My Feelings About Cars
Investigating the love/hate relationship with my car
by Scott Teresi
I've been raised to be skeptical of the value of cars for short trips. I'm not sure when this began to affect my behavior. My family used to make fun of me for driving to the grocery store, literally 500 yards from our house, but I kept on doing it because it was faster or more comfortable than walking. When I finally lived in a way where I wasn't allowed to have a car about 95% of the time (I had to park 20 minutes from my dorm in grad school), and I bought a bike, I started to really appreciate how well that type of lifestyle worked out and how great it made me feel. When I moved back to the outskirts of a small town (Hiram), one thing I didn't like was I couldn't bike anywhere except for recreation. I have a favorite quote I used to keep in my room... I wish I knew what newspaper I got it from or what its sources were. "By one estimate the average American spends 1,600 hours a year either driving or earning the money to support a car and drives an average of 6,000 miles a year. That works out to be about four miles travelled per hour spent, the equivalent of a normal walking pace." That suggests that you could walk everywhere (to work, to visit people, etc.) and come out exactly the same financially (and further ahead in other ways) if you were able to forgo using a car and forgo working a full 40 hours a week. I think they overestimated a lot on that, but it still makes a point that has affected me since then.
One large negative aspect of cars is the cost of owning and maintaining them. I think car costs may be the second-biggest expense for the average single person (after housing). Maybe this could be termed the "hobo argument"--a hobo doesn't have to worry about any of the responsibilities of buying, paying for, and maintaining a house. He just goes about living his life, traveling freely, living simply. This has some tremendous benefits, but it also has some extremely bad qualities, such as the problem of raising a family. So I believe that owning a car makes financial sense (as does owning a house), but has tradeoffs regarding the investment of time and effort involved. Similarly, buying a house makes financial sense, but compared to renting, it takes more time and effort. (To the extent that you enjoy working on a house or enjoy cars for other reasons, then that partially or totally negates the time/effort trade-off.)
The crux of my financial arguments over things (most any large purchase) is that I don't like working that much and would rather not have to at all! I believe people can live very happily with very few material possessions. Whatever I spend money on I would like to have some sort of intrinsic value to me, and contribute positively to my life experience and happiness. This feeling was stronger back when I only made enough money to live on. Now that I've been making a comfortable amount, it's not so much a concern really. But old lifestyles die hard.
ANYWAY, this is not my main argument! While I can endlessly dissect things financially and appear to attach great importance to money as a result (the calculations are easy), I dearly want to move beyond the financial argument. The core of my feelings against cars does not come from their financial cost but from the terribly destructive effect I feel they've had on society. (I feel similarly strongly about the Iraq war, for instance.) I'm very jealous of all sorts of things about Europe, one of the big ones being the atmosphere of towns where people are encouraged just out of long-running habit and ingrained lifestyle to congregate rather than separate and drive away. Good mass transportation not only helps low-income people (and anyone else) live full lives without depending on a car (money pit with wheels), but also incentivizes large numbers of people to live within an environmentally sustainable distance of each other, which snowballs and provides all sorts of benefits to society and helps stimulate urban growth. I am saddened by the stories of U.S. car companies buying up and ripping out the rail lines in our cities. Likewise, stories of days gone by when people could take a half hour to walk a block down the street because other people were out and about and wanted to talk to you are heartbreaking. As a result of these things, I hold cars in great contempt. Our country made a horrendous mistake. It embraced the practically free energy in a tank of gas, gave tax breaks to the auto companies, and created the icon of cars and individual freedom and the open road and the sense of identity a car gives you, and as a result we've suffered incalculable infrastructure and planning problems and societal dysfunctions. People barely consider any alternative means of transportation. We'll overcome this in 100 years, but in the mean time we've sacrificed a wonderful, more natural lifestyle we could've had if cars had not been so preferred.
Of course energy is another issue: a typical car uses several hundred gallons of gas and creates on the order of a couple tons of carbon dioxide each year, spread out into the atmosphere. Then there's the environmental degradation and pollution caused by retrieving and processing the materials, building the car, employing the people to build it, and disposing of the materials.
While these opinions may be "extreme" or "out there", that shouldn't imply that they're bad. Don't put me down for it! Yes, there are problems with an Ohio lifestyle if you completely don't own a car, so I do own a car (though there are ways to deal with most of these problems, for instance renting a car for infrequent long trips, and living close to your work, entertainment, and shopping areas). Also, you can't let an aversion to driving a car get in the way of experiencing life. My feeling is simply that for trips which aren't of much of a redeeming value to me, I would prefer not to use a car. I like taking a bike. Trivial trips to campus and to the grocery suddenly gain extra value (personally and materially) when I use my bike to get there. Even after riding my bike for years, I still get an adrenaline rush from it. There are so many other things I enjoy about biking too: the exercise, the variety of sights, the freedom of movement, the spontaneity, the liberation of simplicity, just being outside, and the list goes on.
While I don't like what cars have done to the world and to our lifestyles, on the other hand I actually love my car and can barely imagine not owning one. I can understand people who feel a personal connection to a car. If you just walk around it, knock on the body panels, spend some time fixing something, or get a feel for its weight, size, and power, I'm in awe at the fact that I own such an enormously versatile machine. It's mine, literally my biggest material possession! I like going someplace cool and just hanging out in the car. The car provides you with so many comforts: radio stations and music, air conditioning and heat, windows all around you, mirrors, lights for nighttime, storage for all sorts of stuff, comfortable seats you can recline in and rest whenever you like, seats for your friends, a small power generator you can use even in the middle of the wilderness, and any time you feel like, you can put your foot on the gas and fly off someplace completely different. You don't have to think about where, it'll take you anywhere!
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