Misplaced nostalgia in Cars for the pre-Interstate days

On a recent rewatching of the Pixar film Cars, I was reminded of something that bothered me at my first viewing soon after the movie came out in theaters. Here is the issue: one of the key points of the plot is that the small town of Radiator Springs suffered when Interstate 40 opened nearby. But, the film makes clear that the issue is the interstate, not driving in general.

This movie celebrates driving. The main character, Lighting McQueen, is an ascendent race car and he needs to rediscover his love of the road. He does this after getting stuck in Radiator Springs. The combination of relationships, the lanscape, and a reorganizing of priorities helps him see that driving should be fun and relaxed, not just about winning and being brash.

The Interstate represents all that is bad. McQueen gets into trouble when he is accidentally dumped off on the side of the Interstate and gets lost. Radiator Springs is just a shell of itself because all the traffic that used to come through town now just whizzes by on the Interstate. Route 66, the road of quirky local establishments, small towns, and vistas, gives way to the straight and multi-lane highway where people just want to go as fast as they can to get to the real destinations.

The movie says everything went wrong with the Interstate. Its emphasis on efficiency came at the cost of communities. It left places behind; not just urban neighborhoods where new highways bulldozed homes and establishments but also small towns in the middle of the desert. McQueen would have left it behind too if he wasn’t forced to stay.

Is the real problem the Interstate or an American way of life built around driving? Sure, the Interstate promotes faster driving but cars themselves promote a different kind of life, one lived at faster speeds. Small towns can force people to look a little more closely with reduced speed limits and speed traps. But, they cannot force them to stop or to care or not just stop at a fast food joint and filling station and get back to the road quickly.

Once Americans had cars in large numbers, they wanted to go places. The open road offered opportunities. Some will want to drive and take their time. Some will want to get places as quickly as possible. Others just need to get from Point A and Point B to do what they need to do on a daily basis. Some of the car commercials I see today make me laugh as they try to say that a sportier exterior or 50 more horsepower transform the daily commute; how many people today really love driving?

Or, how many Americans really like small towns? They may hold it out as an ideal but the population shifts in the last century – both shaped and echoed by the Interstates – have been to metropolitan areas, particularly suburbs. Radiator Springs might be nostalgic and an interesting place to visit. But, it is not the place many would choose as they prefer other amenities including the jobs present across metropolitan regions.

All together, Radiator Springs and its ilk would not likely spring back to life just because the Interstate disappears. Indeed, it is revived in part by the end of the movie because people can get to it via the Interstate and they are drawn initially by the celebrity of Lightning McQueen. Now, Radiator Springs can be a tourist destination and some residents may even rue the day when new residents want to move in and new development threatens what the community once was. Here, cars are both the problem and the answer and without a broader discussion about cars and driving, Americans may just be stuck between wanting places like Radiator Springs to survive and the need to drive quickly to the next opportunity in life.

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