It could have been my imagination, but in early March, I saw a lot more vehicles on the road. The morning and afternoon commutes grew more congested. There were more bicycles too, I think. On Twitter, there were reports of fewer folks using public transit. It’s as if people who own cars, but normally choose public transit because it can be faster and has less of an environmental impact, are opting for a more private and isolated form of transportation. Credit the spectre of an uninvited guest that has insinuated itself into our lives.
Welcome to “Cars in a time of COVID-19.”
An oft-maligned mode of transportation – the automobile – is looking pretty good right now.
After all, epidemiologists are advocating that we practice “social distancing” as a way of slowing the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Social distancing is the act of curtailing public interactions.
What could be more socially distant than the automobile?
Social isolation is what driving is all about. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved it. A car is a large metal rolling isolation chamber. The driver is at once in the world and removed from it. The world lies on the other side of the glass. People like to complain about being stuck in traffic. The truth is a lot of us savour those moments of blissfully frustrated solitude.
Taking public transit, especially during the winter, can be a crowded, virally uneasy experience. Don’t be offended if, after you cough, I move away. I do that each time someone near me coughs. It’s not you I object to, it’s your cough. It’s nothing personal. I’m just not fond of germs. I think “Purell” would be a wonderful name for a child. This conviction has not decreased with varying reports of passengers testing positive for COVID-19.
You could argue that cycling provides social detachment, but it appears more cordial. Cyclists always seem more open and jovial (at least when cycling in the warmer months). You see them chatting with one another and enjoying the (somewhat) fresh air.
Not so for the driver.
British synth-pop star Gary Numan put it best in his 1979 hit ‘Cars:’ “Here in my car/ I feel safest of all/ I can lock all my doors/It’s the only way to live/ In cars.”
During a time of great uncertainty, this mobile confinement can feel like a blessing.
These days, time moves swiftly, even though it has taken on a surreal quality. Almost as soon as the roads started to clog, they began to drain. The traffic actually moved at a reasonable pace the last time I drove to work. It’s not surprising. Schools are closed. People work from home.
It would be an unexpected delight if the situation weren’t so uncertain and unnerving. What good is a car and an open road if you have nowhere to go? If everything is closed and everyone is shut in?
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
I, however, drive on, sitting in my Mini Cooper Countryman with the stereo playing and the seat warmer on, dreaming of life as normal, replete with traffic delays and frustrated drivers, borne back ceaselessly into utter denial.
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