Like most people in this country, I was raised with the constantly repeated assumption that everything is more convenient in a car. Unlike many, I did have some counterexamples: my dad's mostly car-free existence in Manhattan. The low barrier to basic teenage mobility at my dad's (a couple of subway tokens) vs. my mom's (hours of training for the driver's license, hundreds of dollars for the car, and constantly having to pay for gas, repairs and insurance). Beach traffic on the LIE being worse than beach crowds on the LIRR. Being able to change a cassette on a bus without rear-ending the car in front of me.
Here's another moment of clarity for me: I had been living in Chicago for half a year, getting around pretty well by foot, bike, L, bus and Metra, but still with the sense that people with cars had it much easier than I did. I envied the attention that the WBEZ announcers paid to the motorists who took 35 minutes to get from Mannheim to the Post Office.
I was excited, then, when I needed to move and rented a car to help with it. The car was definitely helpful; it would have been a major pain to move all that stuff without one. It only took a few hours, and since it was a 24-hour rental, I figured I'd go play with the car for the rest of the time, and enjoy my new mobility. I knew the first thing I wanted: to buy a good chair for my new bedroom. I headed off to the strip malls west of town.
I then discovered how difficult it can be to find a particular strip mall store (I think this was an Office Max) if you've never been there before. I was tooling down one of those six-lane boulevards on the West Side, and I saw a sign for Office Max, but I was too far over to the left! By the time I got into the right lane, I had overshot the Office Max. This particular boulevard was divided, so I had to drive south until I found a place to turn around, drive back north of the Office Max, turn around again, and make sure I was in the right lane when I got to the store.
I eventually got the chair, but then I got stuck in traffic getting it home, and I still had to drive out to Midway to return the car. What had started out as an exciting exploration of freedom turned into an hour or two of anxiety and frustration. I actually don't remember if I got the car back on time, or if I wound up keeping it for another day.
This was probably my first experience of Strip Mall Overshoot, but it wouldn't be my last. It may seem small, but it's just one of the many ways that cars are less convenient than other forms of transportation, even for transporting furniture. This was a small chair, it fit into a relatively small box, and at that point in my life I could have easily carried it a mile. If I had known where to buy a chair like that within a mile of my house, I could have just gone and gotten it. I could also have taken it on the Metra, and maybe even the bus.
At that point, the seed of an idea was planted in my head, and here is the fruit of that seed: there is nothing inherently convenient about cars, or about any vehicle. It is the system that makes them convenient, and that system includes both the vehicle and the infrastructure. Provide unlimited, subsidized "free" car infrastructure, and cars will be convenient. Run buses often, everywhere, all the time, and buses will be convenient. Put everything in a giant skyscraper with computer-controlled elevators, and elevators will be convenient. Trains, walking, bayou boats, swinging from vines, conveyor belts, scuba diving: whatever it is, if you throw enough money at the infrastructure you can make it convenient.
It's not useful to argue about which mode is more convenient. The better question is which system is more efficient, pollutes less, kills less people, can serve the largest segment of society, and can bring people together instead of isolating them.