Thursday, March 31, 2011

The "Love Affair with the Automobile" is a Lie

You hear it repeated constantly (including this article from Reuters): Americans love cars. The car is so much an integral part of most Americans' daily lives that it makes sense- we spend huge amounts of money and time on them, driving them everywhere, maintaining them, replacing them when they wear out (or become less fashionable), and we wouldn't do any of that without being absolutely in love with cars, right? You'll even hear many people say "I love my car."

This love affair, though? It's a myth. I won't try and claim that there aren't Americans who love their cars- there are certainly plenty of auto enthusiasts out there. Similarly, lots of people love driving- when it's the right sort of driving. But, by and large, the relationship between cars and people in our country isn't a love affair, it's an abusive marriage. We aren't still married to the auto because we're in love, but because we think we're trapped- and meanwhile, our cars are maiming and killing thousands a year and destroying our lives in a hundred ways.

The reason Americans are such prolific motorists is not, by and large, because of a love for the car, but because most of our country is built on the assumption that every adult citizen will drive. Transit is anemic in most of the country. Destinations are sprawled out, uses are segregated and distant from each other, and buildings are set apart by parking lots thrice their size. In the few parts of the country where this is overwhelmingly not the case- San Francisco, New York City, inner parts of Chicago and Portland- we see people turning away from their autos en masse. In those places that are car-centric, we generally love our specific, individual cars because they're the best alternative out of a range of bad options.

Americans have no intrinsic love for the automobile- or, at least, not any more than Europeans or Canadians. Rather, it is the concerted efforts of government policy over the last 70 years that have brought us to where we are today- and, given the choice, the majority of people would change their ways. Let's work on giving them that choice.

1 comment:

Chewie said...

It is really problematic to say that people love cars as if it were a free choice and people aren't constrained by the infrastructure and urban form that are in place.

The idea becomes even more ridiculous when you think about the people who have lost loved ones in car crashes.

I think you put it well: when it comes to transportation most of us seem to choose the most workable option out of a field of bad options.

Here's hoping we rethink the field we've created for ourselves.