Car Culture, Safe Spaces, and Living in New York: Emotional Intelligence as an Urbanist Issue

I don’t write a lot directly about climate change. It’s a little strange, given that I’ve built my personal choices heavily around carbon usage (trying to cut meat, insisting on commuting by bicycle, etc.) Part of the problem, I think, is that the science is so obvious about the direness of our straits that arguing the point directly gives too much credence to science deniers.

But that doesn’t reduce the urgency of what needs to be done. Multiple paradigm shifts have to occur for us to actually save ourselves. Oil and gas left in the ground, a massive reimagining of travel, these things and plenty more are going to have to happen within our lifetime.

Even with the promise of new technology, everything all comes back to greenhouse gases. Carbon emissions are spiraling out of control, of course, and its sources are well documented. The meme about 100 corporations being responsible for 71% of carbon emissions is true, and of course, the highest-earning 10% of the world produces 49% of lifestyle-based carbon emissions. (If you’re reading this, you’re likely in that 10%: including the monetary value of all benefits, that cutoff was $13,750 per year in 2008.)

And that means we’re going to have to do something about cars. And not just a switch over to electric or CNG—unless we’re switching to truly clean electric generation (nuclear, wind, solar), an electric car isn’t going to move the needle, and with our current technology, CNG (both for electrical generation and for direct powering of cars) could be worse than traditional gasoline cars, depending on methane leakage.

But this essay isn’t even about the science of power generation. I want to talk more qualitatively, about our country’s love for cars, about our obsession with them to the point of irrationality, and why we haven’t been able to snap out of that cycle.

Here I am, once again, not writing directly about climate change.

I.

Why does car culture dominate the United States? There isn’t one single answer, of course, and plenty of blame to assign. Various forces have managed to strangle transit budgets across the country, leaving most commuter offerings sorely lacking. At the same time, we continued to induce demand by building wider freeways, reinforcing the “suburban ideal” that mainstream media defaulted to in almost every context. Lawn culture took hold, redlining and other racist policies led to an easy labeling of cities as “blighted,” and, well, there are a dozen other things to point to, but suffice it to say that the entrenchment of cars is for a ton of reasons.

This entrenchment persists despite some truly grim statistics that accompany this obsession. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people die every year as a result of motor vehicle crashes (including pedestrians), or roughly a city the size of Cleveland every decade. About three times as many Americans have died from a motor vehicle crash (roughly 3.8 million) than in every war in U.S. history combined (roughly 1.35 million, including 670,000 civilian deaths). And this is entirely ignoring injuries caused by collisions, as long as the person survives.

Sure, we’ve made it almost impossible to live in this country without driving regularly. But you’d think that people would be glad to give up their cars if given a viable option to. And yet, people tend to be stubbornly resistant to imagining their life without a car.

I believe that at least part of this is attributable to a side effect of our emotionally bottled-up culture: in forcing people into single-occupancy cars for long period of their day, our society has created a powerful emotional safe space for all manner of people, and until we address that, cars will be impossible to shake.

II.

I decided to move to New York in May of 2011. The reactions I got were representative of typical move-to-New-York narratives, with varying levels of validity. “Oh, New York is so…busy! Everybody’s so close together!” “Isn’t it going to be loud?” “Aren’t you worried about crime?” “Are you going to live by yourself?”

I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but the conversation, if it lasted long enough, would inevitably bring up the following:

“Are you going to have a car still?”

There were a number of problems with this question, including that I’ve never actually owned my own car. But anybody who has spent time in New York can tell you how absurd it would be to try to keep a car anywhere near lower Manhattan.

“Oh, is it because of the traffic?”

It wasn’t even that, of course. When people from places like Cleveland think about NYC traffic, they’re often thinking of backups in front of the George Washington or the Lincoln Tunnel, or about that time their cab took eleven minutes to go from 44th and 8th to 44th and 7th. They’re not thinking of the fact that a parking spot could easily run you upwards of $1000/month in Manhattan or that waiting for pedestrians while turning eats up at least one signal cycle by definition or that alternate-side parking even exists. The fact of the matter is that it is simply difficult to own a car in New York, at least anywhere where it’s easy to get to the urban core.

And to many people I talked to, that possibility was unthinkable. At the time, I chalked it up to perceived convenience. The mere concept of being within walking distance of everything you needed was foreign to Cleveland, even when I lived near University Circle, in one of the denser neighborhoods in the area.

I had, by this time, already managed in Minneapolis with nothing but a bicycle. And as bikeshare systems started to appear across the country, New York was the perfect place to adopt early, notwithstanding the fact that it was becoming more and more relatively weird that I’d show up everywhere sweating profusely. Nothing in lower Manhattan was ever more than twenty minutes away by bike, even if it might be forty by cab.

Even still, I would get comments periodically from Midwestern friends. “I don’t think I could do that. I mean, it’s great that you’re able to, cars are annoying, but I just love my car.”

And then, eventually, something clicked.

III.

Bougie New York, which includes lower Manhattan, portions of nearby Brooklyn, and some additional neighborhoods, is largely rather safe as big cities go. I’ve had to justify this fact to a number of Midwesterners, but the logic makes sense: the Manhattan street grid, compressed to the point of absurdity and devoid of alleys, makes it difficult to ever be alone in a place. If something might happen to you, somebody else is usually in a position to see it.

But on the flipside, there are times when you want to be alone in a place. New York makes it difficult for you to ever do that.

Sure, you have your apartment. If you’re lucky enough to make boatloads of money, you may live by yourself. If you don’t, you either split a studio or 1-bedroom with a significant other, or you have roommates, often random people who you knew only slightly, if at all, before you started living with them.

This setup is not unique to New York, of course. But in most other places, even if your residence isn’t always 100% your own domain, there’s an easy place to retreat when you need it: your car. The idea of somebody retreating to their car to have a good scream or cry or whatever they need is so ubiquitous in media it’s not even a trope.

In New York, instead, having emotions means that you have to learn to have emotions in front of people.

This is absolutely not to say that this makes New York better for you or a better place because of it. Most people who move to New York don’t actually learn how to do this. The city tosses you off the deep end without warning, daring you to display any emotion and treating it as weakness. If you’re not careful, you’ll betray yourself as not casually dead enough inside to make it here.

No support is provided for those who don’t know how to even start handling their emotions in front of other people. Men are already incentivized not to “show weakness”, and women are already incentivized not to “be overly emotional”. Plenty of people choose to push their feelings down and ignore their emotions rather than properly grapple with them. Others find their safe space in a bar or with another vice, one they might not have turned to in another setting.

A substitute for having emotions, and one not limited to New York. But one the city certainly doesn’t discourage.

IV.

I’ve heard people describe the United States as a place where people are not attuned to their emotional needs. I think that’s not quite correct. If anything, the questions I got from Ohioans upon announcing my move indicate just how indirectly aware people are of their need to have a space where they are comfortable feeling feelings.

“Oh, New York is so…busy!” There’s an inherent assumption here that a certain minimum level of quiet and isolation is the norm, and everything else is unusual. And, in 98% of the country, why would you ever assume otherwise?

“Everybody’s so close together!” In other words, there must be some way to get away from people, and they’re worried I haven’t considered that.

“Isn’t it going to be loud?” Ditto.

“Are you going to live by yourself?” At least, if you have the sanctity of your own apartment, you can emote as you need at home without worrying about having to then wash your face, inhale deeply, and ask somebody when their share of the rent is coming.

I’m certainly not saying that there is no problem with Americans’ emotional self-awareness. But the problem isn’t that we can’t look out for our own emotional well-being. The problem is that we consistently fail to acknowledge it and understand how it affects our decisionmaking.

Indeed, I don’t think anybody has once justified car ownership to me by intentionally connecting it to their mental health. And perhaps this is an extreme example, given the number of other seemingly neutral reasons that are commonly accepted for car ownership (convenience/freedom), but it does make some sense. With the wrong audience, I’m sure each of us could imagine the kind of mockery that might flow from any sentence along the lines of “I use it because it just helps me mentally recover and/or reset myself.” It’s easier to talk in code, to talk about convenience, to let the conversation skip over serious and difficult questions of emotional well-being.

And we do love easy.

V.

In a culture that encourages a lowkey (and sometimes highkey) distaste of work, a car commute is almost an assumed counterbalance. It functions as a necessary place for people to get their emotions out, to pump themselves up, to shout at other drivers from a place where nobody can hear, to grapple with the day just ahead or just past, to yell at Paulford for jamming the copier for the fourth time this week, to tell Steveothy nobody cares about his apple picking story, especially after he’s told it five times in your general vicinity. Nobody will judge you for the way you sing along to any embarrassing song of your choice. Do you need to sing Come On Eileen at the top of your lungs three times on repeat before facing your coworkers? No problem. Unlike in the office, where fixing your posture and sitting up straight means you can see over the cubicle walls, nobody can or will hear you.

Living where car ownership is impossible, you are likely reliant on public transit instead. If you’re lucky, you can get a seat or find a spot to open a book. You’re welcome to groove to music, but the moment you start making any noise at all, you’re invading the commutes of at least a dozen other people around you. You can still mull Steveothy’s antics, but you must do so in silence. Besides, everybody else is as stressed as you. None of them want to talk to you right now, when they’re dealing with their own Steveothys.

It’s no wonder then, really, that people who drive alone to work still outnumber carpoolers 8:1 in the United States.

VI.

My understanding of how people function in their cars is informed largely by two of the three people I’ve spent substantial time in cars with: my father and my stepfather. (My mother, the easy clubhouse leader, dislikes driving.) Driving seems to energize them, in different ways, and I’ve internalized driving habits from them both (when I do end up driving).

My dad zones out. He’ll be content to take his cassette tape of Paul Anka and Simon and Garfunkel, pop it in, and let it ride for as long as he can stay awake. When I’m in the car, he’ll look over every 15-20 minutes and ask a single question. That might lead to a minute or two of discussion, but then he goes straight back to zoning out.

During a particularly long drive, he might bust out the story of how he drove from Phoenix to Cleveland in one go, without stopping to sleep. That’s pretty much the entire story. It took 30 hours. He’s told this story a dozen times, and I actually am realizing now that I don’t even recall whether he was driving to or from Cleveland. And then he’ll go straight back to zoning out, passing this car or that, watching the fields slip by into other fields, and if he’s really feeling it, bob his head ever so slightly to one song or another.

It’s a truly meditative experience, one he has complete control over.

My stepdad does the opposite. He’s a rather emotive person to begin with, but he’ll ramp it up in his cars. (He loves all different kinds of cars.) He talks to the other cars on the road, mostly positively, until somebody gets in his way. If you’re in the car with him, he’ll emote to you about it in between talking to them directly. He does not demand perfection from the cars around him, but he will use them as props in reinforcing for himself his view of fairness and the world. And as soon as he steps out of the car, he’s back to mugging for the camera, to cracking jokes at everybody who cares (and lots of service workers who don’t), with his emotional tank fully recharged.

It’s an absolute roller coaster, a place to mold and air grievances, a truly cathartic experience, one he has complete control over.

Suffice it to say that it plays a key role in the way each of them go about their daily lives. And yet, neither of them would ever connect their driving habits with their emotional well-being. It wouldn’t even occur to them.

VII.

I remember the first time I saw somebody crying in public in New York. It wasn’t long after I arrived. They were just sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, and I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t have about five minutes to kill, which I decided to use by taking a detour and saying hi to the grand piano player in the park. In taking a hard left turn, I nearly tripped over them, slumped down with their feet extended into my path, trying to glance around at nothing and nobody in particular.

I wanted to say something, to acknowledge that what they were feeling was both valid and (as a new New Yorker) still concerning. Instead, worried more about how I would look, I managed a “sorry” and quickened my pace, not looking back. For years, I saw nothing wrong with this conduct, despite not even checking to see if they wanted any acknowledgment of their situation.

In short, I performed the situation as I thought a New Yorker would rather than actually treating the situation like a human being.

This is, I think, the fundamental reason why we shudder at having to be in front of other people all the time. Social visibility is repeatedly and consistently associated with a need for us to perform. New York leans into that hard, not only with its performing arts reputation (which trickles down into the types of people you’re going to meet in the city) but also with the number of different interactions you’re going to have with wildly different people over the course of a day.

It’s an easy assumption that this performative pressure has to be exhausting. You have to be on all the time, all day, every day. There is no point at which you can retreat to a car. If you need a glass of water from the kitchen, you have to acknowledge your roommates on the couch. If you need to recover from an intense interview, you can hyperventilate, but act relatively composed when you’re on the phone walking on the sidewalk, or people will start staring.

Eventually, most people are going to need decompression time, whether that draws you inward or outward. And we haven’t, as a society, figured out what that would even look like. We haven’t had to, because cars have neatly filled that void already. There’s no need for people to know what that looks like in a world where they have no magical transportation box that is fully their own, especially in a world where we are incapable of talking about our feelings and how they affect our lives and our decisions.

Apparently, it looks like somebody tripping over you and apologizing while they flee.

VIII.

There’s no obvious magic bullet, of course. But sweeping away the outdated stereotypes that have allowed us to repress any conversations about our emotions might make an actual difference. Allowing men to think about emotional recovery time that isn’t bundled with a drive somewhere might make an actual difference. Allowing women to have emotions with, at, or near people without labeling them emotional or dramatic might make an actual difference. Creating emotional safe spaces for people might make an actual difference. And in that vein, the ability to respond with emotional intelligence when we happen upon somebody who might be in need of support might make an actual difference.

And of course, none of this will matter if we don’t build better cities. But building better cities might not matter without this.

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