If you’re a person of a certain age you may remember the “Sunday drive.” Not to be confused with driving on Sunday, the Sunday drive meant climbing into the car with your family, for no particular purpose other than to get out of town, take in the scenery, and enjoy the pleasure of moving.
Although it may not top of your list of leisure activities this summer, in mid-century America, the Sunday drive was as common as wearing hats and smoking in public places. The custom of riding out on a Sunday, long a privilege of the wealthy, became widespread in the 1920s, when mass production of automobiles put cars in the hands of the middle class. Between 1917 and 1923, 15 million Model Ts, rolled off Ford’s assembly line and became a common sight along country roads, packed with families in their Sunday best.
Sunday driving remained popular for decades and faded out in the 1970s. Conventional wisdom blames its demise on the gas shortages of that decade, but I’m inclined to believe leisure driving was the victim of a changing built environment.
Seventy years ago, American cities and towns were denser, and the countryside was far more rural. The land between settlements was cultivated and sparsely inhabited. Unless you were a farmer, rancher, lumberjack or homesteader, you probably lived in a city or village. Daily life took place within a small radius, with journeys made on foot, bus or trolley. Cars were not essential component of the transportation system. In fact, in these early years, departments of motor vehicles classified them as “pleasure vehicles.”
Now, they are officially known as “passenger vehicles,”—a more accurate term, since most of the pleasure has drained out of the experience of driving. After a week of sitting behind the wheel, idling and turning, dropping off and picking up, 21st century Americans might find it difficult to imagine loading the family into the car on a Sunday afternoon and heading out for a drive just for the fun of it.
Growing up in a small New England city in the 1960s, my parents owned two cars. My mother used hers for shopping and other errands, which almost never involved chauffeuring children. So it was a thrill, after a week of walking between school, home and downtown, to pile into the back of the station wagon with my brothers and sisters. Sunday drives usually held the promise of an ice cream stop, but the real draw was speed, and the opportunity to see something completely different—to cruise under a forest canopy or roll past fields, moving through places that seemed exotic, yet were not more than a few miles from our home, just beyond the edge of town.
That edge is long gone, blurred by decades of sprawl. The city I grew up in, like most in America, has thinned out, spilling its contents into the surrounding farmland. The destinations we used to walk to now line the roads we cruised along. Elementary schools, department stores, movie theaters emptied out, many cleared away for parking lots.
What lay beyond town now is not very different from what’s left inside. The Sunday Drive experience relied on the novelty of riding together, but it also drew its appeal from the contrast between urban and rural, between the inside of cities and their outskirts.
It may seem strange for an environmentalist to champion leisure driving, but I say bring back the Sunday drive. Let’s make driving the inessential, fun and occasional practice it once was by restoring density and walkability to our cities and towns.
This may not be as far off as it seems. Walking down a street in Portland’s Pearl District a few years ago, l noticed a rather snappy and completely impractical Zip Car. Not designed for the typical urban car share run to Ikea or Target, the only thing this vehicle was good for was to get out of town and cruise.
I'm not sure whether sports car convertibles are common in the Zip Car fleet, but I would consider them an indicator of a healthy urban environment like the Pearl District, where average vehicle miles traveled per month tops out at 727, compared to 2,000-3,000 for the typical American suburb (Source: Cool Climate Network.) The Pearl District, and adjacent downtown Portland connected by streetcar, have almost everything residents need, including two full service supermarkets. The only thing not within easy reach of the Pearl, are vast tracts of open land—an entirely different and inviting world to cruise through on an occasional Sunday afternoon.