Five Media Myths That Perpetuate Car Culture

Another day, another news story, another media outlet wielding an old saw like this one: high gas prices are a political problem for the president because Americans “love their cars.” American car culture, fed by everything from our sprawled out landscape to a daily bombardment of car ads, is kept alive by journalists’ use of a set of hackneyed narratives. Beyond clichés, these story lines represent a collection of myths that shore up an unhealthy, unequal, and ultimately unsustainable car system.

"Americans Love Their Cars" -- and that's why we pollute our air, destroy our cities, and make ourselves fat? Image: ##http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/04/21/celebration-of-vintage-and-retro-design/##Smashing Magazine##

Americans love their cars. A Google search for this statement returns 2.8 times as many hits as “Americans love their pets” and 6.3 times as many as “Americans love their guns”. Yes, there will always be automotive enthusiasts and drivers fond of their cars. But our car culture is both shifting and conflicted: The last time they were surveyed by Pew, Americans saying they saw their cars as “something special”, more than just a means of transportation, had dropped from 43 to 23 percent. Americans may need their cars in our transit-starved and poorly planned landscape, but with mind-numbing traffic and volatile gas prices, the luster is off the chrome.

Teens can’t wait to grab the car keys. The press persists in romanticizing a teen’s first trip to the DMV as the ultimate coming of age ritual. But it’s their middle-aged parents who are more likely to be champing at the bit, fed up with schlepping their kids and steeped in nostalgia about the freedom they felt when they first drove. But this generation is different. Already connected by smartphones and computers, and graduating into a terrible job market, young people are less car-happy than their parents were at the same age. Today’s teens are delaying getting their licenses and purchasing vehicles, and college students are more interested in living in urban centers where they can be less car-dependent.

The economy depends on the auto industry. The popular, business, and political media alike echo the fallacy that a healthy US economy depends on a healthy auto industry. This chorus helped justify the 2009 bailouts of GM and Chrysler. But the auto industry knows that the dependency is reversed:  it needs economic growth, tax breaks and subsidies, and vibrant credit markets to sell cars. A nation more reliant on transit and active transportation would be one in which households had lower debt and more discretionary income to spend on housing, leisure, and other products, enriching a wide swath of industries. It would also be a nation, in the next downturn, less hostage to how a single industry’s fate might affect entire communities and supply chains.

The America car industry can return to its former glory. This theme, sounded in Eminem’s paean to the resurrection of Detroit in recent Chrysler ads, is a media favorite. It resounds in stories about car companies that succeed because they “build the cars that consumers want”. The reality is that profitability in an industry so mature, when most families already own multiple vehicles, requires money be made mostly on auto loans and extended warranties. Toyota, which rose to #1 in an era when the press blamed Detroit’s troubles on its having the wrong products, has been making more on car loans than on selling cars. The auto industry’s next heyday, if there is one, will be as a finance business, not a manufacturing or transportation business as it was at its, and the American economy’s, mid-20th century glory days.

We can’t fix the car system because poor people will suffer.  Raise the gas tax? Institute congestion pricing? Eliminate oil subsidies? Limit risky offshore drilling? The news media regularly regurgitates the idea that these policies would make driving more costly and that this would necessarily hurt the working poor most of all. Of course, no group suffers under our current car system more than the poor, who devote a heftier chunk of their budgets to transportation than the rest of us and who are disproportionately victims of auto sales fraud, predatory lending, discriminatory insurance pricing, and racial profiling in traffic violations. Simple solutions like redirecting oil and auto subsidies to transit improvements and exempting the poor from new gas taxes would increase equality of mobility.

These myths about our car-dependent transportation system, and the industries that benefit from it, too often go unquestioned by journalists and opinion leaders. Advocates for transportation equity and for a modern transportation system must challenge these assumptions. Rather than let ourselves be paralyzed by these truisms or lulled into thinking these myths harmless, we must tackle these obstacles standing between us and a better transportation future.

Catherine Lutz, a Brown University anthropologist, and Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).

  • Anonymous

    good points
    has there been a survey where people have ben asked whether they would give up their cars if they could do all (or most) of what they needed w/o one? If you answer yes, you don’t love your car.

  • jd_x

    Excellent article. You could also add to this list that we love to claim that the car equals freedom, the (supposedly) most sacred of all American ideals. And sure, there are certainly some places that only a car can get you, but the majority of driving is done in relatively dense urban and suburban cities where there are other options (or easily could be if we decided to prioritize them). Further, when I look at everyone stuck in traffic, spending 1000s of dollars every year on gas, insurance, repairs, etc, destroying our air, depleteing our natural resources (which utterly rely on other countries, especially those that are the antithesis of freedom), utterly destroying what otherwise would be a mostly quiet soundscape, and killing or maiming millions every year both through accidents and contributing t the obesity epidemic, I find it truly hypocritical to call that freedom.

    On the other hand, being able to walk or bicycle for the vast majority of your trips, now that is freedom.

  • jd_x

    Excellent article. You could also add to this list that we love to claim that the car equals freedom, the (supposedly) most sacred of all American ideals. And sure, there are certainly some places that only a car can get you, but the majority of driving is done in relatively dense urban and suburban cities where there are other options (or easily could be if we decided to prioritize them). Further, when I look at everyone stuck in traffic, spending 1000s of dollars every year on gas, insurance, repairs, etc, destroying our air, depleteing our natural resources (which utterly rely on other countries, especially those that are the antithesis of freedom), utterly destroying what otherwise would be a mostly quiet soundscape, and killing or maiming millions every year both through accidents and contributing t the obesity epidemic, I find it truly hypocritical to call that freedom.

    On the other hand, being able to walk or bicycle for the vast majority of your trips, now that is freedom.

  • jd_x

    Excellent article. You could also add to this list that we love to claim that the car equals freedom, the (supposedly) most sacred of all American ideals. And sure, there are certainly some places that only a car can get you, but the majority of driving is done in relatively dense urban and suburban cities where there are other options (or easily could be if we decided to prioritize them). Further, when I look at everyone stuck in traffic, spending 1000s of dollars every year on gas, insurance, repairs, etc, destroying our air, depleteing our natural resources (which utterly rely on other countries, especially those that are the antithesis of freedom), utterly destroying what otherwise would be a mostly quiet soundscape, and killing or maiming millions every year both through accidents and contributing t the obesity epidemic, I find it truly hypocritical to call that freedom.

    On the other hand, being able to walk or bicycle for the vast majority of your trips, now that is freedom.

  • jeffersonius

     We have to make bicycling sexier than driving a car.  Why don’t bicycle manufacturers make slick commercials to advertise the health and freedom you get by riding a bike?

  • cyclist

    Or as I like to say, people love owning a nice car but they hate driving it.

  • drawfromthehip

    Thanks for all the excellent points; especially this one: “Simple solutions like redirecting oil and auto subsidies to transit
    improvements and exempting the poor from new gas taxes would increase
    equality of mobility.” Urban transit systems are always “suffering” from budget issues and cutting services – and of course the first services cut are transit lines in and out of the poorest areas. As long as our economy continues these oppressive cycles –  like ghettoizing the urban poor – we will be living in a racist and unsustainable society.

  • OctaviusIII

    Odd arguments.  You write that it’s a myth that the American economy depends on the auto industry, then say its downfall would dramatically affect communities and supply chains; which is it?  You also write that “exempting the poor from new gas taxes” is an easy solution.  It most certainly is not, and in the interim the poor would suffer under the disruptive transition.  I’m all for improved transit, but those two myths sound a lot like reality to me.

  • OctaviusIII

    Odd arguments.  You write that it’s a myth that the American economy depends on the auto industry, then say its downfall would dramatically affect communities and supply chains; which is it?  You also write that “exempting the poor from new gas taxes” is an easy solution.  It most certainly is not, and in the interim the poor would suffer under the disruptive transition.  I’m all for improved transit, but those two myths sound a lot like reality to me.

  • Robert

     Jeffersonious –

    Because the bicycle industry is probably 1,000,000th the size of the auto industry.  The bicycle industry is basically meaningless in the media markets and has little to no political pull.  I’ve never seen a bicycle advertisement on TV and yet I bet I’ve seen 10’s of thousands of car ads in my lifetime.  

  • Anonymous

     I”d read somewhere that GM was making a lot more money selling auto loans than it was selling actual cars. They could have literally shut down their auto division in the US and been even MORE profitable. Go figure.

  • Anonymous

    Agree.  I support this article, but the poor really are disproportionately affected by anti-car measures.  It’s the reason why spikes in gas prices have some reverberations in the political climate.   Poor people often live far from urban centers and rely on their cars to get to work.  Remedying this will involve either relocating the poor closer to their jobs or building massive transportation projects, neither of which are cheap or easy.  And I don’t know how one could exempt the poor from gas taxes.  Give them a special “poor card” to use at the pump?  Make them submit their receipts for a tax rebate in April?  Neither seems to be a workable solution.

  • Yeti Hugger

    Unfortunately, year after year, Muni takes me fewer places, more slowly, during more limited hours, and at a higher price.

    I don’t love my car, but at least it still gets me where I need to go. Muni can no longer do that.

  • Anonymous

    Quoting Walkable DFW: “The American love affair with the car…it’s an awful lot like Stockholm Syndrome.” 

  • Caleb

    The proverbial elephant in this room is land use.  Until we get a grip on making sensible land use policies (or any at all!), these problems will persist.  Namely, development patterns will make transit expensive to implement (per rider), municipalities will have their hands forced in subsidising driving, the poor will be priced out of living near to where they work, and the “Americans want to live in suburbs” myth will go on (since, in many regions, that will be the only arrangement offered.)

  • MR

    I don’t even understand “Of course, no group suffers under our current car system more than the poor, who devote a heftier chunk of their budgets to transportation than the rest of us.”  Increasing gas prices to fund transit is just screwing over the rural and suburban poor for the sake of the urban outskirts poor.

  • AlexB

    Do we think the US economy depends on the auto industry, or is the support for GM, Chrysler and Ford a sort of misguided welfare for the worst economy in the country – Michigan.

    It’s a good idea to raise the gas tax because it will eventually lower the cost of gas, or at least keep it more stable, which helps the poor.  This might sound counter-intuitive, but here’s why: The inflexible demand we have created for oil is what is responsible for the huge increase in the cost of gas at the pump – about a dollar/gallon increase in the past year.  If the gas tax is increased, it’s going to go up much less than that – say 5-10 cents at the most.  It’s neglible in comparison to the swings created by volatile supply and demand. 

    If we took the proceeds from that tax, and applied them towards mass transit in an effective way, the price of gas would not rise as much in the future because people could switch to mass transit at the drop of a hat, reducing the overall demand for gas when such behavior happens over thousands or millions of people.  Mass transit options in the cities help people in rural areas with no mass transit because it will reduce overall demand and therefore cost.  For example, someone noticed gas went up 20 cents and decides to take transit a couple days a week to work.  It doesn’t matter if the price increased because of Middle Eastern volatility or a driving boom in China.  In a city with tons of people doing the same thing, that’s a ton of oil that went unpurchased and did not contribute to increasing demand and therefore price. 

    Why has the price for a barrel of oil started dropping? Because people realized Americans do have a breaking point, they do have some public transit options, and will use them at a certain point.  The actions of the government actually have very little effect on the cost of gasoline, except those long term policies that have thus far given Americans no other choice except to drive.  People actually will stop driving if it costs too much, even “rich” Americans.

  • icarus12

     I love my bike and my car for the same reason: they take me different places easily that I could not get to otherwise.  For me both are together a ticket to freedom, the one in the densely packed parts of the city, and the other to the hills and beaches and suburbs beyond.  Why do more New Yorkers now own cars than a few years ago?  Because if you can afford to garage and otherwise keep a car, you love it for mobility it gives you.

  • bigwheels

    I agree. They should hire Leonardo DiCaprio to ride a bike to market its comeback. If Derek Jeter can make SUVs seem hot, then Leo can make bikes scorching. 

    Sch winnnnnnnnnnnnnn! I’ll take that bicycle built for two. Put that in your basket and pedal it to the bank, the mall, the market, or anywhere else. 

    The bike is the earliest entree into the adult world that most children relish as a highly anticipated rite of passage. Why not embrace the bike with the same level of enthusiasm r?

    Well written article. Keep them coming.

  • Tom

    I have to agree with Octavius III: the supporting arguments are dated, poor and sometimes contradictory.  The census for 2010 is out, why are you citing reports from 2006?  Also, Pew did not list this deciding reason to drive, superiority.  Q: “Do you feel like a winner/a success when you drive?”, or, “Do you think others see you as a winner/ a success if you drive?”.
    What famous person said: “Anyone over thirty who doesn’t own a car is a loser.”

  • “Anyone over thirty who doesn’t own a car is a loser.” 

    I recall that Margaret Thatcher said “Any man over thirty who rides the bus is a failure”. She said  that when the North Sea oil was plentiful.

  •  GM isn’t the only such business (and GM’s real problem was that GMAC got into the sketchy mortgage business, but another story). Sears has been break-even on retail but big guns on their credit card for many years running.

  •  The rural and suburban poor need to move.

  •  Amen. I’d add one more: that your sex appeal is directly linked to the quality of your ride. When you see how deep these perceptions run, it is truly daunting to consider uprooting them. 

    Here’s more food for thought on the perceptions that challenge, support, and result from cycling: http://www.planbike.com/2011/05/does-cycling-epiphany-hold-water.html

  • Anonymous

    Agreed, but I don’t think that’s the issue. If everybody only had cars for those one-off trips that public transit, bicycling, or walking couldn’t take you to, our problems would be solved. Instead, we use cars for day-to-day routines, and that is what needs to change. We need to acknowledge all the downsides of cars (which are completely ignored in our society and where instead cars are utterly glorified) and then, with this in mind, use them with care when they truly are the only thing we can use. Right now we are *abusing* them, and that is the problem.

  • Davistrain

    For many Americans, it’s not a “love affair” with the automobile, it’s a “marriage of convenience”.   Bikes are OK if you’re not going too far or carrying too much.  Transit is safer than a bicycle, but often does not run where and/or when it will be useful.  But a car can go a long way, carry lots of stuff, and is available 24/7. The idea of cars as “chick magnets” goes all the way back to the 1920’s, when a girlfriend might be considered a real jewel if she didn’t mind being taken home on the streetcar.
    One of these day’s I’ll post my comment about how automobiles cater to some less than
    admirable human qualities: Selfishness, impatience and laziness.  And we could add, wanting to arouse feelings of envy in others..

  • Lyle

    We don’t have to exempt the poor from gas taxes.  If we want to make being poor less onerous, we should just increase the Earned Income Credit on the federal taxes or use some other form of wealth transfer.  Poor people who drive cars do not need to be subsidized at the expense of poor people who use transit.  Poor car drivers who choose to live closer to their destinations should be rewarded for that choice. 

  • Lyle

    Bad land use policies and automobile over-use are a vicious cycle that can (and should) be attacked from both directions.  Higher fuel taxes would force better land use.

  • The issue with all of these myths is that various insiders, patricians, and other Very Serious People love to say what the people really think and how they really feel. Since those are the types who routinely spend $50+ per person on dinners, they’re not really in touch with anyone outside a narrow social class, and therefore keep making mistakes. When people point out the mistakes to them, they dig their heels – especially if those people sound like hippies.

  • If we want to make being poor less onerous, we should do things that benefit the poor: universal health care, universal access to education, unemployment benefits, reductions in air pollution (including a gas tax hike!), social-service mass transit. No need to keep making air breathers pay for cars’ damage.

  • If we want to make being poor less onerous, we should do things that benefit the poor: universal health care, universal access to education, unemployment benefits, reductions in air pollution (including a gas tax hike!), social-service mass transit. No need to keep making air breathers pay for cars’ damage.

  • KSandness

    Another point is the expense of owning a car. When I moved from Portland, Oregon, where I was car-free for 10 years, to Minneapolis, where the transit system is inadequate for everything but getting to work, I found that my standard of living dropped, despite my income and cost of living being approximately the same as before. The reason: I was spending thousands of dollars per year to fuel, insure, and maintain my car, even though I had received a “free” car from a relative.

  • Will

    We need this type of excellent commentary to hit the broadcasts, radio & TV.  A tough sell since most networks are heavily supported by auto industry ads, but necessary to tell the truth.  Any chance Current or NPR would hire the authors to produce a piece on the issue?

  • Joe R.

    If you tried to market bikes that look like those in the following article, your idea would definitely have a chance:

    http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2010/09/the-velomobile-high-tech-bike-or-low-tech-car.html
     
     

  • PC

    To struggle against an excessively car-centric society is a good and noble thing, but please believe me when I tell you that you will never win that struggle by employing the sort of sloppy and/or wishful thinking exemplified by this article.

    It is a bit ironic that the authors of the piece attribute the widespread assumption that teenagers are eager to drive to projection on the part of their middle-aged parents, for it seems that the real projection of desire and frustration onto kids by adults is being done by the authors themselves: feeling imprisoned by a culture that expects them to subject themselves daily to traffic jams and dreary highway commutes, they find it hard to believe that anybody would be eager to take to the road. Yet teenagers in America still do want to drive. They think that driving is fun, not because they are victims of false consciousness but because driving IS fun. For them. Even gridlock can be a good time for a seventeen-year-old when she has her friends in the car, bullshitting and people-watching and listening to music, and nobody has any pressing need to be anywhere by a certain time.

    The teenaged driver feels liberated in her car even as the harried adult driver feels trapped, and they’re both right. It’s really not that difficult an idea to wrap one’s head around. Simplistic Ideologies R Coffins.

    (And along those lines: as “romantic” as bike dates can be–and I will gladly testify that they can be–there is still something undeniably to be said for a VW Bus with a folding bed, especially for young people who may not have the undisturbed use of a bed for “romantic” purposes at home. Taking light rail to a motel just isn’t the same…)

  • Joe R.

    Where are all these poor people who own cars because I don’t know how it’s possible to afford a car on what is typically consided a “poor” person’s salary (let’s say anywhere from $2 to perhaps $10 an hour).  Just gas and insurance might run $3,000 and up on a clunker.  Hard to see how a poor person taking home $12,000 a year after taxes, paying perhaps $700 a month rent for a dump, is going to have anything left for  a car.  Many of the poor in NYC literally can’t even afford a fare increase.

  • OctaviusIII

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus
    You live in a a fantastically expensive city, my friend!  A large basement apartment in the Vancouver suburbs ran me $250 a month.  In an undesirable rural area, it would cost less.  The car cost me about $300 a month, maybe $400 with gas and a 40 mile commute (worked across the border).  I lived just fine on $14,000 a year.

  • George

    I think that one of the myths of cars is that somehow drivers are “in a hurry” (i.e. impatient) unlike pedestrians and cyclists.  But then you see pedestrians jaywalk and cyclists routinely running red lights and not stopping and stop signs and complaining that pedestrians slow them down, and you realize that everyone has things to do.  Impatience is hardly a vice limited to drivers.

  • Not sure if the sex appeal is directly related to the car or if the car just serves as one more venue for ostentatious display of wealth. Anything will do toward that end…clothes, watches, restaurants, or even pimped out bikes. 🙂

  • Not sure if the sex appeal is directly related to the car or if the car just serves as one more venue for ostentatious display of wealth. Anything will do toward that end…clothes, watches, restaurants, or even pimped out bikes. 🙂

  • What’s funny is that the auto industry still has that much weight. Everyone has a car, so they can’t be selling nearly as many cars as they did in their heydays.

    They make all their money on loans now, believe it or not. You ever need to take out a loan to buy a bike? 

  • Anonymous

    Some suggested amendments…
    1. If it’s a marriage of convenience, it’s time the divorce rate caught up. Cause the car is abusing the hell out of our wallets.
    2. I get my weekly groceries done with a bike, and supplement that with a monthly auto-trek for heavier bulk items.
    3. “Chick magnets” – look up the early literature over the ‘moral corruption’ of the bicycle. Bicycles were the first vehicles of freer love, and are “Chic” Magnets now.
    4. “Cycle Chic” is already being used to arouse similar less-admirable human qualities, because we humans seem driven to socially reconstruct our worlds.

  • Anonymous

    The poor suffer either way as far as gas and congestion taxes go.  But working people will suffer from more costs imposed on drivers because they will be forced to use decaying, costly, and inconvenient public transportation systems. I don’t know where the “experts” get their cost-saving figures on this (maybe they’re calculating new cars and throwing in depreciation; my car is 14 years old) but taking public transportation would double my commuting costs. Even more costly is the time factor – my commute each way would got from about 25 minutes to well over an hour. What our state (Ohio) allocates to public transportation is a joke and an abomination. They seem to believe that it should balance its budget on the backs of its poor clientele while the state subsidizes the highways our limo-riding politicians use. I object to the use of new taxes to force people out of their cars until decent and time-efficient public transporattion exists.

  • Ernest B. Cohen

    We will not solve the American or world energy problems unless, or until, we shift to more energy efficient, and mostly electrically powered transportation, and reduce air and road transportation.

  • I’m 20 years old, and back when I first entered driving age (15-16), I was really enthusiastic about learning to drive, and getting my own car. What I soon learned (even though I already knew this in the back of my mind) is that with a car comes insurance payments, gas payments, and registration payments. All those payments can’t be made without a job. I quickly lost interest in driving, and it was around the same time that I started exploring bike riding. A lot of my friends have jobs and think I’m lazy for not having one. But why do they have jobs? So they can keep up with the car payments. I don’t want to work just to pay off car-related expenses. I want to work so that I can have the means to support myself and my future family. This was a big factor in my decision to live my adult-life car free.

    That is why it’s very important for schools (grade schools and universities alike) to have quality bike programs at their school. Elementary schools should have bike riding lessons and bike buses/bike trains (whatever they’re called), middle schools should teach bike safety (and how to bike safely in an area that isn’t bike-friendly), and high schools should have active bike advocacy groups (preferably one group with a chapter in each high school), bike centers (for repairs, rentals/purchases), and cycling teams. These high school programs should be mirrored in universities, on a larger scale. If we had this in place in every school in the country, the U.S. would be a lot different than it is today.

  • Cosmicsoul477

    Actually, Schwinn has a new television campaign. I’ve seen the television ads in my area (South Florida). I’ve even seen ads on the side of transit buses, too. I think Americans are waking up… finally. The allure of the automobile is diminishing, even amongst the young, but I think it is primarily because they are more into electronic gadgets like iPODS and iPADs and Blackberries and Droids or what have you. 

  • Cosmicsoul477

    Another thing, too, is the the automobile is so ubiquitous that many times we don’t even realize the amount of money we’re spending. We also aren’t aware of the “costs” (not necessarily ones that can be easily quantified), such as space (both when the vehicle is moving and when it is parked), aesthetics of a neighborhood and so on.

    On the issue of space, parking lots and garages are some of the most expensive enterprises to maintain.

    Finally, let’s face it, in terms of aesthetics, car-centric neighborhoods are ugly. I know this is a matter of taste, but have you ever visited or walked through a neighborhood in South Florida or California and see one house with six cars parked up and then multiply that by thousands of households doing the same thing? It is the most ugliest and unappealing thing in a neighborhood.

  • Can we have a link about discriminatory insurance pricing?

  • Boris

    You are deploying the classic trick of removing the car from your choice of options and then pretending that without the car, nothing will change. If lots more people are forced to take transit, transit will improve – if for no other reason than because it will have a larger constituency. It is a mistake to think that the “decaying, costly, and inconvenient” public transit will stay the way it is forever.

  • Bob Davis

    “Removing the car” (Boris’ post).  We have tens of millions of cars, pickup trucks and SUV’s in the US.  Has anyone figured out when they’re going to disappear?

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