Driving Makes Us Worse People

Today I was riding my bike home from the gym — I was in the bike lane, I was using my blinking rear- and headlights to try and alert others to my existence and avert the worst situation, I was doing everything right — when a car that was about to turn slowed down for me and delayed their turn from a perpendicular lane as I crossed the South Congress and Cesar Chavez intersection to head towards my home in South Austin.

As this happened, I heard the car behind them _slam_ on their horns. Texas isn’t New York City, so when someone starts aggressively honking at someone else, it stands out. As they essentially issued aural “fuck you”s to the polite driver who simply wanted to not murder a cyclist, I found myself welling up in anger. As the person behind me finally completed their turn, this sedan behind them aggressively swerved around them and sped down the bridge in an annoyingly macho way.

Why do cars bring out the worst in us?

To answer that question, I look back at my own upbringing in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.

For folks who grow up in Houston, my impression was always that public transit was something reserved for poor people and middle school students. Well, that’s not exactly correct. Even the poor people I knew (and my family wasn’t exactly ballin’ ourselves) didn’t take the bus. No one took the bus. I recently looked up a few routes from my ancestral suburb 25 minutes outside of Houston. There is literally no route into downtown. Hell, there’s no transit from my old home to the nearby shopping center (20 min. walk) where I used to cashier at Ross Dress for Less.

Not only did no one take public transit — understandable, given the dearth of options — but bicycling was a hobby reserved primarily for teenage hoodlums. I somehow doubt that my experience was all that rare, particularly for suburban Texas, and it isn’t hard to see how adults who come from those origins would not necessarily consider that the car in front of them may simply be avoiding vehicular manslaughter instead of waiting at a right turn for no reason.

So there are clearly cultural elements of growing up in America that may feed our worse demons. But on some level — who can blame folks? With public transit in such a sorry state across the nation, people are by-default indoctrinated into car-first culture.

The ubiquity of easily accessible screens AKA smartphones doesn’t help either. I am guilty of being on my phone while driving — I can’t deny it. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re just going to find that next song or podcast episode, then put the phone down. But let’s be real — no one should be even _glancing_ at a tiny screen while driving a 3,000 pound death machine on the same streets as cyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. And yet they are — all the time.

So basically, we have terrible transit, car-first culture, generally increasing commute times, and even the root of our language around “car accidents” seems to absolve drivers from responsibility, if not legally. It’s not surprising that driving brings out the worst in us.