It is tempting to think that cars, roads, and gasoline were inevitable, a manifestation of destiny, part of some kind of preordained plan, encoded in our cultural DNA, to ensure that everyone in America would drive. But that's the Siren song talking. Thinking that way requires neglecting all the players -- the lobbies, planners, industrialists, inventors, and government bureaucrats -- who were also part of the design to make us drive. It also means ignoring the generations of Americans who lived before the car was invented (presumably George Washington felt American even while riding his horse) and forgetting about the trains, bicycles, streetcars, and electric cars that once got us around. Car companies, rubber companies, oil companies, and their advertisers saturate the landscape with the useful myth: Americans wouldn't be American if we didn't drive.
Obviously America, and being American, amounts to more than a transportation mode, but I also hear the car's appeal to identity. Like personal flags, our automobiles convey more than our physical selves. They also declare in public our wealth (by what we drive), our personality (by how we drive), our sex appeal (by whom we drive with), and our beliefs (by what we affix on our bumpers). We drive automobiles to places that we have to go (work, shopping) and to places that we want to go (dates, vacation, second homes in the country). We freely spend on average 415 hours per year in the car, the equivalent of 2.5 weeks. Necessity is coupled with pleasure and isolation from the madding crowd.
So we drive, conscious of the virtues and blurring the costs. Perhaps it is only later in life that one begins to realize that feeling free isn't the same as actual freedom. Freedom presupposes I'm making my own choices, but what if all the choices are determined by someone else? I might choose a color, model, stereo system, or bumper sticker for my car, but can I practically choose to do without a car at all? Not in today's America: We all have so far to go, we all have to drive. Our chariots of freedom chain us to the politics, economics, and perils of oil.
In fact there are only three groups of Americans today who get by without automobiles -- the young, the urban, and the poor. The poor do not have the money to entertain this part of the American Dream because cars have become expensive. Long gone are Ford's penny-a-mile motorcars. The average American spends 21 percent of her disposable income on transportation, almost as much as food and healthcare combined. A study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) in 2011 found that Americans paid on average $8,388 per year per car, or $22.96 per day. Fixed costs were higher for large cars and SUVs ($21.75 per day), and lower for small cars ($11.76 per day). On top of those lump sums for insurance, license and registration, depreciation, and financing there are the variable costs for gas, maintenance, and tires, calculated at an average 19.64 cents per mile. So, if the average American drives an average 12,000 miles per year, then he or she is also spending another $2,388 per year in gas and maintenance, $6.54 per day, to go places; more when gas prices spike up, causing the prices of everything else to spike up, too.
If anything, the costs of driving are higher in cities because of less parking, pricier fuel, lower fuel efficiencies, higher insurance costs, and more repairs from stopping and starting on traffic-congested, potholed roads. Because driving in town implies so much hassle and expense, millions of urban Americans opt out of having a car altogether and find other ways to identify themselves -- clothes, shoes, jewelry, tattoos, and witty conversation. Moreover, many city denizens enjoy the freedom of choosing between walking, bicycling, or taking the subway to get around town; they delight in the independence that public transportation provides with the same passion with which they disparage the system when it fails them. (Traveling underground, while made convenient by lack of traffic, is a less than ideal way to enjoy the urban tableau.) Density contributes to shorter trip distances, and shorter distances make walking or biking and public transit amenable, even preferable. Some recent data indicate that poor people gravitate to urban areas, despite high costs of living, because in town they can make trades of time for space more cheaply (anything less than $23 per day is a bargain, according to the American Automobile Association) and because cities provide the best chance to get ahead economically. However, even in urban America, the carless are the exception, not the rule. In New York City, with nation-leading density, a world-class public transportation system, and an expanding system of bike lanes, 44 percent of households (including mine) still own a car.
The future lies with the young. Many youngsters born in the twilight of the twentieth century are opting out of the car, at least until they settle down. First-time drivers are getting their licenses later than they used to, not only in America, but in Britain, Canada, France, and South Korea. Well-off sixteen to thirty-four-year-olds in households with over $70,000 in income increased their public-transportation use 100 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to one study. Why? It may be that young people move around more and have families later than their folks did, or it may be, given the economic times, even the wealthy are less able to afford the car that for their parents was a rite of passage. Or perhaps it's just that being stuck in traffic isn't that cool anymore.
Nevertheless, cars have a lot of advantages when oil is cheap, roads are clear, and we have a long way to go. Most people like to get out of town to see the countryside. Others drive across states to visit family or take a new job. Ford's Model T and subsequent generations of automobiles, SUVs, and pickup trucks gave us the chance to trade time for space, to make choices, to enlarge the circle of our interactions. And where did we decide to go?
To the suburbs.
Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs is out today.