The Myth of the Open Road

I bike pretty much everywhere in the city these days. But I also have a driver’s license and 16 years of driving experience. And occasionally I still drive. Like the other day I ended up driving across town to run an errand. Now, if you live anywhere near a city, you know that the driving experience is not exactly as advertised:

Myth of the Open Road

It’s a little bit more like this:

Myth of the Open Road

Which is not a good advertisement for cars. But this is exactly what I found myself driving in.

After my errand, I decided I wanted to stay out. I was hungry and there are great restaurants downtown. And some shops too. (I know, because I discovered them all by bike.) But in a car, I realized that I couldn’t casually go to any of them. I was trapped…

Myth of the Open Road

…and had to pass them by. It was like I was carrying the weight of the car rather than it carrying me. And I was tired. So I went straight home instead. Cars are useful, but driving in a city is kind of like trying to thread a needle while wearing a boxing glove.

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  • bazza the wombat October 12, 2012   Reply →

    very true nothing worse than being stuck in a box that is designed to go over 100 but cant move forward in a traffic jam

    • bob October 19, 2012  

      Cyclists can’t move forward in a traffic jam.

    • Mike October 23, 2012  

      Bob – you’ve not heard of shared paths?

    • HumanPoweredTransportation February 16, 2015  

      rolling ahead at a very slow speed if all cars are backed up and stopped, while watching for opening doors is fine to do.
      Bob normally sits in the automobile traffic and breathes in all those idling fumes? Enjoy the wait! I’ll slowly move up–never to pass the first car waiting, often to turn right.

  • David October 12, 2012   Reply →

    It’s all about the choices we make.

    Car Free and loving it.

  • Steph VW October 12, 2012   Reply →

    The freedom of biking is similar to the freedom of taking the bus. We lived car free for a year (it was wonderful – we now commute by car and bicycle). I was pregnant at the time and my friend (who doesn’t live in the same city as me) called and told me that she thought I should get my car running again. I told her that if my car was running I would have to shovel snow from my driveway, clean off my car and drive on icey roads. With the bus, I had a chauffeur who picked me up wherever I wanted, drove me safely over roads in all conditions, and I never had to worry about parking – also, I could read or knit on the bus. I was freeeeeee! I still hate taking my car down town and will take the bus or the ferry whenever possible. YAY bicycles! Yay busses!

  • Charlie October 12, 2012   Reply →

    Studies back up what you just did. They show that bicyclists visit local businesses more often and spend more money in total than motorists. Probably because they can just stop by whenever they want since parking is never a problem!

    • Ethan Fleming October 12, 2012  

      There is more to it than that. There is also the factor that it costs less to keep a bike usable than it does for a car so cyclist might have more to spend than a driver. This can vary depending on different income levels though

  • Geoff October 12, 2012   Reply →

    Funny you mentioned you were tired after your driving expedition. You do less physical activity when driving but get more exhausted. I bet the same trip by bike you would be feeling alive and full of energy (the cupcake and coffee would have helped that too).

  • Ian Brett Cooper October 12, 2012   Reply →

    I’ve been ‘personally’ car-free all my life, though I often cadge a ride from relatives and friends (AKA suckers). Hey, why would I turn down what is essentially free air-conditioned chauffeur service. They can’t even ask me to share the driving, because I never learned to drive, LOL.

    My wife drives pretty much everywhere, and I keep urging her to give it up, because it stresses her out, but she won’t – she fears the loss of mobility (another myth). She tried teaching me to drive back in the 1990s, but it was too stressful. Nowadays, she’s given up asking me to learn, because my attitude is that I’d need to be paid big bucks AND have a lobotomy to take on the hassle of driving a car on today’s roads. The ‘myth’ of the open road is absolutely right – just one of the many myths of ‘motorist freedom’.

    At least most motorists don’t try to fool themselves about the cost of motoring – they all know it’s a HUGE money pit.

    My attitude: anyone who learns to drive in today’s world deserves all the hassle that’s coming to them.

  • l* October 12, 2012   Reply →

    This (collectively) is outstanding … How true to reality!! Thanks.

    (My car is ‘relegated’ to fetching friends, or visiting ‘biz’ associates and their luggage to and from the airport .)

  • David October 12, 2012   Reply →

    … whereas all the other ads are entirely truthful. For example, those for beer and deodorant – both of which are guaranteed to exert an irresistible pull on the opposite gender.

    • dr2chase October 12, 2012  

      That doesn’t work for you? Maybe you’re using the wrong toothpaste.

  • Ethan Fleming October 12, 2012   Reply →

    Hey Bikeyface.

    I know I have developed a reputation for saying a lot of negative things about cars and the people who use them as their ONLY form of transportation. This comic makes me feel like you read my mind when it comes to a few of the reasons why I hate cars.

    I don’t mean to be negative about the people who use them as their ONLY form of transportation. I just feel sorry for them. Cars create more problems in the world than they do solutions.

  • MrDotbike October 12, 2012   Reply →

    I do a lot of highway driving for work and weekend pleasure, but it is increasingly rare to find me driving in the city. If I do, there’s something or someone along with me who can’t be handled with a bike and my trailer. You hit it spot on again Bikeyface. Thanks!

  • CPTJohnC October 12, 2012   Reply →

    My only observation here is that this all makes a ton of sense in super dense urban areas. I’m in DC as I type this, and this morning I used public transit for part of my commute, ran (instead of biking) part, but still drove a large part for convenience in transporting a child.

    However, it is necessary to remember that a large percentage of the US population lives in places which are not strictly urban, and not full of crazy city traffic. For many years I had a 25 mile one way commute, where public transit was not an option (I was reverse commuting – the buses didn’t even run my way at the hours I needed) and biking that distance wouldn’t make much sense either — it would turn a 35 minute trip each way by car into a 1.5-2 hour trip each way. This probably more closely resembles a much larger percentage of the US population’s experience than the crazy city center.

    I still have a 20 mile one way commute, but now that I’m heading into the city, and with traffic, biking makes sense, as it adds at worst 1/2 hour to the trip (less than the time most folks spend going to the gym), and often adds nothing or saves time.

  • Opus the Poet October 12, 2012   Reply →

    Finally someone that gets it and has the means to show it rather than just telling about it. Cars ‘r’ coffins. They stifle community and consume land and other resources like locusts, and separate us even further just because they are there for the 90% of the time you aren’t using them.

    • Ethan Fleming October 12, 2012  

      I always say that cars create more problems than they solve.

  • Poridox October 12, 2012   Reply →

    I own a few bikes, and I own a car. The car gives mea freedom that my bike would otherwise not provide me (and you could argue that my bikes give me a freedom that my car doesn’t provide me). Sure, I don’t need my car to get to work, I can just hop on my bike and ride down the minuteman. I don’t need my car to go grocery shopping, I just ride down to Trader Joes and bring my big messenger bag. I love my bikes, a lot. I love running into friends and riding together, or stopping for a second to watch the sunset as I ride back home from work, or grabbing a coffee without hassle, just as this post describes. But the fact that I have a car isn’t necessarily bad, and the fact that sometimes I too am stuck in traffic with my car (or, I create traffic with it) shouldn’t make me feel bad.

    I moved to this country a few years ago. I don’t have relatives here. I also didn’t know anyone when I came here. I am 100% independent, and for a very, very long time I had no one to rely on when I was getting my life together here. When I first moved to this country there was no one to take me to ikea, no one to help me move my stuff, no one to drive me to the bank. My car gave me a freedom that I would have otherwise not have had – I practically do not see how I would have been able to set up my life here in this country without a car (although to be fair, I wasn’t living in a big city). Owning a car is not a bad thing, and cyclists shouldn’t feel better about themselves just because they don’t own one, IMO (unless they’re hardcore environmentalists?). Just some thoughts I’m throwing out there.

    And some of the best memories and bonding experiences I have with the friends that I have made in this country were the times where we threw our bikes on the car rack, got in the car, drove off to some state park, and went mountain biking, or went to a cyclocross race.

    I agree that in the city it makes no sense to drive around with a car unless it’s completely necessary, but there are certain freedoms that a car gives you that you cannot deny, and that a bike will not give you, and in certain cases, the things you want to do with your bike (like going mountain biking) rely on some sort of other means of transportation to get you there.

    • Ian Brett Cooper October 12, 2012  

      I think owning a car is very clearly a bad thing. They cause severe pollution problems, they kill a million people per year worldwide and injure millions more. They make cities and roadways stink, they create a background roar that can be heard anywhere near a moderately busy road and they create in their users a sense of entitlement to the road. Just an hour ago, I got honked at because I was in front of a car and the driver felt he/she had the right to squeeze pass me even though I clearly had the right of way and needed to prevent an unsafe pass (the driver did not get past me). How is any of that not bad?

      I don’t think the freedom to go shopping and banking in an automobile is worth the cost in lives or the environment, and wanting to reduce car pollution is hardly a goal restricted to environmentalists – everyone wants to breathe fresh air, enjoy peace and quiet and have rain be non-acidic. These are not ‘hardcore environmentalist’ issues. These days, banking and shopping can all be done from home. Any local bank or ATM is within easy cycling range, unless one lives in the wilds of Alaska. Since most car journeys are under 3 miles, I doubt very much that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by not owning a car, unless they had made very poor choices in terms of where they live. Such choices will come back to bite people when the effects of peak oil make themselves felt in the next ten years or so.

    • dr2chase October 12, 2012  

      I think a lot of people have made poor choices, and I also think that peak oil is going to be more of a boiling-frog experience than a sudden epiphany for most people in cars. I live in the same neck of the woods as Bikeyface, and this particular strip is bang-on. Never mind global warming or environment, never mind the option of spontaneous stops and enhanced sociability, never mind improved fitness — around here, for quite a few trips, a car is actually slower, especially if you count the time to park. For purely selfish reasons, you’d be nuts to drive in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston. But nonetheless, people do. It’s a world full of slow learners.

      As to poor choices, weather up here is more often friendly to biking than, say, weather in Houston or Atlanta. You can always add clothes, but there’s no such thing as negative clothing when it exceeds 100F (for weeks at a time, in some cases). Compound that with lower density and sprawl, and you’ve got quite a few people who’ve made mistakes, at least in their commute choice.

    • Ian Brett Cooper October 13, 2012  

      ” I also think that peak oil is going to be more of a boiling-frog experience than a sudden epiphany for most people in cars.”

      I hope you’re right, because the sudden epiphany option will be very bad for all of us. So far (since world crude oil peaked in 2005) it has been a ‘boiling frog’ experience, but (despite industry assurances about Bakken, etc.) I fear unconventional oil can compensate for the decline in crude for only so long. The markets are balancing on a knife edge between the need for high prices to make unconventionals profitable and the need for prices to be low enough so that most people can eat and get to work. Meanwhile, every barrel that’s pumped out makes the next barrel more expensive, and that makes it harder for more and more people to make ends meet.

    • dr2chase October 13, 2012  

      I think we understand “sudden epiphany” differently; your sense of the phrase sounds more like walking into a pole (or, to quote Homer Simpson, “Doh!”). An epiphany, as I imagine it, would come while there was still time for the realization to do some good. (If we could get all those people to read this edition of bikeyface, maybe that would do some good.)

      Think how it would be, if all the people in the communities surrounding Boston/Cambridge/Somerville, who also worked in those three cities, suddenly decided that it really would be a better idea to bike to work (and the grocery store, etc). I think that would be nice, rather than bad.

    • Ian Brett Cooper October 13, 2012  

      ” An epiphany, as I imagine it, would come while there was still time for the realization to do some good.”

      According to the Hirsch Report, that time was about 1995. We’re well beyond that now. Sure, things can still change, but now the change is going to hurt, no matter what we do. I see what you’re saying – that people can make changes for their own benefit, and that’s partly true. But I’m looking down the line and I just don’t see a way out of mass unemployment for many of us here in the US. That won’t be stopped by swapping our cars for bikes now. It’ll just make the transition a little easier for those of us who have done so when the transition comes.

      Maybe I’m too cynical, but I think the vast majority of motorists, when faced with poverty, will give up their cars a few weeks AFTER they’ve registered to get aid from their local soup kitchen. Most people see the automobile as Poridox does – as a harmless and even beneficial freedom machine.

      Have you ever seen The Matrix? It’s like the difference between Morpheus’s view of the world and Cypher’s. Some folks are just happier living in an unethical but comfortable fantasy, no matter what it costs themselves and others.

    • David October 13, 2012  


      Well said.

      Here is an article I first read 10 years ago. It’s scary.

    • Arquibus October 15, 2012  

      How dare I live in the country in a place where a supermarket is 20 miles away. Seems you don’t mind riding around in a car when someone else (suckers) are willing to front the bill. I guess it certainly makes it more convenient for people like you to have no responsibility.

    • dr2chase October 15, 2012  

      So, you think it’s a good idea that we should waste what little oil remains driving SUVs on little half-mile trips in urban areas? You’re letting tribal identity get the best of you; if all these people weren’t riding bikes, the demand for oil would be that much higher, it would cost that much more, and run out that much more quickly. A selfish person living in the boonies would want EVERY person in the Bikeyface neighborhood to be car-free.

    • Tim October 16, 2012  

      So Arquibus, you don’t think cyclists are paying taxes which help pay for the roads you’re driving on? Many cyclists will even have cars of their own sitting on the drive. The difference is that while you’re busy polluting the air that we all breathe, they’ve chosen to live in a way that doesn’t pollute yours so much.

      Car use in the US is a net financial loss. You need to deal with the fact that your car use is being subsidised by those who pay taxes but aren’t driving.

      You’re right – you choose to live in a place that means you have to drive. Even so, I would support people’s rights to make those choices. I certainly don’t think everyone should have to move next door to the nearest shop, or their place of work.

      But I do wish drivers would take responsibility for themselves, and be a little more grateful to those who are contributing more without taking as much.

    • Ian Brett Cooper October 16, 2012  

      No one ‘has’ to live 20 miles away from a supermarket. The fact that you live 20 miles away from a supermarket, and the fact that I ride a vehicle that does not pollute means that you are the irresponsible one, while (unlike 90% of the population) I am taking on my responsibility to keep my environment clean.

      Only in America can someone say with a straight face that cycling is irresponsible, LOL.

    • Howard October 13, 2012  

      You are absolutely correct! I own several bikes and a pickup truck… They work together for my betterment… I would find it difficult to do what I do when I want to do it without both… However I must admit that I am always trying to find ways to do more things by bike since it does represent a more healthy lifestyle overall to me. Enjoyed the reality of your post!

  • Becca October 12, 2012   Reply →

    My commute used to look just like panel 1. After I moved to the city I just never drove my car… I, too, have a hard time getting around by car now that I know my city so much better by bike.

  • Andy M-S October 12, 2012   Reply →

    Oddly enough, I’ve had this same topic in mind for the past few days…though perhaps not as coherently. Yesterday, I published some thoughts on a utopia without (or with fewer) cars, and then my son responded with some similar thoughts and some disagreements. I responded, and both the original post and the response-to-a-response can be seen here:


    It’s a utopia that’s rather unlikely in our lifetimes (especially mine!) but even incremental improvements depend on utopian thinking… I’d welcome any responses.

  • Pingback: The Myth of the Open Road « SALVO October 12, 2012   Reply →
  • MT Cyclist October 12, 2012   Reply →

    All too often I have a tendency to raise my middle finger whenever a passing motorist honks or yells at me while I’m riding down the street. Two weeks ago,it was, “Hey! Get off the Street!” from an obese woman who barely managed to put down her Big Gulp while she laid on her horn.
    Instead of responding with anger, I must remember to feel pity for those poor bastards trapped in their steel coffins, swimming in Big Mac wrappers and doughnut crumbs.

  • Christopher in Aotearoa NZ October 12, 2012   Reply →

    This is a pretty neat way of expressing the difference I feel when I’m on my bike as opposed to when I am in my car.

    On my bike I am much more interactive with the environment. Frequently I see people on the street so I stop and chat to them – in a car all I would be able to do is toot my horn. I feel the rain, the sun, and the wind and I feel more in tune with the wider world.

    Thanks for bringing to light this difference.


  • dr2chase October 12, 2012   Reply →

    This is sure true for me, at least for Cambridge and Somerville. I hate looking for a place to park.

  • David October 13, 2012   Reply →

    We’ll be threading needles with boxing gloves on 11 December in London on our Drive to Work Day. Wish us well as we whizz around town :)

    • traffic cyclist October 13, 2012  

      I like this! We Americans can have a Drive to Work In Our Battle Tank Day!

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