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Car culture

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I have a nickname for Durham Technical Community College, my place of employment for the past three years. I call it Car College. The automobile is almost a prerequisite here, the blue-collar alternative to UNC-Chapel Hill's requirement that all students have a laptop.

Most Durham Tech students are "non-traditional"--that is, adults. They usually have jobs and often, families. There are no student dorms here, and the campus is located off the last exit south of town on the Durham Freeway. Every student is thus a commuter, and while there is bus service and the occasional bike rider, the most common mode of transport by far is the automobile.

On a community college campus where resources are scarce and student support programs are minimal, students often choose to spend their free moments inside their parked cars. Walking through the vast, sprawling parking lots on my way to class, I commonly see students eating meals, grabbing sleep or reviewing homework in their cars. For those with the leisure time, the car is also a rendezvous for chatting with friends, listening to music or caressing a lover. After class, students return to their cars and accelerate to their next destination. The car is the vital continuum of their lives, the mechanized tissue connecting all of the dispersed activities and places that make them who they are.

Yet our dependency on cars has terrible costs. In my annual "Technology and Society" course, we read Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay. In her book, Kay details the economic, social and environmental costs of the automobile: $100 billion per year in taxes for road maintenance; 38.4 million acres of paved roads and parking lots; 43,000 fatalities and 2 million injuries per year from crashes; 30,000 premature deaths per year from smog generated by driving; communities built for cars instead of people, and so on. Kay urges us to overthrow our dependency on cars and explore new possibilities for transport and community life. Usually, most of my students are resistant to her belief that the problems of car culture far exceed its promises. "She's exaggerating," they say. "She goes too far." As car addicts, they have an interest in denial. So I often struggle with them, as I struggle with myself, to keep their minds open to Kay's ideas.

A year ago, that debate became more personal. A few weeks before we started reading Kay's book, one of my students died in a car crash. Abe was a beautiful 19-year-old with a contagious smile. Students were shocked and distraught by his death. For myself, there was guilt along with the weight of loss. A month before, I had asked students to write a paper describing their experiences with a specific form of technology. Abe had written about driving fast, very fast, and I had returned his paper with a note to be careful--to rethink his risky hobby. But I'd neglected to offer anything stronger because I felt he should figure it out for himself. When I learned that he died on a back road while speeding, I felt I'd failed him, failed to fulfill my responsibility as a teacher.

Last year, discussion about the effects of car culture here at Car College was no longer merely academic. This year, as my classes start reading and discussing Asphalt Nation, I hope we can engage the material in a similar way. And I also hope that we can do so without having to endure another loss.

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