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Posts from the "Car Culture" Category

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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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Do We Treat Our Cars Better Than We Treat Ourselves?

Running Saturday morning errands, you may have found yourself in traffic, only to realize you’re stuck behind a line of vehicles inching into a car wash. Each month, nearly half of all American car owners head into one of the nation’s estimated 100,000 car washes to bathe their vehicles in some loving suds.

Some people show more love for their cars than they do for their families. Photo: Guide to Detailing

“Then there are those—and I love these people—” says Mark Curtis, CEO of the Splash Car Wash chain, who visit weekly, core customers “who truly care for their cars” and “see them and their upkeep as a reflection of themselves, and have it as part of their regular routine.” This ardent minority keeps alive the cliché that we Americans love our cars, an oversimplification that fails to capture our divergent, ambivalent, evolving feelings about them. Still, on the whole, we may treat our vehicles better than we treat ourselves.

Take a gander at how much cash and credit we lavish on them. On the household level, transportation accounts for one out of every six dollars Americans spend, the crushing majority of which goes to owning and operating cars. (By contrast, families who use public transportation and own one less car can save up to $8,400 a year, according to APTA). Only housing accounts for a bigger chunk of our budgets; we fork out less for food.

It’s especially illuminating to look at spending “per capita”—that is, how much we spend per person and per vehicle in our household. Though we spend more than twice as much to fuel each body in our home with food than we do to fuel each vehicle in our garage with gasoline, there are several measures by which we treat our cars nearly as well or better than we treat ourselves—and our families.

The average American spends nearly as many dollars annually on the health and well-being of each vehicle—$2,536 for repairs, maintenance, and insurance—as we spend on each humanoid member of the family, whose allocation for healthcare and insurance is $2,747. That’s just $18 more a month preventing and treating disease than repairing dings and replacing tires. The amount we dedicate to buying and financing each car is triple what we spend educating each family member. In other words, we pour three times as much into our depreciating assets than we invest in our own, and our children’s, futures.

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Dealbreaker: Senate Rejects House Budget Due to Lack of Car Subsidies

What’s keeping Congress from passing an extension to the federal budget? Democratic protection of automobile subsidies.

Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid vows to keep an clean-car subsidy in the budget, come hell or high water. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

After midnight last night, the House finally managed to narrowly pass a budget extension bill, but Senate leaders have already rejected it out of hand, since it includes about half the disaster relief they’d like and cuts $1.5 billion from a clean-fuel technology manufacturing program for the auto industry.

The disagreement is strong enough that it threatens to keep Congress in session longer than intended — likely through the weekend, and possibly even into next week’s scheduled recess.

That gives them a week, if necessary, to avert a government shutdown — the potential consequence of inaction on a bill to extend federal government spending past September 30.

Clean vehicles are great, but if Democrats really want to meet important environmental goals, just imagine how much good they could do by spending that $1.5 billion to implement better bus systems or provide emergency assistance to transit agencies struggling to keep up with higher ridership.

In addition to highlighting how Senate Democrats highly prize car subsidies, this situation also puts in perspective the brewing fight over the FY2012 budget. If Congress can’t even pass a simple extension to keep government operations for a few months, with just a few billion dollars’ difference, how will they ever agree to bridge the enormous gap between their visions for FY2012?

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The Stranger: If Safer Streets Mean War, We’re Ready for Combat

Image: James Yamasaki / The Stranger

Under the headline, “Okay, Fine, It’s War,” Seattle’s The Stranger blog this week published a manifesto “of and by the nondrivers themselves.” They’re sick of being called “militants” for caring about pedestrian safety, and they’re tired of the specter of a “war on cars.”

We heartily recommend that you read the whole thing, but here are some of our favorite parts. Like this, from the first plank of the manifesto: “The car-driving class must pay its own way!”

For cars we have paved our forests, spanned our lakes, and burrowed under our cities. Yet drivers throw tantrums at the painting of a mere bicycle lane on the street. They balk at the mere suggestion of hiking a car-tab fee, raising the gas tax, or tolling to help pay for their insatiable demands, even as downtrodden transit riders have seen fares rise 80 percent over four years.

No more! We demand that car drivers pay their own way, bearing the full cost of the automobile-petroleum-industrial complex that has depleted our environment, strangled our cities, and drawn our nation into foreign wars. Reinstate the progressive motor vehicle excise tax, hike the gas tax, and toll every freeway, bridge, and neighborhood street until the true cost of driving lies as heavy and noxious as our smog-laden air. Our present system of hidden subsidies is the opiate of the car-driving masses; only when it is totally withdrawn will our road-building addiction finally be broken.

They go on to demand better, more expansive transit, safer streets and sidewalks, and traffic calming. And this:

This antagonism [between car driver and nondriver] traces directly to the creation of the modern car driver, a privileged individual who, as noted, is the beneficiary of a long course of subsidies, tax incentives, and wars for cheap oil. But the same subsidies that created this creature (who now rages about the roads while simultaneously screaming of being a victim in some war) can—and must, beginning now—be used to build bike lanes, sidewalks, light rail, and other benefits to the nondriving classes.

That’s the kind of manifesto we can get on board with.

After the manifesto, The Stranger goes on to report on the rising numbers of crashes between cars and cyclists, the violent anti-bike rhetoric being spewed by car drivers that are the “victims” of some imagined war on cars, the massive disparity between funding for car infrastructure and everything else, and the heroes of the non-driver, beloved both for their advocacy and their tight asses. Read it, read it all.

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Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Dangerous Rincon Hill Intersection Finally Getting the City’s Attention

Drivers ignore the signs and routinely block the crosswalk and speed at the intersection of Harrison and Main streets. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

On December 10, 2004, Katy Liddell had just stepped off the N-Judah with a sack of cleaning supplies and was walking to her Portside apartment at Harrison and Main in Rincon Hill, when she noticed a cadre of emergency vehicles surrounding the intersection. As Liddell drew closer, she saw something that horrified her.

“I saw a tarp covering a body in the middle of the street,” Liddell recalled. “I found out that one of my neighbors had been hit and killed.”

The violent force of a big rig truck had thrown 63-year-old Beverly Kees out of the crosswalk, killing her. Kees, a popular SF State journalism professor who had recently retired, lived across the street from Liddell in the BayCrest Towers. The dog she had been walking was also hit and injured.

“Beverly saved his life. She saw the truck coming and she picked him up,” said Debi Gould, Kees’ friend and neighbor and owner of the dog who was with her when she died, a rat terrier mix named Harp. As Gould tells it, Kees, who lived two doors down, had been told by her doctor that she needed to walk more. She asked Gould if she could walk Harp one day, and the two formed a close bond.

“She started walking him to the point where he loved being with her, and instead of a couple of times a week, it ended up being every day that I went to work,” said Gould, a retired flight attendant who also walks a lot and feels like pedestrians in San Francisco “are considered an inconvenience.”

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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 also kept alive by journalists’ use of a set of hackneyed narratives. Beyond clichés, these storylines 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: 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.

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Kia Car Ad Touts Bike-Friendly Attitude

A new Canadian television ad for the Kia Sportage, filmed in San Francisco’s Financial District, markets an attitude of acceptance about the responsibility of sharing the road with bicycles. It’s quite a contrast from the conventional image of cars as an embodiment of power and dominance.

While the ad encourages drivers to share the road, it still reassures them that the car is “perfectly capable of ‘owning’” it, and its slogan suggesting that driving is a part of any real change does sound a lot like greenwashing.

It is refreshing, however, to see a car manufacturer’s marketing strategy that acknowledges the impacts of automobiles on the safety of cycling and prominently features San Francisco’s sharrow markings.

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California’s Pay as You Drive Insurance Program Could Reduce Driving

The California Department of Insurance has approved a pay-as-you-drive insurance program encouraged by environmental advocates and transportation planners because it provides an incentive to drive less by reducing premiums for low-mileage drivers. Widespread adoption of similar insurance policies could reduce driving in the U.S. by as much as eight percent, according to a Brookings Institution study.

“The voluntary pay-as-you-drive initiative is an innovative program that will allow insurers to offer plans based on more accurate mileage, so that people who choose to drive less will pay less for auto insurance,” California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said recently when he announced the program with the participation of State Farm Insurance and the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Though other insurance companies, notably Progressive Insurance, have experimented with pay-as-you-drive policies, because of the large number of drivers in California and the scale of the program, it could have national significance.

State Farm — the state’s largest automobile insurance company with 3.3 million policy holders and premiums of $2.5 billion — had previously required mileage to be self-reported by customers, who then got a small discount if they drove less than 7,500 miles in a year. Starting in late February, State Farm will offer an initial 5 percent discount for the first policy term to drivers who opt-in to the Drive Safe and Save program and agree to self-report their odometer readings at the beginning and end of each policy period. Policy holders with an active On Star system, which comes with many vehicles made by General Motors, can agree to allow State Farm to access their mileage data automatically.

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Ad Nauseam 2010: The Year in Car Commercials

Car sales are up, auto shows are packing them in, and the GM IPO was oversubscribed, but there may be no surer indicator of the auto industry’s recovery than the renewed avalanche of car ads rumbling across every medium. And there’s no better way to get a glimpse of what a born-again car culture might look like than to stay on the couch for a spell, un-mute the TV, and watch—that’s right, on purpose—a sample of 2010’s ads selling us our car-centric way of life. Here are some of the year’s most egregious attempts to get us into the dealership by conflating car ownership with American values.

Dodge Charger: “Man’s Last Stand”

Chrysler stokes the gender wars with this ad suggesting that the American male may seem to have been tamed by the boss and neutered by the wife, but all that the rebel within needs to bust out is a $38K fully loaded Dodge Charger. The road is his last refuge, the one place where he can still be a manly man. He’ll “eat fruit” at home, but he won’t be a fruit in control of the kind of growling, ferocious muscle car that had its heyday back when men last really had it good. (For a rejoinder, click here.)

Toyota Sienna: “Mommy Like”

How does a mom, stressed from commuting to work and shuttling the kids to soccer practice day in and day out, get away from it all? Why, of course, by spending more time in her vehicle! In this commercial for the Sienna minivan, Mommy steals some quality time alone—in the backseat where the kids usually get to have all the fun. The message? Auto dependence’s problems are solved not by driving less but by buying more, including a new car chock-a-block with luxury options to distract us from the aggravation and tedium of the average 18 ½ hours Americans sit in a car each week.

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