catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 19 :: 2006.10.20 — 2006.11.03


Pastoral perspectives on transportation

Eco-justice holds together environmental sustainability and social justice. Those aren't conflicting agendas. If we do a good job of caring for the earth, we'll do better with people, and if we do well at social justice, we'll be gentler on the earth.

Is that a hard notion to grasp?

Tom & Ray, the "Car Talk" guys, provide a wonderful example in one of their newspaper columns. They were carrying on a conversation about testing older drivers to be sure that they are still safe on the road. "Rob" wrote in with this comment:

Our autocentric development of the past 50 years doesn't just mean that seniors lose personal freedom when they stop driving. It means that they lose their very ability to be self-sufficient. …What we really should be asking is not whether senior drivers should be tested, but why we have created a society where those without cars cannot live meaningful lives.

In our families and in our parishes, we see older or disabled folk who face a profound loss of independence and opportunity when they give up the car keys. Often, we are less aware of those who can't participate in jobs and community activities simply because they can't afford to drive.

The fact of the matter is, the entry fee for full membership in US society includes the costs of mobility. For most families, those costs include car ownership, insurance, gas, repairs and parking. If we begin to structure our communities in ways that don't demand automobiles (more compact neighborhoods, better public transit, less segregation of residential and business zones), it will be easier for people to make choices about their lifestyles that are better environmentally, and less financially demanding for the family. Rethinking the transportation component of our social structures brings important benefits to the environment, and it brings options for a more just and fulfilling life to all people—including the elderly, the poor and the disabled.

At a meeting the other day, a friend spoke of the phrase, "the indignity of public transportation."

Status is an important variable in whether people will make use of existing mass transit options. Along with questions of convenient routes and timetables, there is a significant image factor in decisions about how to get from place to place.

Taking the bus is seen by many as inconsistent with their social presentation as affluent and influential. Rail transportation (subways, light rail and commuter rail) carries less of a stigma. Taxis, shuttles and limos have their own niches in the perceptions of status.

And as we all know, there is an elaborate social hierarchy that comes with the types of car that we drive. (Carpooling, by the way, probably is seen by most as a step lower on the status ladder than driving alone, whatever the type of car.)

How we get there seems to be almost as important to our sense of self as where we are going.

Not many pastors will feel inspired to preach on transportation policy. But pastors (and educators, and counselors) can address the critical themes that undergird the policy decisions.

  • Limited mobility relates to pastoral issues about fear and anxiety at times of life transitions.
  • Limited transportation options are a justice issue in matters of economics and housing patterns.
  • The allocation of public money between transportation and other uses has a clear social justice component.
  • The way we link our self-worth to modes of transportation is an indictment of our materialistic society. The quest for transportation status warps the lives of our members, with impacts on finances, schedules, and lack of community.
  • And our need for cars—whether for practical mobility or social status—is a central part of our environmental crisis though direct energy use, impacts on climate change, and urban sprawl.

Transportation touches on many parts of our lives, both individually and as a society. Shouldn't we be talking about it in church?

Rev. Peter Sawtell is the director of Eco-Justice Ministries (, an organization that helps churches answer the call to care for all of God's creation, and develop ministries that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability.

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