Broad two-track trail in a hillside forest with a light, wet snow

Textural roads, textural cars

Published 2019-02-12

I drove my car downtown to work today so now I totally get why all you people are such assholes.

No but seriously I have driven downtown at rush hour a dozen times or so in the past year, but never in my own car. Usually I’m in a car-share type thing like ReachNow, so

  1. there’s no parking hassle (you can park a ReachNow anywhere and just walk away) and
  2. I’m too worried about figuring out how to drive an unfamiliar vehicle to stress about traffic.

In my own car, I stress about traffic. Traffic sucks I get it. And when I’m driving, I’m someone else’s sucky traffic.

Maybe worse than other people, because I know intimately all the cut-throughs and easy right turns. I drive on them at a very respectful 18mph and still they are faster (and less stressful) end-to-end than the main thoroughfares at rush hour.

My way-out wacky vision for Portland streets is that no one should be able to do what I did this morning, by design. It should be impossible to drive a car more than four blocks in a straight line on a non-thoroughfare.

(Maybe the thoroughfares too.)

Chicanes, barriers, and dead ends would constantly be forcing drivers into zigzags. They’d be permeable to bikes and skateboards and scooters of course. And maybe a certain percentage of streets — we could just stop maintaining them. Downgrade them maybe, to gravel.

I don’t so much want to do away with roads as slow them down, make them textural. I grew up on a dirt road and still have a fondness for that kind of road texture.

This weekend I had two long icy rides through forest park. That’s the picture at top.

Only two days off the bike now but I miss going from place to place by bike so much. The crazy thing — I have written about this before — is that distances feel so much longer in a car. Five miles downtown is a long haul in a car but spitpot on a bike.

I think maybe we mentally treat cars like Tardises. We get in them, push some levers, wait [indeterminate amount of time], and emerge somewhere else. The problem is [indeterminate amount of time] is so divorced from the actual space you move through. Five miles might as well be 5000, and you miss all the texture. What it smells like, what the air feels like, whether you seen anything interesting, who else is moving through it.

In a car, the physical space between your origin and destination, just kind of ceases to exist. Except as a slideshow. This is especially true in our family’s super fancy new SUV which has exquisite climate control and is utterly, terrifyingly silent. Totally sealed off from the rest of the universe. Just like a Tardis.

In my ratty, beloved old Honda Civic (sigh) … oh boy howdy did you feel the intervening distance. You were four inches above the pavement and felt every pothole through your jaw. No A/C and (usually) no radio so rolling down the window was both climate control and entertainment.

I don’t hate cars and driving, not at all. I drove 10s of 1000s of miles in that Civic. To Montana and back; to Southern California and back; to Seattle and back. And uncomfortable though it was, I loved feeling the texture of the distance.

So just like I want to make roads textural, I wish cars were textural again.