Malvina Reynold’s 1962 song “Little Boxes,” a jaunty criticism of middle-class conformity and the uniformity of suburbia, still holds up today as urban sprawl has progressed in many parts of the United States, producing the low-density neighborhoods and extensive road networks that characterize San Antonio’s modern landscape. Certainly, suburban residents have found comfort in their large homes and spacious yards during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one cost (or, to some, one benefit) of suburban life is the unbridled use of cars in lieu of public transportation.
In San Antonio, the growth of suburbia has coincided with a cultural sanctity of cars, causing a dependence on cars for transportation. Such widespread dependence upon personal motor vehicles presents many environmental and financial costs, while also reinforcing a cultural attachment to cars. I’m by no means exempt from this. I have experienced the obstacle course known as rush hour traffic, witnessed the extensive construction project on U.S. Highway 281, endured the burgeoning mass of vehicles on the freeway, and inhaled the gas fumes that sneak through the vents of my mom’s minivan.
In our new COVID-19 reality, self-isolation has shown me how much time I normally spend in a car. Learning that air pollution experienced a significant drop at the start of the coronavirus shutdown made me consider how we can maintain this trend. Yet, as businesses open and people begin to emerge from their homes, it looks like traffic has returned to pre-shutdown levels.
Our daily drives across the sprawling city of San Antonio directly damage the environment. As we spend more time driving across the city, more gasoline, a non-renewable resource, is required and more greenhouse gases are pushed into our atmosphere, contributing to an ever-warming planet and those record-breaking temperature highs San Antonio experiences. Our extensive time on the road contaminates our own Edwards Aquifer, our main source of drinking water, as the flow of stormwater carries the hydrocarbons and heavy metals from cars into overwhelmed water filtration systems. While excessive driving itself has environmental costs, the mass production and rapid consumption of cars places discarded vehicles in junkyards, where plastics and metals waste away, polluting natural areas.
But, you might have heard much of this before. At this point in time, many, if not most, people comprehend the environmental cost of excessive driving; still, such reasoning hasn’t convinced many San Antonians to change their transportation habits. Perhaps we should analyze finances instead.
Owning a car itself has its obvious financial costs, and, in a city that maintains one of the largest systems of state highways in the nation, these costs are often exacerbated. Cars require care, and maintenance costs can pile up quickly. As of 2019, the average annual cost to maintain a new vehicle is $9,282, which is the highest cost recorded since the American Automobile Association started recording expenses in 1950. San Antonio (and Texas as a whole) is notorious for its high rate of car accidents, and each crash costs money and, too often, lives. It’s also important to recognize that cars themselves are rather poor investments, as evident by their inevitable and rapid depreciation.
Motor vehicles have truly become a cultural phenomenon within San Antonio, meaning that many of the financial and environmental burdens are never fully considered. Many of us have apathetically accepted our long commutes, choosing to live in bigger houses farther from work, to wake up early and head home late to account for traffic, all to achieve the American dream. Indeed, the idyllic American household is characterized by a large home with a two-car garage. You become more of a Texan when you buy a gas-guzzling pickup truck. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwavering disdain among San Antonians for public transportation. Cars have come to represent personal liberty and private space, two American principles that we cannot get ourselves to compromise for the sake of the environment or even our bills.
The solution to this problem isn’t easy. Our city is quickly expanding with its growing population, accentuating our many challenges related to municipal planning and management. We depend on our vehicles, they facilitate our daily lives; how can we simply give that up? To change, we have to acknowledge the cultural importance that cars hold in our community and be open to adjusting our values to prioritize the well-being of our city.
Considering that it won’t be possible for most people to up and buy a new electric vehicle, we must adopt better driving practices that can achieve a similar goal. The most obvious solution is to drive less. Instead of driving, try walking or biking to your nearest grocery store. You’ll also get in some good exercise and, perhaps, feel an even greater sense of personal autonomy and freedom than is felt in a car.
While public transportation may not be a viable option during this pandemic, it is still available for use and should be utilized when possible. Consider carpooling. When on a search for a new vehicle, reflect on buying a used car or, if it’s affordable, a hybrid or electric car. Finally, use your vehicle to its fullest extent before replacing it. If we can train ourselves to think sustainably before we act, we can confidently say that each of our choices are making a positive impact on the community.
Sustainability isn’t just an environmental issue – its importance extends into the realms of economics and culture. Our individual choices and values form the culture of San Antonio, meaning that only we have the power to inspire change. The small choices of each individual aggregate to make a big difference. At a time when we are all examining our lives, now, more than ever, is the time to start making the right small choices.