant to contrast the risks of driving with the risk of being attacked as a solo female out at night (biking or walking)–that getting into a car accident while driving would be statistically more likely than me meeting a serial killer on my way home. I don’t want to suggest there are no dangers specific to being a lone female out at night, but many people I know are shocked that I would dare to bike or use public transit at night–fearing attackers. My contrast was meant to show “they don’t worry about me getting in a car accident” but they worry about me being attacked by a stranger….which is statistically less likely. I am attentive to this thinking because such fears can especially dominant with parents who are worried their children will be abducted if they walk/bike on their own. Such stranger kidnappings are exceedingly rare, but they play an outsized role in the way many parents think and act regarding child independence and whether they will allow a kid to walk to a friend’s house alone, or even play outside “unattended,” while the mortality rate for children dying in car accidents often doesn’t get the same type of concern or judgement from fellow parents.

Boyrd
Boyrd
17 days ago

Absolutely agree that your risk, as a woman, of being attacked or abducted while riding a bike at night is much smaller than your risk of being injured or killed in a crash.

My point is that riding a bike, even on relatively safe feeling neighborhood streets, doesn’t protect you from the risk of being involved in a crash with a motor vehicle.

Scott
Scott
17 days ago
Reply to  Fred

As dangerous as it is sharing the roads with cars, statistically, a bicyclist will live a longer and healthier life than a couch potato.

robert wallis
robert wallis
20 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

I enjoyed the essay as well. Nice to hear someone else values what they learn from BP, thanks to the BP crew and those who comment. If a person wants to take one action that could really help with climate change, a good one would be to bike more places instead of driving a car. Regardless of the degree of danger you see in that action, it is most unfortunate that they get punished for taking an action that is good for everyone.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
20 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

Ah! I’m sorry, I was trying to contrast the powerful fear of being a woman alone at night with the less psychologically impactful but more statistically dangerous risk of a car crash, including as a driver. I myself (and my mom-friends with me), were much more afraid of the “late ride home” at 10pm than the equally dark ride there at 7pm, because of the fears of attackers lurking in the shadows. (This type of concern is expressed elsewhere too, as female friends have been shocked I would use public transit at night, because it’s thought to be scary. Friends rarely express that driving is scary. And I admit to feeling scared myself. It’s my husband who always says, “you are more likely to be hit by a car if you drive, than attacked on public transit–but the fear of personal attack has greater psychological impact on me.) This attacker fear, statistically less likely than a driving danger, is what I meant to contrast. Indeed, it was one of my reasons for not-biking. Would I feel scared about riding home after 10pm? Ironically, I felt safer on my ride home because the biggest danger–auto traffic –was so much reduced!

Fred
Fred
20 days ago

Thanks, Shannon, for this lovely essay. You talk about changing the culture, but I see an even bigger challenge, which is changing THE LAW.

Right now the law creates a situation on our roads where all users use the facility AT THEIR OWN RISK. In the good ol’ USA, we have no “causing death by dangerous driving” law, as they do in the UK and most of Europe. In those countries, you take on a grave responsibility by operating a motor vehicle, which is not to kill or injure anybody. If you do, you can get in serious trouble. The police will scrutinize your actions and if you could have done something to prevent the death or injury, you will go to jail and lose whatever wealth you had accumulated. Not so in the US, where all you need to do as a driver is demonstrate that you are not drunk. There’s really nothing else the police can charge people with, beyond the most basic driving infractions, like “failure to yield the right of way” which is a fine but no jail time.

Jonathan has written for years about the police statements that essentially exonerate drivers in situations where their actions led to the deaths of cyclists and pedestrians. Everyone should sign up to receive the PPB news releases and read their constantly maddening refrain: “The driver stopped and is cooperating with police.” That’s all you need to do in America, if you are a driver: stop and tell the police you didn’t see the person, and you’re good to go.

Imagine how different things would be if every time a driver killed or injured someone, that driver’s license were suspended for a year, or two, or you went to jail – even for a week or two. People would drive so much more carefully than they do now.

Watts
Watts
20 days ago
Reply to  Fred

In the good ol’ USA, we have no “causing death by dangerous driving” law

Untrue; we have many such laws. Some are criminal (such as drunk driving laws and others), and some are civil. If you hurt someone or something, you will pay, one way or another, and for civil cases, we’re required to have insurance to make sure we can pay.

Wanting to jail for non-criminal behavior is very regressive thinking.

John
John
20 days ago
Reply to  Watts

Wanting to jail for non-criminal behavior

That’s a bit circular. I think the obvious implication is it should not be “non-criminal behavior”.
I’m not sure I agree about jailing, as we do too much of that as it is, but I agree it should be considered criminal.

Watts
Watts
20 days ago
Reply to  John

“it should not be non-criminal behavior”.

I guess it depends on what the “it” is . If it is not seeing someone dressed in black on an unlit street on a rainy night, 99% of people are going to say that’s not criminal. If it is getting hepped up on goofballs and driving the wrong way on the highway, most people would say that is.

In other words, severe driving infections are treated criminally, and less severe ones are treated as civil matters.

This seems perfectly reasonable to me. You obviously aren’t going to criminally prosecute someone for a fender bender, whereas someone who gets drunk before speeding down the highway probably should end up in jail for long enough that he or she won’t do it again.

You may quibble about exactly how steep the gradient should be, or exactly where to draw various lines, but surely you agree with the fundamental concept.

Fred
Fred
17 days ago
Reply to  Watts

Untrue; we have many such laws. Some are criminal (such as drunk driving laws and others)

We do NOT have many such laws. You vaguely mention “others.” So what are they?

I wish JM and other experts would chime in here, but there is case after case where a cyclist or ped is killed or injured by a driver and all the police can do is issue a citation that leads to a fine but nothing else. I know of many cases where cyclists were run down and killed on the shoulder or side of the road – and the driver was charged with nothing more than failure to stay in her lane.

Watts
Watts
17 days ago
Reply to  Fred

“what are they?”

I’m not sure where Oregon draws the line, but many states criminalize driving without a license, driving with a suspended or revoked license, reckless driving (a catch-all which covers a wide range of behavior), vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, hit-and-run, and so on.

Not every bad outcome should end in criminal prosecution, and most don’t, on or off the road. They generally end in civil suits and paying compensation. Courts have been dealing with these issues for thousands of years, and this is the approach most of the world has arrived at.

I think it’s fair to say that no one who has driven more than a tiny amount has never made a mistake that, with a little (bad) luck could have injured or killed some one. It’s hard for me to imagine all those mistakes being treated as criminal behavior, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live in a society that worked that way.

John
John
20 days ago

Great thoughtful article, thank you!

I always know from regular experience that if I do ride somewhere, I’m going to be glad I did. Not just after but during the ride. It feels so good every time. For the reasons you mentioned, I too especially like the night rides. I don’t love riding in a hard downpour, but despite the reputation Portland has, those are pretty rare.

And yet I also drive just out of reflex too many times. I think that’s why some people (e.g. BP’s Taylor Griggs) just get rid of the car. For the same reason I have to keep junk food out of the house if I’m going to avoid eating it. I feel like it’s hard for me to not have the minivan, at least right now, since it’s not just me I have to convince.

dw
dw
19 days ago
Reply to  John

I still own a car but only use it about once every 2 weeks. My “motivator”, if you could call it that, to not drive it is cost. Insurance (switched to per-mile), gas, and maintenance costs have all gone down radically since I started biking and bussing everywhere.

More important than money, I also notice benefit I get from the movement that a short walk to the bus stop or bike ride provides. I walk 10-20 miles and bike close to 60 miles in a week, which is an order of magnitude more exercise than I’d get if I drove everywhere. We all only get one body and incorporating exercise in to things that I already do has been a real game changer for my mood and overall physical health.

The air we're breathing
The air we're breathing
20 days ago

Great essay! Thanks for describing this so eloquently. Car culture is real and inescapable in this country. It helps to go to another country (for those who can afford it) to see just how pervasive — and contrived — it is.

Keep up the good work!

soren
soren
19 days ago

As someone who has never used a “car” (or SUV/personal-truck) as a primary form of transportation, I view “car” culture discourse as a form of sub-cultural navel gazing. The obscure phrases that few outsiders use, the preaching to the crowd, the disapproval of those who drive “cars”, the dearth of empathy for those who have few transportation choices, and the fixation on “bikes” as the one mode that will save us, all have the hallmark of epistemologically closed belief systems. To be blunt, bicycle culture often reminds me very much of the textbook example of a subculture that works very hard to ensure its minority status: veganism.

Watts
Watts
19 days ago
Reply to  soren

Ironically, both vegans and cyclists (at least the ones who talk about “car culture”) both seem to want to evangelize, and yet there is a strain of absolutism in those subcultures that can be alienating and keeps folks away.

Other subcultures I’m a part of that don’t emit that scent of absolutism seem much less off-putting.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
19 days ago
Reply to  soren

As someone who never learned to drive and who is by definition entirely a “captured rider” in transit jargon, even I can see some of the benefits of our car culture. It’s impossible, alas, to put the genie back in the bottle – we are stuck with cars, airplanes, cell phones, nuclear weapons, veganism, Velveeta, pineapple pizza and all of our other social curses. But we do have the opportunities of the open road and the youthful zest of top-down motoring, even if the stroad to hell is paved with good intentions and climate change. Are we enslaved to driving cars or are we really enslaved to earning a living by commuting – and cars happen to be the transport of our current age? If it is the latter, then ought we not look to change our culture of work and earning a living – to maybe regress to our medieval past of subsistence farming, dealing with heaps of horse ****, and living short violent lives of quiet desperation? Or maybe a future of not consuming so much stuff and things but be happy with less?

However, I’m still going to get my ebike and eat my meat too.

Watts
Watts
18 days ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Surely it’s not too late to stop pineapple pizza…

Amit Zinman
19 days ago
Reply to  soren

No cultural change is easy, and the people who uphold the status quo for whatever reason always say that the people who publicly advocate for change are too loud, too in your face, why can’t they be nicer, encouraging, even supportive? Such claims that you make are so familiar in such old (and current) fights against racism and sexism. The people advocating for change are asked to “understand” the people who can’t, won’t or don’t want to change, to not be rude, stop preaching to the choir and explain what is so plain in words that don’t hurt.
I believe that inevitably that’s not how historical changes were made. Either people rise up, or they stay quiet and the status quo remains in place.

Watts
Watts
18 days ago
Reply to  Amit Zinman

“the status quo remains in place.”

Or it doesn’t. We’ve made tons of societal progress in areas ranging from smoking to literacy to hunger without “rising up”.

But if you think you’ll get a lot more people on bikes by being militant, there’s probably not a lot I can say to dissuade you.

Scott
Scott
16 days ago
Reply to  Watts

Your “tons of societal progress” areas, including smoking, wouldn’t have happened without strident advocacy. Power and its status quo give up nothing without a fight. Think! 8 hour workday, 40 hour work week, workplace safety, overtime, worker’s comp.,the end of the VietNam war, etc., etc., etc.

Watts
Watts
16 days ago
Reply to  Scott

Advocacy is not “rising up”.

soren
soren
18 days ago

Shannon, My comment was not focused on your blog post but on the larger issue of how “bike culture” is often its own enemy when it comes to normalizing a different and less harmful way to get around. I think this exclusionary behavior comes, in part, from a belief that there is some distinct and separable ideology (e.g. “car culture” or “carnism”) that motivates people to drive or eat meat. IMO, this belief creates an us-vs-them dynamic that is harmful to positive change. I’ve often argued that if vegans want to see less killing animals one of the best things they could do is to shut about it and encourage “first steps”. I think the same is true for the bike-culture community.

Fred
Fred
17 days ago
Reply to  soren

I know many parents of young children who have based decisions about where to live, what house to buy, etc entirely around their ability to get those children to school, soccer, scouts etc via car. It just wouldn’t be possible to be in all of those places in the allotted time without a car – it seems as though these parents spend most of their waking hours driving around in cars.

Do I think it’s a good idea to live this way? No, I don’t. But I understand the choices parents make to create opportunities for their children.

Amit Zinman
19 days ago

That’s why I love to make videos about people who left car-culture behind (for the most part), they lead the pack and know how it permeates our culture.
https://youtu.be/WLgB6YOxrJ4

Mauri Rocco
Mauri Rocco
18 days ago

I used to take my kids on the I-205 MUP to bike places. Can’t do that anymore. It’s too scary. Homeless druggies all over. Sad. It’s now w car for us except for very short trips.

Watts
Watts
18 days ago
Reply to  Mauri Rocco

Drug culture.

Scott
Scott
16 days ago

One important factor you missed in the car culture is that it is without question the product of a century of government policy, pushed by the car/oil/paving industries to make certain that the car rules our landscape. It is no longer a personal choice to own and drive a car; it is a nearly imperative to so one can safely participate. And the only way we humans are going to solve the many car-culture-created issues is to design our landscape around people first. What issues? Climate (60% of GHG is transportation related), housing (parking requirements must be met before one can build a bedroom), equity (not everyone can afford a car, yet everyone still pays for the infrastructure), health (people, including young kids, are obese from sitting on their assess), and lots more.

Watts
Watts
15 days ago
Reply to  Scott

 everyone still pays for the infrastructure

In Oregon, roads are maintained by vehicle fees and gas taxes. And everyone uses the roads even if they don’t drive, assuming they ride the bus, consume goods that are transported by truck, are protected by emergency services, etc.

While I agree with you about the costs of auto dependence, it’s worth remembering that cars saved us from the even more polluting and dangerous trajectory we were on. We’ve probably outgrown the current system and need something new. I believe self-driving taxis will usher in a new transportation transformation as significant as the transition from horses to cars.