I’m not Amish or Old Order Mennonite, but I think they may have been right about cars. In fact, I’ve come to believe that cars have become one of the biggest destroyers of community in American society (with social media being another)1. Let me explain.
My wife and I have spent chunks of time in walkable and car-free towns in Europe. Besides being so much quieter, healthier, more beautiful, and less stressful than your average American town, they enable community in a way that our car-based societies cannot. Car-free neighborhoods are denser: people have to live close together, so that they can walk (or bicycle). They tend to live in smaller homes (with no garage, for example), and rely far more on shared green space than on massive private lawns. Even garden spaces are often in community plots instead of private backyards. But this is only for starters.
In American suburbia, we have lost the concept of “towns” and have adopted instead separating residential from commercial zoning. In car-free and low-car environments, however, zoning is “mixed use”: homes are interspersed with all other parts of life. Grocery stores, cafes and restaurants, churches, etc. are all within walking or cycling distance. Then there are the public squares, sometimes with fountains in the middle, where market days are held and where people simply “hang out.” In a sense, the streets, the squares, and the entire town become shared living spaces, places to spend time and to meet up with people. You don’t merely live in your home, you live in the community.
In our car-centric society, in contrast, we travel alone from point A to point B in our cars. We travel long distances to get to work, friends’ homes, and stores. When we shop, for example, we rub shoulders mainly with strangers and not community members. In car-free settings, however, journeys aren’t wasted time isolated in metal boxes. They are walks through the local neighborhood, rubbing shoulders with friends and neighbors, and smiling or waving at new acquaintances. I think fondly of the month we spent in Colmar, France: getting used to the rhythms of market days, the particular local vendors we liked to buy our vegetables from, the guy up the street making crepes. Or our two weeks in Milan, Italy, where every morning on our way to language school we’d pass local residents grabbing an espresso and pastry at the bar, or local families lined up to get a gelato in the evenings. Even in our own area in Lancaster County suburbia, until recently there was a little unmarked grocery store owned by a Joe Wenger woman up the road. We had to drive there, sadly, but I always loved the sense of local community I felt going there versus to a large supermarket; Leah wasn’t a cashier or some nameless face. She became a friend, someone who knew our family and our extended family.
In much of the US, especially suburbia, cars aren’t simply a means of transportation. Our regions have been built around cars. I live at the edge of a development (one of the better ones around, actually). One of the starkest images of the difference between car-centric and people-centric environments is the difference in home entrances: In people-centric settings, there’s an inviting path leading to a front door. In car-centric environments, there’s a driveway leading to a fortress-like garage door. Fortresses are precisely what most suburban developments look like; I sometimes joke that an alien would think they’re war zones. There are no people strolling about, or ringing doorbells of neighbors. If anyone is outside (which is rare), they’re behind a fence. People arrive at their castle-like house in their large tank-like vehicles. Their portcullis (I mean, garage doors) open, they roll in, and then the door closes. They’re safely inside their castle—free from their neighbors, free from the neighborhood, free from community. They’re free to stare at screens and stay isolated, or at least to only interact with people they specifically choose.
In their book Curbing Traffic, Chris and Melissa Bruntlett write,
The rise of automobility has inextricably changed the concept of a street from a place to stay into a place to pass through. The sociability of those streets has been dramatically reduced as the volume and speed of motor vehicles increases. This is evidenced in the switch of the street from being a child space to an adult space, but also in the lack of familiarity with neighbors experienced by swathes of individuals the world over.2
The Bruntletts cite a study done by Bruce Appleyard, in which
one of the most striking observations was how heavier volumes of traffic pushed activity that would normally happen in the front of the home toward the rear. … With a lower feeling of kinship to their street and their neighbors, those living on the heavy street lacked the social interactions that made them feel a part of their community. Instead, neighbors didn’t appear to look out for each other, and the public realm was thought of solely as a hostile space dedicated to the movement of strangers. […] Think about it in its simplest terms: a lack of sense of ownership in the space outside your front door leads to taking care of what matters most: the space inside your own home.3
In contrast to the abandoned streets of car-centric suburbia, consider how residential streets are used in the Netherlands (where the Bruntletts live). On these streets, car access and speeds are severely restricted, and in some cases banned altogether. Instead, the streets belong to the residents and their children. Streets are supposed to be safe places, where neighboring children can play with each other without fear of getting crushed by a car. Streets are supposed to be cozy places, with residents encouraged to plant flowers and set benches in front of their houses.
Suburban street usage is worlds apart from what my parents describe of their growing up years. Their worlds were closer to what the Bruntletts describe. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, NY. For my dad, the street was his playground. He and his friends—the boys in the neighboring houses—would play ball in the street after school until their moms yelled out the door for them to come in for supper (or until their grandma sent them on an errand to the store around the corner). My mom grew up in Queens, NY. My wife and I recently re-visited her old neighborhood, and were struck as we visualized the sense of community that my mom tells us about. Most of her relatives—grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins—lived on the same block, in easy walking distance. Their Catholic church was also just a block away, as was their school. A walkable, physically proximate environment like this feels like a real “village,” a community where people are in and out of each other’s homes regularly, where one is part of a thick network of extended family and friends.
Church life also differs dramatically from people-centric to car-centric worlds. In my suburban environment, church members live anywhere from 15–45 minutes by car away from our church building. Individual members and families live scattered away from each other as well. In such an environment, it is nearly impossible to do “life together.” Think of a car-free world instead: church members all live within a 15–20 minute walk or bicycle ride from each other, and perhaps less than that from the church building. There could be regular mid-week prayer drop-ins, for example–45 minutes after supper a couple of evenings a week, or 30 minutes in the morning before work begins. This is what was possible in the Book of Acts, where the early believers broke bread daily “from house to house” (Acts 2:46–47). This is how we can better fulfill the exhortation to not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some [of us!], but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25).
A group of my friends and my wife and I have recently started to meet twice a month for what we call Common Prayer. We eat a simple meal together, during which one of us leads in guiding our discussion with questions about our lives and about our walks with God. We then spend around 45 minutes going through a series of prayers, songs, and Scripture readings together. For me, this practice has been a very meaningful way to establish more regular spiritual corporate rhythms into my life, and to regularly remind us that our friendships with each other are Christian friendships, in which we are meant to help each other walk faithfully with the Lord. If we lived in close proximity to each other, we’d meet like this weekly. In a church where everyone lived in walking or cycling distance from the church building, it would be easy to have a liturgy like this running daily—maybe even morning and evening—so members could join in whenever possible. But alas, even in our Common Prayer group multiple people generally have to drive 30 minutes each way, which especially with babies makes it difficult to increase the frequency of such meetings.
Ministry is also made significantly more difficult in a car-dependent society. I’ve come to believe that part of what makes “reaching out to the neighbors” so hard is that neighbors barely exist in suburbia. The term “neighbors” isn’t supposed to mean people who live in nearby houses, but to people who do life in the same spaces as you. But in a world where cars separate us from each other and allow us to live fragmented lives from each other, we don’t rub shoulders with our neighbors in nearly as many regular ways. They’re not part of our lives, and it often feels weird and almost like an invasion of privacy to try to “connect” with each other.
This post has emphasized ways in which car dependency is an enemy of community. It’s difficult to offer comprehensive solutions, as there are massive structural problems that favor cars over community which are difficult for individuals to change. But there are steps we can take to shift to a lifestyle more centered around people than cars.
First, the problem of car dependency feels so normal to most of us that we barely think about it. And for starters, there are ways in which we can change our mindsets, to stop seeing a large house and two cars and a huge private yard separated by miles from shopping centers and church as the ideal. Instead, we should start seeing proximity to fellow humans as the ideal—environments in which we share living space, where we rub shoulders with neighbors and fellow believers on a daily basis. Where we live in community.
Additionally, some of us (though not all) can and probably should consider relocating to towns, cities, or other environments where it’s easier to interact on a daily basis with fellow believers as well as unbelievers. While not ideal car-free utopias, there are plenty of small towns in our areas that offer housing (and still with backyards) in easy walking distance to neighbors as well as at least a few other walkable amenities, whether shops or libraries or coffee shops. These may not be the richest-looking environments, but part of the point is to change what we value—away from huge personal property and toward a life in community. In years to come, a shift toward basing some of our churches in environments like this could yield a major improvement in our connectedness and our witness.
- I share the sentiment of Jane Jacobs: “Neither television nor illegal drugs has been the chief destroyer of American communities. Instead, the automobile has that dubious honor.” Jacobs goes on to describe how old neighborhoods were literally bulldozed in the 1950’s and 1960’s to install highways and bridges. Around the same time came “sterile housing tracts set in isolating culs-de-sac, and shopping centers whose only ties to localities were the dollars of local consumers. These, often enough, erased community hearts and landmarks, as if to make sure that marooned vestiges of what had been lost were also lost.” Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 37–38.
- Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives (Washington: Island Press, 2021), 33.
- Bruntlett, Curbing Traffic, 35–37.