Thoughts on a totaled Taurus

“We’re literally stuck up a cul de sac in a cement SUV with an empty gas tank.”
—James Howard Kunstler, quoted in The End of Suburbia

My daughter’s turn signal blinked as she waited impatiently on Prater Way for a string of cars. Then she saw her chance—an oncoming car with a left turn signal on. Thinking that car was turning, she moved into the intersection.

But the oncoming car wasn’t turning left. Its driver was perhaps changing lanes and didn’t see my daughter until it was too late.

When it was evident that the driver wasn’t slowing down, my kid hit the gas, narrowly avoiding a T-boning. The oncoming car whammed into the rear quarter panel of the 1999 Ford Taurus. The car that my older daughter had borrowed for the day from my younger daughter was considered “totaled.”

No one was injured—physically. The damage to the other vehicle wasn’t major, from what I gather. Its driver filled out a police report and left to go phone our insurance company.

My daughter was distraught. The police ticketed her, sure, but even worse, her sister’s Taurus (oddly enough named “Earl"—don’t ask) was no more.

Minus one car meant a hellish new era of transportation puzzles for our family. How would we get to our respective schools, jobs, practices, lessons, meetings and the like?

Nothing like a wreck to make a person think about inefficient, unsustainable suburban lifestyles. We live 11 miles from Rainshadow Charter High, where my son is a junior, and 12 miles from Wooster, where my younger daughter is a senior. We chose these schools as alternatives to the overcrowded high school within walking distance. Having multiple cars makes these choices possible.

Most U.S. cities accommodate the drivers of cars, trucks and SUVs quite nicely. Surviving without a vehicle is nearly impossible for many. This didn’t happen by accident. It was a deliberate strategy of auto, oil and tire companies who began in the 1940s to dismantle attempts at non-petroleum-dependent public transportation.

In 1949, General Motors, Standard Oil (now Chevron) and Firestone Tire were convicted of a decade-long conspiracy to replace urban electric transit systems with bus lines. The corporations were fined $5,000 each. (Nowadays that’s less than one-tenth the price of a 2007 Escalade.) It was the maximum penalty under the antitrust laws of the era.

GM’s treasurer, also convicted, was fined $1.

This hand-slap didn’t stop GM from buying up electric-powered rail systems and converting them to gas or shutting them down in the 1950s, according to “Road to Perdition,” an article in the Nation magazine (

The auto/oil industry’s manipulation of city design is also covered in the 2004 documentary, The End of Suburbia, online at YouTube. The film traces the development of our automobile obsessions. Stalled by the Great Depression, the American migration to the ‘burbs took off after World War II. The shift was fueled by corporate manipulation and subsidized by taxpayers who paid for the highways required to beef up auto, gas and tire sales. Now we often live far from our places of work and play.

I don’t really want to replace Earl. Steph plans to attend a California university next year that’s designed its campus for pedestrians and cyclists. She won’t need a car.

My older daughter now has a job not terribly far from her apartment. She tools around town on an $85 bike. No insurance. No car payments.

With that in mind, my husband and I dusted off our bikes last week, preparing to brave the less-than-friendly roads of Sparks and Reno on our daily migrations.

And then it snowed.