Why We Cling to Cars

Traffic throughout the Houston area on Sept. 22, 2005 was very heavy as residents left town before Hurricane Rita arrived. (Image credit: AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Here's an interesting way to get to work: Leave the house and forget the car. Instead, walk right out into the middle of the street, without looking left or right for oncoming traffic. When the street dead ends, step into a cigar-shaped, human-powered vehicle and balance, standing up, as it rocks across the main drag and deposits you on the other side of town. Jump out and walk the rest of the way to the office.

Or you could go to work the long way, entirely on foot. Join the stream of pedestrians going your way — keep to the right, please — down narrow alleys and up over a million bridges that bypass the roads, right to the front door of your office building.

This scenario — getting from point A to point B without a car — isn’t a futuristic description from the mind of a science fiction writer. It happens every day in Venice, Italy, where there are no cars and people rely on their feet, or gondoliers, to get around.

Although Venice is usually viewed an amusing anachronism — no cars! how funny! — La Serenissima is also reminder of how life used to be before the automobile and how life could be, even now, without cars.

The gas-powered, affordable automobile is only about 100-years-old, although every inventor since Leonardo da Vinci envisioned and experimented with people movers. It may have taken a long time and a lot of human ingenuity for cars to become practical, but no other cultural phenomenon has so captured the human mind and spirit.

Citizens of developed nations have actually melded with their cars; in Western cultures, it's hard to imagine life outside the driver's seat. We not only use cars to get around, we also use them as closets, dinning rooms, beds and trash bins.

The Western love of the automobile has also spread rapidly across the globe. People with less money and no possibility of a personal, gas-powered vehicle have also become dependent on fleets of small vans and trucks to get them and their goods around.

And no one, simply no one, no matter their culture, could resist a bright red Mini Cooper or a metallic silver convertible Miata.

At this point in human history, cars are clearly a universal human addiction, something we cling to even in the face of global warming. And that's because it's not just the cars that draw us in, it's what cars accomplish.

Apparently, humans want, more than anything, to move swiftly, and cars give us the feeling that we are getting someplace faster than if we ran there.

Perhaps this compelling need for speed stems from our hunter and gatherer past, where covering ground quickly might bring in more game. Or maybe the idea of skimming over the landscape at high speed speaks to our ancient desire to track wide swaths of land for signs of ripe tubers or trees laden with fruit.

Maybe we are bonded with our cars because we simply need to get going, going farther and faster because it's in our nature be on the move.

Cars, then, were an invention waiting to happen, and now that they're here, we just want to keep on going, no matter what.

As time spent in Venice shows, there are, or course, other ways to get around, even today in our car-centric world. We could walk, swim, jump or run, and stop off for an espresso on the way. Life would be slower, quieter and less dangerous.

But we seem willing, compelled even, to choose what seems to be the swiftest method of transportation, even when stuck in traffic.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.