Hitting a Nerve

Car is king, but commuting takes a back seat


 

During my sophomore year in high school, we had to read a historical essay about cars, the author and name of which I’ve long forgotten. The basic point of it was that, as of 1982, no invention had changed Western culture more than the automobile.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

In America, the car is king. A large portion of society revolves around cars and their trappings: modifications, sports, collectors auctions, parking lots and garages, and many others. The city of Detroit has become synonymous with one industry.

A few times a week I have to walk two to three blocks to and from a research office to see patients and do paperwork. This involves me cutting through a series of parking lots, including one garage, that service the office buildings in the area. For years they’ve always been full on weekdays.

Now, after 6 months of pandemic, they’re maybe 10% filled. Rows and rows of empty spaces certainly makes my walks easier.

But each time I walk there now I wonder where this will lead. The people who used to park still work there, just from home now. If they can work from home successfully for 6 months, why should they even come back to the office on a routine basis?

I don’t think it’s the end of the automobile by any means. The majority of us still depend on it for many things and will continue to do so for a long time to come. I need it to get to my office, the hospital, the store, to take my oldest to and from his job, and many other things.

But perhaps the pandemic will also bring a lasting change in how and where many do their jobs. It’s certainly driven a dramatic shift to Zoom, Teams, WebEx, Skype, and other remote platforms.

If they’re not really needed, having fewer cars on the road is probably a good thing. It saves commute time, reduces oil dependence and pollution, and provides a number of other benefits. If sustained, in the long term it will affect the calculus of office space and buildings, parking lot sizes, and a million other details.

My secretary has been working from home since late March now. While I miss having her and her daughter at the office, her lack of a commute means she starts taking calls an hour earlier and isn’t spending $60-$100 a week on gas.

We’ll have to see how it all plays out. Like other adverse events that change society, not all of the changes in the aftermath may be bad ones.

The car will be king in America for a long time to come, but its role in commuting may be fundamentally different after the pandemic, and the ripples from this may bring many more changes – hopefully for the better.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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