American Hate Cars
Americans hate their cars. They hate being in their cars, maintaining their cars, filling their cars with gas, buying cars. The despise traffic, inconsiderate drivers, buying car insurance and more than anything else the DMV. The question then is why do so many people still drive so often?
We did not always hate cars. In fact, not that long ago we used to love them. Cars let families move out of crowded, dangerous inner cities into the suburbs. Cars were and expression of freedom on the open road. A car was a safe, reliable and private ride to work, school or the store. In fact it is still all those things, but more than ever people want out.
Well not exactly out. Better would be to say that people are going to ever greater lengths to mitigate the downside of driving. Most driving is done to and from work. It is lost time stuck in traffic, and it is remarkable the lengths people will go to in order to regain some of the value of that time. No longer is it just the radio, vehicles now come with an entire entertainment system. People eat, do their hair, hold teleconferences, send texts, all while driving. Distracted driving is the fastest growing cause of collisions.
Cars no longer represent freedom of movement, but have become moving prisons.
In theory, the only thing a driver ought to be doing behind the wheel is safely getting the car from place to place. But, with some people spending an hour or more each way, and far too much of that time crawling along through traffic, there is an irresistible temptation to use the time to do things other then watch the break lights of the car in front of you. Cars no longer represent freedom of movement, but have become moving prisons.
Yet the vast majority of people continue to drive. The best reason for this is that there is not a good alternative. Oh, there are alternatives, but they are not good ones. lets look at some and see why, in their current form they just have not caught on.
Walking is the most obvious first choice. After all all you need is a decent pair of shoes – and a home close enough to work. It is that home that is the real kicker. Newer and smaller cities built up based on the idea that people would drive into work. They have commercial and industrial centers well separated from protected residential neighborhoods. Many older cities still have a good mix of residential and commercial. These walkable cities (San Francisco or New York for example) are great for those who live in them, but housing costs are high and so is density. It is cheaper to buy a car and drive it an hour into work then it is to live within walking distance. There is also the space issue. People need a lot of space. Space that is at a premium in walkable neighborhoods. In the past people could make due with very little private space and instead rely on shared public spaces. But America has seen the death of shared public space. Bicycle commuting extends your range a little, but suffers from its own set of infrastructure challenges.
Public transportation is another alternative that looks better on paper then it looks in real life. Public transit suffers from many problems:
Limited time and destination: Lucky commuters will have a ride to work without too many transfers, but what about church, the gym, a restaurant for a romantic dinner? If you live too far from a major metro area, you may get only one or two rides a day that go where you need to go. Need to work late to finish that big presentation? Sorry, you can’t get home tonight.
slow and unreliable: See the video. Depending on the employer people can be late on occasion, but I think there are very few that will tolerate the frequent long delays found on most major bus lines. This translates to taking earlier busses further extending the commute. As slow as traffic goes, it still beats Public transit in both speed and reliability.
Expensive: People are expensive and even when cost can be spread among lots of people the cost of drivers and maintenance crews is usually more then the cost of gas. Some may argue that I should look at the total cost of owning a car instead, but unless you are very dedicated or very lucky, even super commuters still own, maintain, and ensure a car so they can get to the grocery store, or grandma’s house.
Public: see the death of shared public space.
There are solutions out there. We can restore confidence in public spaces, build public transportation with all income levels in mind, improve and expand infrastructure, and take advantage of automation in transportation. But before any of this will happen American need to realize that the love of cars that they had in the 1950’s and 60’s is gone. Politicians, city planners, entrepreneurs and manufacturers all still believe that we love our cars and would never want anything else. If you hate spending time in your car let the world know.