The Broken Road

Driving is fun!
Driving is fun!

When I was in high school, my parents did what any sensible family living in the District of Columbia did in the 80s: they fled to the suburbs.  In a city where you couldn’t even guarantee the picking up of dead bodies, let alone the picking up of the trash, the promise of a remotely satisfactory education for one’s young went unfulfilled by a mayor too busy smoking crack to care.  But in the Maryland suburbs of Montgomery County, mother and father could rest assured that his or her child would learn to sing their ABCs, not how to sling hash.
Not that Silver Spring is by any means the hinterlands.  Close enough in that DC still formed the incorporated boundary to the south and east, the rather largish city still fits the definition of “suburb” to a proverbial T, providing easy access to the District via Washington’s surprisingly competent Metro system.  And if you insisted on driving into and out of town, New Hampshire Avenue provided a direct connection from the apartment building into which my family nestled and downtown’s famed Dupont Circle.
But, go west young man, and that’s where the real magic lay.  Whereas turning right out of The Point Apartment Community brought one into the city, a left shot you past the high school where I labored through my teenage years and a last-chance McDonald’s before the Avenue narrowed from six lanes to two, changing suddenly from a suburb-to-city connector into a veritable paved cow path.  Following the road as it turned north, one could find themselves halfway to Pennsylvania Dutch Country if they got lost in the sheer fun of taking on mile after mile of twists, turns and the occasional rollicking hill that defied both gravity and the butter-soft suspension tuning on my parents’ 1984 Ford Tempo.
Flash forward 20 something years, and those farms and fields that once dominated the landscape beyond the suburban haven where Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” have been bulldozed to make way for…more suburbs.   Miles and miles, in fact, stretching so far northward they now meet the suburbs encroaching south from Baltimore.  What once was pretty two-lane country roads winding fast through fields has now been widened and flattened into divided roads connecting peculiarly-named housing developments and identical-styled red brick shopping centers dominated by grocery stores and Targets.
And with it all comes traffic.  Lots and lots and lots of traffic.  As thousands of other families have followed my parents’ lead and made the trek to the ‘burbs, suburbs have been displaced by exurbs, and exurbs by places without names that truly are the hinterlands, well beyond the reach of public transportation or even the ease of walking.  Living in these places, a car becomes not a joy, nor an expression of freedom, but truly an appliance, something that sits just above the proverbial toaster to which midsize sedans are often compared in the pantheon of personal property.
Thanks to JD Power, we now know that today’s teen living in the suburbs isn’t anywhere near as enamored with the automobile as we were at their age.
Really now?  You don’t say.
Enthusiasts like to blame this sad state the bogus idea that today’s cars aren’t as exciting or interesting as they once were.  But that’s hogwash—what in God’s name was interesting about cars like the best-selling Ford Tempo, or the Ford Fairmont that preceded it, other than perhaps finding a peculiar example that was able to reach 50,000 miles without a breakdown?  Even supposedly “interesting” cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, which wheezed almost 200 hp out of its 5.7-L V8 through a lifeless 3-speed automatic in 1982, seem relatively dull next to a 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec-V, which is possibly the least-interesting modern sport compact going.  More than a few automakers managed to go a full decade from 1974 on without building one single automobile that wasn’t an utter piece of shit.  If you’re reading this, then face it: chances are you grew up with some of the dullest garbage to ever come on four wheels.
Kia's have more power now...
Kia's have more power now…

JD Power has a different take.  They say that, thanks to Facebook and iPhones, kids don’t need cars anymore, because they can get everything they need through the Internet.  Now I know kids today probably know a thing or two more about this World Wide Web do-hickey than I do, but at the same time, I suspect that just like I was at that age, they’re also still a raging ball of hormones when they’re entering their driving years.  And last I checked, you still couldn’t do that online.
The reality today is that driving sucks.  Don’t believe me?  Try going home from your 9-5er and then say it.  Where’s the thrill in crawling along at 15 miles per hour, watching some douche cut you off by coming around the shoulder, the same douche who cut you off by coming around the shoulder yesterday?  Yeah, you know the guy.  That’s the highlight of your drive home—throwing some asshole in a Prius your middle finger.
Now imagine your average teen in the backseat looking up long enough from his or her netbook to watch this daily ritual.  Are they really supposed to be excited about getting a driver’s license…for this?  Most of us aren’t enthralled any more by the spectacle of putting up with a car on a daily basis—why should they want to?
This is where a word that many kids know and many parents don’t—“sustainability”—comes in.  The model we’ve built, rings and rings (and rings) of suburbs, connected only by our own private conveyances, is unsustainable.  The Eisenhower Interstate system that connected the US and taught Americans the thrill of the open road has also brought about snarling sprawl that has converted our dreams into nightmares.
Companies like Toyota and General Motors believe that tomorrow’s hybrids and extended-range electric cars will re-engage youth into becoming automotive aficionados the way import hot hatches made us love the automobile, the way muscle cars excited our fathers before that.  But the best, cleanest, most enticing new car in the world won’t make new enthusiasts of this next generation as long as we’re facing a situation of suburban snarl and broken roads.

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  1. lilwillie Avatar

    Too bad for you guys. Living in Rural Wisconsin we have roads upon roads to thrash on. Traffic isn’t a issue until you get near one of the “Cities” we have. Milwaukee being the only true City. Madison traffic is a nightmare at most times of the day and thankfully I am 20 miles away and don’t have to deal with it.
    I have so many choices for a drive home. I can take back roads with nice twisty turns to put the paces to the best sports cars. A long stretch route home that can flog the top speed of most made. A smooth highway that can add a few miles to the drive but is some great scenery. Even a off-road drive home if I choose to really put some mud on the bottom side.
    Rural living, its the best.

  2. Tollberg Avatar

    I actually took a class on sustainability last year and a disturbing amount of what was discussed involved small communities where cars aren’t even needed. But when you do need a vehicle to get around, the system as it currently stands is, as you point out, broken. And it will only get worse as the cities creep into the suburbs and the suburbs creep into the farmland. I’m barely out of my teen years though and I still managed to develop a passion for cars so perhaps there still is hope for this generation.

  3. Gokarter641 Avatar

    Hear, hear!!!
    As a college sophomore who only got his driver’s license this past summer, I felt no need to drive myself from New York City suburb to New York City suburb. I didn’t want to have to deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic to get across the county.
    Now that I’ve got that little piece of plastic though, it’s very different. I’ve discovered the joys of my mom’s little Civic Si with the manual transmission coming out of the dash. That lightweight, quick car single-handedly (single-wheeled-ly?) changed my perception of driving, especially in traffic. My friends and I get through traffic jams by grading how smoothly I can pull up behind the car in front of us.
    So while yes, it’s a pain rockin’ the suburbs, it’s not all bad. You’ve just gotta be a little more creative with your automotive kicks!

  4. engineerd Avatar

    An interesting conundrum, huh? Because of the automobile, families could move further out of the city and live in peaceful neighborhoods. This in turn has led to urban sprawl and traffic jams heading into major cities since most of the commerce still resides there.

  5. engineerd Avatar

    Also, while people that live in large metro areas (LA, NYC, Washington, Chicago, etc.) can try to blame this on Ike’s interstate system, people in rural America can also argue that without the interstate system they would be, essentially, cut off and forced to drive two-lane highways and biways. Another interesting conundrum, don’t you think?
    If I lived in a large city I probably would not commute in a car and use mass transit instead. However, in a midsize city, like Detroit, or in rural areas mass transit may not make sense. Would I love to see a mass transit system here in Detroit? Absolutely. Is it “sustainable” financially? Maybe not.

  6. Maymar Avatar

    I’m just thankful my commute into school largely goes against the flow of traffic, it cuts down on the stabby feelings a little bit.
    On the other hand, the roads around here are straight like the lines on an ’80’s Volvo, so there’s less fun to be had.

    1. Deartháir Avatar

      I feel your pain there! Where I grew up, many of the roads were, to quote Clarkson, like spaghetti, draped on an Alp.
      Now I’m in Alberta. Whoever invented Alberta — and Saskabush, and Manitoba — should be taken out and shot. That’s sloppy design, right there. You couldn’t have added SOMETHING to make it interesting?

      1. Maymar Avatar

        I should be in Vancouver at the end of March on account of the auto show. If I get a day off, I might have to rent a car for the hell of it.

    2. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

      And by that, you mean that there’s a subtle curve that makes you think your alignment’s gone out?

  7. aSoundofSleep Avatar

    This is exactly why I’m doing my part by forcing watching Top Gear with my kid!

  8. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    Well said. It’s taken a hundred years of hard work to get to this miserable point, so getting out of it will take time and won’t be all that easy. And a lot of great land has been chewed up and degraded in the process.
    Unfortunately, much of our newest best built infrastructure is only accessible by car, and suburban/exurban densities are insufficient to justify the expense of transit lines.
    But there are boom towns that have died out, fields regrown to forest, even brownfield waste dumps turned to public parks. Eventually people will invest in and move to places where life is better, including the pain of driving and commuting to manage your life. Places that don’t keep up will become the next Detroit, the next Nevada ghost town.

  9. JeepyJayhawk Avatar

    There’s an upside and downside to living in Kansas. As DOT takes over more highway, they grade it and make it more boring, albeit safer. Yet further from the two major cities smaller rural roads and highways still follow the geography of the land, allowing for interesting drives. If you need something a bit more exciting the Ozarks have lots of valleys and sweeps, very good times can be had there indeed. It is interesting that as the highways created suburbia and sprawl, that the trend of late has been to move more core-ward. People are living closer to work, having smaller yards, and trying to spend more time doing things that interest them. This leaves the highways emptier, the rural roads clearer, and the lands freer of McMansions. I have even heard of them plowing townhouses under to rebuild the farmland, as it has become more valuable than the vacant houses sitting on top. Just my 2 cents.

  10. iheartstiggie Avatar

    I cringed at that picture.
    I grew up in Rural Wisconsin, between Milwaukee and Madison. I know those roads lilwillie speaks of well, having learned them behind the wheel of “Otto,” a 1989 Merkur XR4Ti. I am thankful to this day that I grew up in a place where cars were loved, needed, constantly worked on and driven for pleasure. There was nothing better than to hop in the GTO with dad and my sisters and have a Sunday “road day” after a stop at The Kiltie for ice cream. With cones in hand we’d tell dad to turn left or right, always trying to find that zigzag trajectory out of my little town with 1800 people heading north towards The U.P., hoping he’d either get lost or drive SO far, we’d miss school on Monday. Boy were we suckers!
    I have since moved to Northern Virginia and in ’98, out of necessity, traded in the 1990 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I currently drive an MS3 only because I have a 5 mile commute to work. The other half drives an Insight due to his commute to downtown DC.
    Even in the burbs the MS3 gets an adolescent eyebrow raised only here and there. The Insight gets ignored. Typically because they’re blowing by us on skateboards while we sit in traffic.

  11. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

    I’m proud to be in Willie’s position. Living in a small town in southwestern New Hampshire, a state with only two cities with populations over 50,000, I have all the road options I could want. The landscape here is dominated by curving two-lane highways connected by usually-maintained rural roads, dotted with small towns and villages; the nearest road with more than the occasional three lanes (a temporary truck-passing necessity on uphill grades) is Route 2 across Massachusetts, still more than a half-hour’s drive.
    I’ve learned the local shortcuts, drifted my underpowered Volvo on dirt/gravel roads, and figured out the back roads that are safe for travel above forty per – and, just as important, those that aren’t.
    Does living in a town with only two traffic lights get boring? Very rarely.

  12. Al Navarro Avatar
    Al Navarro

    Who the heck is Swallow Doretti? That’s no pseudonym. It’s a pornonym.

    1. aSoundofSleep Avatar

      Good call, Al. I was thinking the same thing.

      1. Swallow_Doretti Avatar

        It’s also the name of an obscure British sports car designed by a guy named Frank Rainbow.
        I couldn’t make that shit up if I tried.

        1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

          I can’t believe you swallow doretti!
          This Rainbow fellow is one spunky guy, apparently.

          1. Swallow_Doretti Avatar
  13. superbadd75, enriched with vitamins and minerals. Avatar
    superbadd75, enriched with vitamins and minerals.

    I have pleasant memories of once-rural Maryland, I spent a few years of my youth in Gaithersburg and Frederick. From what I’ve heard and seen in pictures, it has changed quite a bit, and that’s rather sad. Frederick was all the city one could ever need, close enough to D.C. to make the commute not quite painful, but far out enough to be peaceful and feel isolated.
    Thinking back, I don’t recall traffic ever being as treacherous as it is today. But I don’t think that has anything to do with kids not being into cars. Nearly every kid I know of that’s on the cusp of driver’s license posession is excited about it. They want wheel time with their parents, they want driving classes the day they’re eligible to take them, and they want to be at the DPS office the very second they turn 16. Driving seems to still excite kids, regardless of traffic. It’s still freedom, time out away from the “opressive” parents, a chance to do things on their time for a change. I think the difference is their level of exposure at a young age.
    When I was a kid, my family’s men worked on their own cars. My dad changed his oil religiously every 3,000 miles, did his own brake jobs, filter changes, and so on. My uncle always had a project going, and it usually involved putting an engine on a chain. Even my granddad would bust out the ramps and creeper for a quick oil change and chassis lube. And there for many of these weekend mechanical forays was a younger version of myself, taking in every turn of a wrench, every twist of a wingnut, and every curse after a busted knuckle. We’d go to car shows, drag races, I’d hang out with my uncle’s friends, checking out their cool cars. We’d watch races on TV on the weekends, mostly NASCAR (which lost me years ago, but that’s another story) but if there was a car on a track, we’d settle in and watch for a few hours. My family had some pretty cool cars, too. There was a 260Z, a Camaro, a ’73 El Camino with a killer 327 SBC, and a ’74 Baja Bug to name a few. Basically, I was exposed to cars, all types of them, early, and often. Cars were a huge part of my life back then, and they were more than transportation. They were jobs, conversation pieces, they were art. Oh, and the road trips. Thousands of miles in the back seat, and we loved it! Cars meant something back then because we had an attachment to them. I remember when my Aunt’s Bug was totalled, and how it made me cry. Knowing that I would never ride again in my Aunt’s Baby Blue Bug was heartbreaking. Cars don’t affect kids these days in that way because there is no connection.
    Most people these days don’t work on their cars. Basic maintenance for many cars these days, outside of the regular oil change, can be a major ordeal. Hell, a spark plug change on a PT Cruiser requires one to remove the intake plenum! Most Regular Joes either don’t have the know-how, the tools, or the time to do these things at home. So the car goes to the shop, and those precious hours of car time that we had with our dads as kids, are gone. Connection lost. A lot of men out there don’t make it to car shows, the race track, the swap meet, or other things that we did as kids, and therefore their kids miss out on those experiences as well. Connection lost. A lot of kids out there are raised by single mothers that couldn’t care less about cars. Connection lost. In general, a lot of kids have been taught that cars are just appliances, and the only thing that really makes one any better than another is bling and amenities. Kids don’t get intimate with cars, they just drive them. Kids don’t care to learn about them, and love them, because they aren’t close to them. Most kids are only around cars when they’re going somewhere, and it’s a shame. If more parents would spend time with the kids and the cars together, maybe they’d develop a love for them.

  14. littleYodaPickup Avatar

    Are we talking about enthusiasm for driving or for cars? If the latter, I would beg to differ, but perhaps it’s only because I live in the boonies of New Hampshire. Around here we have a lively community of high-school ricers that keep our local fuzz busy. Maybe they don’t know a thing about wrenching, but they do take pride in their rides, no matter how brash and garish they may seem to you and me. I’m not talking about portholes and coffee-cans, but the real thing- bodykits, paintjobs, custom bodywork, lowering. They learned more about bodywork in their time up until now than I’ll learn in my whole life. Many of them spend all their free time working on their cars. The time invested is in looks rather than engine tweaks or repair, but as superbad75 noted, the increasing complexity of maintenance is likely partially to blame. While focusing on looks may seem shallow to some, the sheer dedication implies these teens have a deeper relationship with their wheels than they’d have with a mere appliance. They drag race these creations up and down the main strip, just like you and I did, just like our fathers did.
    If we’re talking about driving excitement, then all I can say is the ricers don’t get out past the strip much. The potholes and dirt roads would eat those cars alive. Here midway up New Hampshire, we have ample twisties, grades, and great scenery due to the mountains, and if you don’t see something that tickles your fancy, you can just hop the border into Vermont. I suspect that any youngsters driving in these parts are rambling in their parent’s Volvo or Outback, or whatever clunker they managed to afford, and so therefore fade into the background of normal, redneck beaters that populate our roads.

    1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

      Midway up New Hampshire then, eh? Whereabouts? It’s beautiful up thataway.
      And you’re right, we do still have ricers, as well as big-muddin’-truck backwoodsers and the occasional petrolhead – like an acquaintance of mine who’s restored an ’84 Monte Carlo and is working on an ’83 C10. Things may have changed here, but automotive appreciation is alive and well.

  15. Shadowguitar Avatar

    Heh, I passed that sign every day over the summer to get to work. Thankfully I’m a student during the school year down in SW Virginia(I’m 20, so yeah), so I have lots of country backroads that are a hoot to drive on, even in a crapbox hand-me-down Dodge Neon. The thrill of driving isn’t about what car you’re driving, but the road you’re driving on, and the experience you have while on it. You can have a good time in nearly any car – its just a matter of finding out how.

  16. CBJ Avatar

    When I left North America I hated driving. I had purchased an appliance to drive because that’s what we needed. One car and it wasn’t much fun.
    Things are different now in Namibia. I love a country in which 90% of the roads are unpaved. We now have two cars. Check that a car and an SUV. Both are AWD, one drinks gas at 10 mpg and I love it. My kids love it. They sit in my early 90s Land Cruiser with their windows all the way down (remember when they did that)and wave their arms in the wind as we blast down gravel roads at 80 kph with nothing but the red earth stretching out in front and an occational Baboon watching our progress. I actually get to use my high beams (remember those)and a couple of 100 watt driving lights on a regular basis. The down side is of course $4 a gallon petrol and a 50 gallon tank at fill ups, but driving is fun again and it’s worth it.

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