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We Don't Have To Go Back

For the last few months, the highways around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have not oozed with their ordinary low-viscosity crawl. It is as though they have shrugged off their Sisyphean curse around sunrise and sunset, for a short time allowing weary commuters a moment of reprieve after decades of existential shellacking.

Work from home requests have become mandates and permanent options, with interrupted parents having to abruptly mute conference calls that subsequently interrupt their pets’ ordinary nap time. Essential workers are able to move more freely, slightly unburdened by the stresses imposed by the sprawling cities’ mandatory car ownership.

The status quo for our family went out the window earlier than for most folks here in the city, which, honestly, is a phrase that lacks all meaning as time no longer exists. For someone who stocks a sizable slice of their identity in the car world, it's been nothing less than a watershed moment - taking a glimpse into what happens to our culture when the world stops spinning.

June 5th, 2020, marked the first time in 86 days that I've been stuck in traffic. That's a full 23.5% of the year - unquestionably the longest I've gone without getting stuck on a road somewhere in my adult life, if not all of my natural days.

And I cannot help but think (solely from the standpoint of car culture, of course) that this is the paradise that we should envision and aspire to when the spell wears off and people move about vaccinated and free.

For just 12 brief weeks, it was as though we had discovered the silver bullet to deliver us from The Congested Commute and implemented it overnight. Even now, as I'm writing on my patio in south Dallas, the thoroughfare just a few houses down has fallen silent to the usual bar crowd racing home to try to outrun a DUI.

I’m not the first writer – and certainly not the first one you should read – to point out the gulf between car culture and commuter culture. You could fill your day today reading urban planning rants on how much a life centered around the automobile has decayed how our cities are constructed, or how we interact with our neighbors, or what it has outright robbed from neighborhoods in the city where you live.

It's a gap that should be quite evident for enthusiasts to identify and reconcile, but if you require an illustration, take a moment and contemplate the absurdity of the daily driver.

The daily driver is a vehicle that enthusiasts own because the vehicle they’d rather be driving, while suited for the rigors of multiple track sessions or clambering about rocky terrain, is ill-suited to the demands of getting you to work and back. It is an extravagance capable of transport to the dry cleaners without turning passengers into a puddle of sweat or turning itself into a puddle of coolant.

The existence of a daily driver in the lives of some enthusiasts is as required as it is reviled. And I wrote that sentence in full view of the necessary evil parked in my driveway. Traits that make a good daily driver frequently stand in diametric opposition to the experiences that I spend my weekends chasing. Feeling connected to the road also means feeling connected to the pothole in the far left late going westbound Woodall Rodgers Freeway just past the I-30 exit. Adding forced induction to keep me glued to my seat exiting apexes means keeping my eyes glued to temperature and pressure gauges doing nothing but inching along in morning traffic.

This is to say nothing of the tremendous hurdle it presents to car enthusiasts forced to compromise and take the road most traveled because they don’t have the space or cash to afford both a project and something that reliably starts in the morning.

I’m certain that a global pandemic and economic meltdown isn’t the best remedy for excising the worst parts of the driving experience. That said, having them involuntarily removed certainly does make for a fascinating through experiment in a time rich with thought experiments that verge on nightmarish.

At the very least, it’s an emotional relief from numb resolve as we gaze further into the void.

To that end, once a week I make a point to savor unclogged roads in my decidedly not daily-friendly supercharged Miata. Ordinarily the spec racing suspension with a spring rate halfway between concrete and marble make it a less than ideal implement for such tasks. But with the shutdown of virtually all social interactions making traffic scarce, the car handles it with spirited aplomb. There’s an oasis of buzzy joy in finding an excuse to drive a car with a few more ounces of gusto even if it’s just to pick up curbside wine and coffee beans.

As my own daily driver sits pilfering time and energy and resources away from a project I’d rather be pursuing, I’m dreaming of a world that can make the shift away from rush hour stick. I know there are likely a dozen urbanists and city planners out there that can sit me down, look me directly into the eye, and say with lethal pessimism about how we’re not suddenly going to happen upon transit solutions for those not able to make the teleworking permanent. But it’s certainly something that we over here in car culture can champion when we’ve got the opportunity.

And if the stated policy of this particular blog is that we here at Trust in the Machine advocate for more race cars and less daily driver miles, then, dammit, I reckon that’s a hill I’m ready to defend.

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