The Steel Cocoon

Cars distort our perceptions of time and space. They act as portable extensions of the shelter offered by our homes, numbing us to the reality of the distance travelled and blinding us to the topography we travel through. By using massive amounts of energy, cars reduce the physical effort required to move through the world to nothing more than a twitch of the toe and a flick of the wrist; a physical effort on par with flipping through television channels or surfing the web.

Cycling takes us out of the sedentary womb of comfort and convenience provided by the automobile and immerses us in the real, physical world of weather, hills, car exhaust, barking dogs, natural smells, and beautiful sunsets.

Cars also cut us off from the reality of weather. Headwinds and tailwinds have no meaning from within a car. Rain is only an inconvenience. Freezing temperatures only require adjusting a knob on a thermostat. Experiencing a storm from inside a car is akin to watching a nature movie in a comfortable, temperature-controlled, personal theatre.

Cycling, on the other hand, makes us more keenly aware of the nuances of the landscape and the energy required to cover a distance. Cycling takes us out of the sedentary womb of comfort and convenience provided by the automobile and immerses us in the real, physical world of weather, hills, car exhaust, barking dogs, natural smells, and beautiful sunsets. Driving a car is so effortless, hardly a thought is given to whether a trip should or should not be made. Cycling for transportation requires concerted effort, and consequently, encourages consideration and efficiency. Cycling, by its nature, discourages wasted energy.

We pay a heavy price for the convenience offered by the automobile. Dependence on foreign oil, global warming, smog, traffic fatalities, and many other problems are all part and parcel of our desire to extend our creature comforts beyond our homes by driving our cars. The question is whether it’s worth it, and if not, what we choose to do about it.

12 Responses to “The Steel Cocoon”

  • Geoff says:

    The way things are going, WE won’t be the ones who will have to choose. With market forces and other influences driving oil prices toward $ 200 a barrel, we’ll have anarchy soon in this country. There will be a LOT of people riding bicycles who formerly pushed their feet down on Hummer accelerators, simply because the choice will now be between continuing to eat OR continuing to drive. Funny what hunger will do to one’s personal priorities.

  • Spanky says:

    Nicely written.

    Alienation is the key concept. Cars alienate us from the world our species evolved in, from our fellow man and woman, even from our own bodies. It is these that are our true birthrights, not the right to cheap gas and unlimited energy usage. And cars don’t only alienate when being driven: gaze on any modern car-scape and the abiding sensation is one of soulessness. We are looking at people but what we see resembles moving processions of carapaced bugs. . . .

  • Tom F says:

    Its funny how timely your comments were. This morning I enjoyed a new ride. I met two dogs, both which were curious about me- but not hostile. I smelled a chicken homestead, honeysuckle, pine, fresh cut hay, and road kill (one of which was a skunk- thankfully a few days old). I greeted a couple of cows, heard cars before they zoomed pass, and waved to homeless guys on a city bench. A motorcycle rider cruised up from behind and waved to me. And I was early to work. I had plenty of time to cool down, wash up, and change clothes.

  • Dave Kee says:

    Luckily it is not an either or situation. High gas prices and the need to address climate change will lead to the development of high mileage self propelled vehicles that will utilize renewable liquid fuels, or wind, solar or nuclear generated electricity for propulsion. The need for protection from heat, cold and rain while traveling will continue to be essential for the foreseeable future, and mass transit is simply not economically viable for most of the U.S. anyway. I am eagerly looking forward to the beneficial impacts that $8.00 per gallon gas will have on HPV, non-HPV, and hybrid modes of travel.

  • Croupier says:

    Alan, you are literally altering my mind. Your words are effecting my artistic and conscience self. You’re a profound writer, sir.

  • Nate Briggs says:


    Another great entry, but missing one word: soporific.

    Many (not all) commercials for automobiles stress the adrenaline surge of the driving experience: that motorists, surrounded by so much power and comfort are pushed into a new dimension of pleasure and excitement.

    But I – and just about anyone else who has raised small children – can tell you that, faced with a crying baby who just will not go to sleep, the most consistent solution is to put the kid in the car and drive around.

    Once placed in the sensory deprivation experience of a car, the little guy just can’t keep those little eyes open.

    Driving actually puts many people to sleep – and many motorists crossing the nighttime desert on our long, Western Interstates meet their end in just this manner.

    Nate (SLC)

  • Croupier says:

    @ Nate:

    In Oakland, I once saw a kid sleeping behind the wheel (literally) of his scraper tricycle… but he was just sitting in his driveway… and he had a parking brake so it was safe.
    It’s difficult to fall asleep while on a bike but not impossible… especially with enough 40 oz.’s in your system.

  • Rick says:

    Very nice article. An intellectual and concise critique of the automobile! The point you make about cycling keeping you in touch with your surroundings is so true, and is evident everytime I pass a pedestrian on the sidewalk. My dog notices a cycllist and lets the people in the cars pass without a care. She only sees things that are connected with the environment around her…

  • Jim Reilly says:

    Most people have no idea how much life they are missing inside their sheltered, isolated, insulated car. I cycle daily through an urban neighborhood that most in my office would avoid in a locked car. And truth is, I avoid it too after dark. But during the day, particularly in the warm weather, the place is alive with people on the porches, kids playing on the sidewalk, music playing everywhere. It’s quite amazing. I’d enjoy none of that on the bypass.


  • Tim says:

    Good article.

    Cars are great, powerful, and promote personal freedom. Cars changed life on Earth, mostly for the better. I have two, and have owned dozens, as most us have. The ability go where we want , whenever we desire is powerful. In the past, most lives were spent in a 20 mile radius of one’s place of birth. As the cost of any activity rises, it forces individuals and society to examine the costs again, to make sure the given activity still makes sense.

    I guess one hidden cost of automibiles is the “opportunity cost” of using them. The money put into cars or at least some cars/trips could be used for other purposes. The shelter, and ease cars offer come with extended periods of physical inactivity. This causes muscle atrophy, and that causes half the medical problems in the industrialized world. People sit at work, and sit in the car, and then sit down and watch TV at home. People were not made to sit all day long, and cycling creates the moderate excercise that nearly anyone can benefit from. All this sitting is killing us, and cars are part of that problem.

    They (cars) do remove you from God’s creation and the intense reality of the weather, the smells, and the enormity and wonder of creation. Nate was dead on. I have five kids. Cars put kids to sleep. That is the clearest example of that fact I have ever seen.


  • Scott says:

    Hey, Alan: Great new blog! I think frequently about the consequences of our car-centric culture. I’ve done a number of long bike tours and last year rode across the USA. That trip took about five hours air time in three different planes to get to Bar Harbor, Maine. I arrived in Ventura, CA., 99 days later. Talk about contrasts. For those cycling days, I was totally plugged into the environment–the heat, humidity, chill, wind, uphill, downhill. On the rare occasions I had a room with AC, for example, it was like a miracle. The bike connected me to the world–and other people–in a way impossible by other means besides walking.

    Keep up the good work.


  • andy parmentier says:

    was thinking about these very things today, just now! and i thought, back in the (oh gosh) military, most of the guys were upper body types, and i was more of the runner type. so they put their muscle into building engines and vehicles.
    i walk with a pair of trekking poles. over half of your muscle mass is the upper body. i feel like a caterpillar, like i could go on forever. however, my bike is my butterfly, and NO!, i don’t feel like a tyrannasaurus on my recumbent, with giant legs and tiny arms BECAUSE i ride NO HANDS. i have met SO MANY guys my age and younger who just don’t “get it” about recumbents. so i was thrilled with the rans crank forward development. i am really for meeting in the middle. those are my strongest muscles! the middle muscles-i’m neither schwarzanegger in the upper body nor the legs, not counting the leg muscles closest to my middle (the glutes). and that’s why i wish more BOMBARDIER 3 wheeled “cars” were out on the road, because it’s a meet in the midddle between car and motorcycle kind of vehicle. lots of people are opting for the motorcycle option these days, and hospital emergency rooms are filling up. but i agree that this is a BICYCLING blog. i saw 2, count em, 2 bombardiers on my way to portland-now you know where i am. i am passing my time in 4 wheel 4 wall prison (in the city, in other words) getting some reading done. prison is a great place to get reading done. but i would rather be reading nature, like an indian, out on my recumbent, which i will soon be riding.


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