Car spa – the rejuvenating qualities of the drive

Post by Theresa Harada and Gordon Waitt

Naomi Klein’s (2014) book ‘This changes everything’ documents the lack of political will to address climate change in any meaningful way. While she points to the neo-liberal capitalist system as the underlying problem she also makes some interesting points about why it is so difficult motivate people to change their behaviours in the light of climate change. One of her arguments is that change involves a certain level of discomfort and that many people are unwilling to give up their comfortable high emission lives. This is why government strategies that encourage individuals and households to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by for example, reducing the amount of car driving they do are not particularly successful. We argue here that it is not just physical comfort that is significant but also the emotional comforts that make it difficult to reduce driving for the sake of the environment.

In Australian metropolitan and regional centres everyday car driving is often thought of a ‘necessary evil’ as large numbers of people are locked into automobile dependency. With the rising costs of housing and the inadequacy of public transport many people live long distances from their workplaces and feel they have no choice except to drive a private car. Framed by media reports of the costs of fuel, increasing traffic congestion, injuries and deaths, delays from accidents and increasingly common incidents of road rage (for a recent example in Sydney see driving is often portrayed as a somewhat unpleasant chore that must be endured.

However this focus on the darker qualities of the drive overlooks how for many people car driving has therapeutic qualities in that it offers a private space of comfort and relaxation. The long journey between work and home can transform how we feel by offering a transitional ‘time out’ that is free from the pressures of both workplace and home. The frustrations of being stuck in traffic can be offset by the pleasures of being able to fashion a space that alleviates some of the pressures of everyday life. Whether driving alone or with family or friends, driving can refresh and rejuvenate us.

Feeling good about driving

Feeling good about driving

Firstly, being able to control the temperature through air conditioning means that the interior of the car becomes a quasi-private haven. While still being able to see out and to be seen by other drivers this space nevertheless allows us to generate our own cosy environment. With the windows up and air conditioning on we can block out the outside blistering heat or chilly winds to relax in perfect bodily comfort. With the touch of a button ‘climate control’ can adjust to suit our changing needs. As well, this cocooning eliminates the need to inhale the exhaust fumes of surrounding traffic, the smell of the garbage truck in front, or to listen to the roar of passing cars. Instead we can chose to listen to music which suits our mood, the pace of our driving or the terrain. Many people admit to singing along to their favourite songs in the car, safe in the knowledge that they cannot be heard.

Secondly, the attributes of the journey can modify our mood. Consider for example the different journeys between work and home. The journey to work when freshly showered, fragrant and relaxed, sipping on a freshly made coffee provides an opportunity to plan out the work day, prioritize tasks and anticipate the how to approach people and problems. Then there is the long commute after a hard day at the office. Loosening the necktie, unbuttoning the top button and losing yourself in your favourite music – whether it is hard rock or a Vivaldi opera- the pressures of the workplace, the worries and concerns might recede from thought as the journey unfolds. As you approach home you begin to mentally prepare yourself for what awaits. This might mean you look forward to the warmth and care of significant others, a delicious meal and a familiar environment. Or it could be that you prepare yourself for more complex situations- unresolved personal issues and relationships, conflict or problems outside the realm of the workplace. The attributes of the drive and the length of the journey offer an opportunity to work through a range of emotions and to transition not only from one geographical space to another but from one role to another. As such we can understand how the private car offers a therapeutic hiatus in the increasingly hectic schedules that comprise everyday life.

This is not to say that a quick drive to the local shops to pick up forgotten groceries will have the same effect and not every journey will affect all people equally. We argue that it is necessary to recognise that car driving while often being a source of distress, anger or even rage can also offer the chance for rejuvenation, a tranquil space for transformation of self where we might deal with the challenges of everyday life. These ideas and how car driving becomes a part of caring and family life are also explored further in the following articles:

Waitt, G. Harada, T. and Duffy, M., (2015)  ‘Let’s Have Some Music’: Sound, Gender and Car MobilityMobilities DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2015.1076628

Waitt, G. and Harada, T., (2012) Driving, Cities and Changing ClimatesUrban Studies, 49, 15, 3307-3325.



One thought on “Car spa – the rejuvenating qualities of the drive

  1. Interesting insights into why people do not want to give up car driving. But the question remains: how to reconcile ‘comfort’ and ‘therapeutic’ effects for the individual when the costs – to the environment, society, and other individuals (human and nonhuman) – are so high and so numerous.

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