The middle distance

It’s a frustrating thing when your good idea doesn’t stand up to your own scrutiny. When, examined, your brilliance falls apart like white bread in water.

However, unlike bridge engineers, it’s probably healthy for us to get our bad ideas out into the world. Seth Godin suggests people who claim they don’t have any good ideas probably also don’t have many bad ideas either. It’s only through generating a bunch of bad ideas that we can cobble any good’uns.

So here’s one from my bad idea pile.

I think cars are a negative and we should be rid of them. Put aside the environmental damage and the 1.25 million fatalities they cause each year. Those are concrete, pragmatic reasons, and remember my idea is bad and not easily defensible.

The reason cars should be abolished is because they don’t help us access the two spaces that are most important to our personal development: hyper-local and very-distant.

Hyper-local spaces are anything within walking distance. For most people, this is within a two mile radius. This is the space where you build and strengthen your connection to a community. This is where you become a ‘regular’ at the cafe, at the bar, at the bodega where you buy wine and chocolate, at the phø place where you get lunch on weekends.

Very-distant spaces are far enough away that the accents and weather are different, 300-500 miles at least. It’s important for people to visit very-distant spaces to cultivate their appreciation for different cultures and ways of being. Traveling overseas inspires people precisely because the very-distant confronts with radical novelty, strangeness, and the sublime.

The hyper-local is where you connect, the very-distant is where you learn. Everything in between is the middle distance: places that take time to get to, but aren’t very different from where we are. You don’t connect with people in these spaces because you rarely see them. You aren’t prompted to think about the world in a new way, because the space is too culturally similar to notice any differences. The middle distance is only accessible by cars, and the time it takes to get there is rarely worth it.

We should seek to avoid the middle distance, and I think the best way to do that is to rid ourselves of cars.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is a terrible solution:

  • The quality of local businesses would decline without a greater area of competition
  • Population density around airports and train stations would explode unless rail and bus lines were vastly expanded
  • Traveling to non-urban areas like mountains, forests, and national parks would become more difficult

So this is clearly not a good idea. But, just like you might pass off an old piano to a friend willing to tune and restore it, perhaps you can make some use out of this broken argument, fashion whatever is interesting about it into something useful, something worth preserving for yourself.

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