Automobile Culture, Teen Drivers, and Breaking the Everybody-Needs-Her-Own-Car Mentality

This piece was cross-posted at The Houston Chronicle

I grew up in a car town in the suburbs of Los Angeles. By “car town,” I mean that a very car-centric culture pervaded the way we went about doing things. For everyone I knew, when you reached driving age, it was customary to get your driver’s permit and license as soon as possible, which was age sixteen. In my high school, everyone planned their sixteenth birthdays around going to the Department of Motor Vehicle and attaining their licenses. My mother left work early to take me on my birthday and we spent our DMV waiting time exchanging happy birthday wishes with the other kids also waiting to take their drivers test.

Early drivers and teen car ownership is just one aspect of the singular driving behavior contributing to L.A.’s larger car culture and the horrendous automobile traffic and pollution that plagues the L.A. basin. In Los Angeles, at least as I was growing up, the automobile reigned and you were defined, at least in part, by what you drove. I once had a conversation with an architect friend of mine who lamented that most of the city planning of Los Angeles is scaled to the car – proliferation of freeways, four lane streets, parking lots and drive-throughs, spread-out civic shopping areas and neighborhoods alike–making it more challenging for folks who might choose to transport themselves by bicycle or bipedally.

Houston has a similar kind of car culture and was certainly planned (if there has been any planning at all) to accommodate the automobile. Texas is, after all, one of the national centers for oil refining and thus, folks here have a well-entrenched historical commitment to their automobiles. And even though we are suffering some of the worst air pollution to which our auto traffic significantly contributes, and even though there are lots of practical reasons against handing keys to new cars over to teens (like the scary study detailing the high incidents of car accidents among teens who have their own cars), the social customs and pressures prevail in encouraging early driving and car ownership. Old habits die hard. From a clean air perspective, this everyone-needs-their-own-car-as-soon-as-possible attitude must shift since driving a car is the most air polluting act the average citizen commits.

The North Texas Clean Air Coalition’s 2011 Commuter Challenge is one effort to shift Texas thinking about singular transport. The NTCAC is drawing attention to its commuter programs by encouraging Texans to make more environmentally friendly transportation choices—bicycling, carpooling, walking and telecommuting—wherever possible. Residents of Dallas and its surrounds can register on, where they can log in all of the vehicle miles they’ve saved. The person who saves the most mileage wins an Apple iPad. The North Texas Clean Air Coalition is the only nonprofit organization in the Northern Texas region dedicated solely to encouraging voluntary efforts to improve air quality by engaging the business community. Their members are businesses and one of their primary functions is to recognize businesses and individuals who commit to and excel at clean air efforts.

The 2011 Commuter Challenge runs from May 1st through September 2nd. With the slogan “Be the solution. Get off the road. Get Going,” NTCAC hopes to get more folks committed and active on behalf of clean air. New drivers and old are encouraged to shift their thinking about being alone in their cars.

Click HERE to see Why I care about clean air.

Click HERE to see what you can do to help clean up the air.

TOPICS: Pollution