Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

This Land is Your Land: Arizona and Car Culture

A future of car-less cities will result in a less-traveled America and the end of the small town road trip experience.
(Julien Hautcoeur/Shutterstock)

The state of Arizona is the mascot of American car culture. Sure, everybody drives here, and the automakers originally placed their plants in the Midwest, close to steel production. Yet when kids watch Pixar Cars, they see anthropomorphic automobiles hang out in Radiator Springs, Arizona. In television commercials, car companies showcase their sedans gliding past giant crimson rocks propping each other up above tree-covered hills. While narrowly focused on selling the product, each ad advances a key idea of American civilization: that the most exotic destinations across the fruited plane should, and can, be made accessible to each and every citizen.

Because the Arizona landmass is vast and the people are multiple, there exist all sorts of quirky enclaves. Looking a bit like a naturally occurring technicolor Stonehenge, the red rocks of Sedona attract the New Age faithful and UFO enthusiasts. In a swanky restaurant in the town, we were seated next to a table of two dozen millennial women who spent two hours talking about healings. Strange tourist scene. The locals, however, were as likely to fly the American flag as anyone else outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.

A short drive away from Sedona is the town of Jerome. To call it a town is a bit of a stretch; Jerome is made of three streets sitting one on top of another, on the side of a hill. It’s a former Wild West town, turned ghost town, turned biker riviera. Jerome’s catchphrase is “bikers, hippies, tourists, artists” and the town has detectable boomer vibes. The Chamber of Commerce manages to strike a fine balance between profitability and cheesiness, placing art galleries, restaurants, and gift shops filled with ghost-themed merchandise on the ruins of the 19th-century boom town. Also hotels. Because surely you are not driving down this mountain-grade road after sampling all their wine.

Down the road is Prescott, a real town. It’s still high elevation, which makes for fairly cool summers, but only an hour away from the scorching metropolis of Phoenix, so one day I may live in Prescott. In Prescott, we hung out in the 19th century downtown a bit and then went for a hike around Watson Lake, a 20 minute drive away. It was another science fiction setting: still water over a half-submerged labyrinth of stones surrounded by geometric rock formations with occasional cacti growing through a split in the stones.

Our Arizona trip was an experience gifted by the automobile civilization. We drove from Los Angeles, where we dropped off our dog with grandpa, to Vegas, to Flagstaff, and then, forgetting Winona completely, down towards the center of the state. It’s a voyage any American can make because any American can competently drive a motor vehicle that can reliably go a long distance and, outside of Oakland, California, the roads out West are smooth. One can, of course, fly to a city like Phoenix, and then rent a car which will still allow for flexibility locally but shorten the travel time. When a group is small, details are easy to arrange to accommodate everyone, including the household pets, and to permit a certain degree of spontaneity.

If we transition from the social arrangement where we live in standalone houses and everyone drives to the one where the overwhelming majority is stuck in dense cities and an automobile is a luxury, then the market for car travel will shrink, and road trips like ours will become a near impossibility. And with that lifestyle going away, the landscape that Americans shaped first with horse and carriage and then, more efficiently, with the internal combustion engine, will also wither away.

Extreme urbanization will leave behind not just the crumbling open road but an archipelago of ghost towns and suburbs. What would happen to a place like Prescott if driving to Phoenix will become contingent on long-distance public transportation? It’s likely that many of its residents will opt to live in the city down below to be able to reliably access its amenities, even if it means using air conditioning around the clock for a good part of the year.

With Prescott gone, the hidden treasure of Watson Lake, a delightful afternoon walk option for any modestly physically fit local, will be outside the reach of all but the most adventurous and wealthy. It might end up as a spot on the map that has little meaning to even the residents of the state: not a word written about it in magazines, not a picture taken. Might as well not exist.

Of course, high profile national parks, like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite will still do well. The desire to experience nature will not disappear simply by virtue of forcing people into high-rises, but it’s hard to imagine how tourism can survive in a form other than an assembly line of sightseeing. Instead of mapping their own routes, car-less Americans will have to choose between cookie cutter packages.

Airplane and charter buses will connect popular destinations across our continent, just as urban reformers promise, skipping less distinguished points of interest. This type of arrangement will make Americans dependent on another party and take away spontaneity. Do you want to detour at an overlook location? Don’t want to drink the coffee made out of burnt beans? Good luck if your choices are not on the schedule. We will lose the ability to veer off the beaten pass for no reason other than to see what can be discovered.

The city of Sedona, with the cult following it commands, can’t be erased from the face of the Earth by federal housing policy. Of course the faithful will flock there, and with them many others will follow. I fear, though, that the growing crowds will mess with the vortexes. From Sedona, the tourists can be moved to Jerome by busload to observe the fine countercultural specimen in its once natural habitat. Maybe said specimen will give way to internationally exhibited artists and corporate food joints. It will sure cease to be the destination for “hey, let’s go to Jerome today!” adventures. With the American road trip disappearing, artist colonies and other enclaves of eccentrics in remote deserts may go, too. In any event, their inhabitants need personal autos to be able to connect to civilization.

Once the experience of nature becomes homogenized, compacted and contingent on third party help, the sense of ownership of the land, and responsibility for it, will weaken. American civilization is a new arrival in the Western United States. Ragged men in heeled shoes and large leather hats claimed the region for our country, but even if those men populate our cultural mythology, few of us can call themselves their direct descendants. Apart from the fact that we apply our superior law to it, the land of this great continent is ours because each one of us can, individually, behold its greatness. With the pushes away from personal car ownership, that relationship is about to slip away.

Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick. 

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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