Philadelphia Metropolis


Prisoner of the Schuylkill Expressway

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The idea of a car-centered country is one based on independence and freedom, but sitting in traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway a few weeks ago, I felt neither free nor independent.

The sun was swelteringly hot outside, so everybody sat in their cars with the windows closed, hoping that our air conditioners would be enough to offset the heat of the brutal rays pouring into our motionless cars.

No matter how badly we needed to arrive at our destination or how fast our car was designed to drive, we were condemned to do nothing but inch forward at the exact same, excruciatingly slow speed as the cars around us.

It was, in other words, another typical day on the Schuylkill.

Of course, here were the cars that refused to accept their imprisonment in this gridlocked hoard of vehicles -- the kind of cars that change lanes every 20 feet, as if they believe that their intelligence and agility will find an escape that nobody else is seeing. Fifteen minutes later, unsurprisingly, I still saw them a few cars ahead of me, still trying to find that elusive fast lane. 

trafficjam.jpgI was a driver like that for maybe the year or so after getting my driver's license, probably the result of growing up watching car commercials depicting sleek sports cars rounding fast corners on smooth desert roads.

I played games like Need for Speed on Playstation as I yearned for the day that I could get my driver's license, I believed that the ability to drive would be a major step towards becoming an independent adult.  A learner's permit certainly did not bring that independence, much thanks to the law that kept my mother or father in the passenger seat, determined to drill me with safe driving advice.

Getting my real driver's license was no more freeing; I still felt trapped, and never became the too-cool, wannabe racecar driver that I pictured myself as a kid.  I tried to drive fast but usually just drove the same speed as all of the cars in front of me. 

It didn't take long before I gave up, stopped viewing my car as an independent vehicle, and accepted my position as just another frustrated driver in a crowd of other frustrated drivers. Now that I've accepted my absolute lack of control in a car, I usually just sit there, listen to the radio, tap on the steering wheel, or just stare at people in cars around me, occasionally wondering who they are and what their lives are about. 

Then the brake lights ahead of me cut off for a brief moment and a space of about 15 feet opens up in front of me, so I release the clutch and barely touch the accelerator before quickly switching my foot back to the brake and re-stopping a 15 feel closer to West Philly.  I look around at the new set of drivers I'm next to, wondering why I'm supposed to pretend not to see them.

It's not that I don't like crowds or that I am an impatient person.  I've lived in Philadelphia for most of my life and I like having neighbors that I see every day.  I like passing strangers on the sidewalk and acknowledging them with a "good morning" or a friendly nod of the head.  I like taking the subway or the bus with people, all of whom are bound to have some quirk or interesting life story.  I like biking because I can see and hear things around the city I would never see from the confines of a car. 

But, there is no more brutal way to experience a city than to drive through it.  I hate being surrounded by people in their cars in traffic. I feel as if I am invading their personal space if I look at them.  Cars allow their drivers to move through busy spaces with a false sense of privacy and independence but, looking around the Schuylkill Expressway; I see the ridiculousness of this.

We're all stuck, side-by-side, in a massive petroleum-burning procession of pitifully slow vehicles. We're all in this together but pretending we're not.

 I realized that I would either have to give up driving or give up living in the city because, taken together, these activities were eroding my sanity.

But then again, I'm not so sure that driving anywhere else would be any less imprisoning--maybe the intensity of the city only serves to illuminate the depressing reality of cars, which is this: it is difficult to experience life in any meaningful way when you are alone in an enclosed vehicle.  


Chris Hershberger-Esh uses the 34th Street exit to get home to University City


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