Questions for Quakers about Cars

On a cold, rainy day in Maine around Thanksgiving 2005, I got rid of my car. Bright yellow maple leaves drifted down with the raindrops and stuck to the dark pavement. Despite the chilly gloom of the autumn weather, I felt a warm glow inside as the tow truck pulled the sedan away. Finally I was free!

I was moved to give up my vehicle partly due to circumstance and partly due to the example of friends committed to car-free living. I currently live in Prague, where an automobile isn’t needed for daily life. So instead of keeping the car in storage in the United States, I called the tow truck.

To be honest, I never enjoyed driving anyway, and I only put about 50,000 miles on the car over nine years. Though driving was sometimes required for my work, for several years I questioned whether I wanted to own a car. Parking was a hassle, the gas cost a lot, and driving in the city was unpleasant. On the other hand, it made grocery shopping and getting out of town easy.

Then, in 2004, a friend gave a speech against the war in Iraq on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol that helped me see things differently. He explained that as a teenager, he had refused to go through two rites of passage: he did not register for the Selective Service, and he did not get a driver’s license. He drew a clear connection between these two decisions, which for him were actions of resistance against systemic violence. He lived his convictions by making bicycling, walking, and public transport his primary means of getting around.

The more I think about it, the more I’m inspired by his example. I also see parallels between car use and moral questions, because the car is linked to a whole system of environmental and social violence, at home and abroad. Since the early 20th century, trillions of dollars of investment in public infrastructure have literally set the U.S. transportation system in concrete. Now it is very difficult for individuals to find transportation alternatives. While most in the United States may feel owning a car is necessary to function within this system, that does not make the moral questions go away. It is a personal lifestyle issue, but also an issue of social organization.

What are the moral issues? Car use has dire consequences for the environment and for social justice. A blood-stained process gets fuel into our gas tanks and our wheels on the road. It is a system, but one in which we each participate as individuals.

The Environment

Can anyone doubt car use does violence to the environment? Car emissions contribute to global warming, acid rain, smog, and many human health problems. The Ecologist magazine documents that child asthma rates are on the rise, and toxic dust from tires may cause diabetes and heart disease. New and expanded roads divide the countryside, and noise pollution invades our neighborhoods.

The manufacture, use, and disposal of cars all produce deadly environmental burdens, as Paul Hawken and others point out in the book Natural Capitalism. Think of the mining needed to get the metal that goes into a car’s body, and the other resource extraction required to make the plastic or leather interior, tires, windows, and all the other components. One of the worst environmental impacts comes from the auto body painting process. The United States imports more than eight million barrels of oil per day—450 gallons per person annually—to satisfy motoring demand. More than a million wild animals are killed every week on roads in the United States. Car disposal results in seven billion pounds of unrecycled waste each year, Hawken says.


There are now more private vehicles in the United States than registered drivers—over 200 million cars. Vast personal and social resources are sunk into the auto economy—money that could be used for other purposes. The average U.S. household spends a large portion of its disposable income on car ownership, covering expenses like purchase price, loan interest, parking, maintenance, gas, and insurance. Meanwhile, Hawken writes, government road building and maintenance cost over $200 million a day.

Cars play a role in the destruction of community life. New housing developments often don’t even have sidewalks. Using the car for errands instead of walking or biking contributes to epidemic levels of obesity in the United States. Schools and stores are built outside the center of town to facilitate auto access. Every year, over $100 billion in lost time is wasted in the United States due to traffic jams while commuting to and from work.

You are more likely to die in an auto accident in the suburbs than from violence in the inner city, Hawken asserts. Every year there are more than two million traffic accidents that result in five million injuries and more than 40,000 deaths. Highway accidents cost the nation more than $150 billion annually. By 2020, traffic accidents are expected to become the world’s third leading cause of death, reports Resurgence magazine.

Most critically perhaps, car use today is connected to economic exploitation and armed conflict around the world. Oil companies and governments destroy habitat, oppress indigenous cultures, and undermine democracy and human rights movements to keep the petroleum flowing. The Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, geopolitical conflict in Latin America, the murder of indigenous activists in Nigeria, the U.S. support of dictators in the Middle East and Central Asia: all this is tied directly to U.S. motoring habits. And of course, there is the Iraq war and the perpetual presence of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region that costs untold tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

A Historical Parallel

The pre-Civil War system of slavery in the Southern United States had some similarities, as an all-pervasive system of exploitation and violence that implicated even the unwilling, to the modern U.S. car system. Slavery was a fundamental part of the national economy and culture—much as cars and the petroleum-based economy are part of U.S. society today.

Some may object to this comparison between slavery and contemporary automobile use. The analogy shouldn’t be pushed too far. The point is to demonstrate that the way of life built around U.S. car-dependency has social, economic, and moral characteristics similar to other historical problems. The car culture, like slavery before it, is a seemingly unassailable institution reinforced by patterns of daily lifestyle choices made by millions of individuals. By looking at how Quakers resisted slavery, maybe we can learn lessons about how to take action in our own lives, and socially, to change our transportation habits.

In the 1700s and 1800s, Quakers moved to the forefront of the fight against slavery in the United States. John Woolman and other activists confronted slave-owning Friends and urged everyone to think about the moral implications of the system of slavery, and their participation in it. By the time of the Revolutionary War, virtually all Quakers had freed their slaves.

It was difficult to challenge slavery because, as an institution, it was basic to the functioning of society. The fight against slavery meant economic sacrifices, personal inconvenience, and sometimes legal risks for many Quakers. But Friends not only avoided complicity with the slave system by boycotting products and emancipating their slaves; they actively resisted the injustice through political action and the Underground Railroad.

We can see that in some ways, people in the United States are enslaved to their autos and participate, however passively, in the exploitation of the Earth and other people through their car use. How do we react today, as individuals and as a spiritual community, to the structural injustices of the automobile system? Can we divest ourselves of the auto lifestyle? Can we witness to alternative forms of transportation?

Questions and Connections

I am fortunate to live in a European city with good public transportation. Prague is not bike-friendly, but the dense web of rail service, subways, trams, and buses means I don’t need a car in my daily routine or to get out of town. In contrast, I know a car is considered necessary for mobility in many parts of the United States where public transportation is limited or nonexistent. When and if I return to the United States, I’ll be faced with this dilemma.

So my aim is not to point an accusing finger at car-owning Quakers, but to suggest that we query ourselves as individuals and as meetings about our connections to the problems associated with car use. It took many years for Friends to gain clarity over how to act against slavery. It may take time for Friends to consider the implications of car use and decide on appropriate responses. Certainly this is an issue for prayerful reflection and community discussion.

Perhaps we can be inspired to find new, creative ways to limit our involvement in the car culture. Lifestyle changes like carpooling, bicycling, and walking would be a start. If more of us resided in proximity to our local meetinghouses, fewer Friends would need to drive on Sundays. Already meetinghouses are centers for many diverse activities. Imagine if we could drop in more frequently and casually by living nearby. Such "re-localization" can strengthen community bonds.

Institutional action such as getting involved with local land use and planning boards and with municipal councils could help. The business of car sharing—a kind of short-term car rental that makes cars available on demand without the burdens of ownership—has proven successful in many cities like Boston; San Francisco; and Madison, Wisconsin.

The search for alternatives continues, and maybe we will need to accept some inconvenience and make some sacrifices, as Woolman urged of his contemporaries in a different era, in this struggle against transportation-related injustice.

At virtually every meetinghouse on Sunday morning, you will see a parking lot full of cars—often bearing bumper stickers against war and other injustices. We should ask ourselves how the car itself may contribute to the very problems we seek to resolve.

Benjamin J. Vail

Benjamin J. Vail is an environmental sociologist and member of Madison (Wis.) Meeting. He currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic, where he is clerk of the Prague Worship Group, He maintains close ties to Brunswick (Maine) Meeting in his hometown.