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Posts from the "Car Culture" Category

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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.


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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Car-Free Households in San Francisco Above 30 Percent

According to the new San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency 2010 Transportation Fact Sheet, the number of car-free households increased. Last year [pdf], data show that 29.8 percent of households had no car, a number than climbed to 30.3 percent this year [pdf]. Oddly, it seems the shift came mostly from households with one car, as some migrated to car-lessness, while others increased the numbers of cars in their households. In real numbers, there was only a slight uptick in households with no cars, or nearly 2,000. About 1,000 more households had two cars or more, while 4,000 more had at least three cars.

What factors do you think led to these numbers? Was it car-share, more biking, more walking, more telecommuting, higher unemployment? Remember to take into account that these numbers are from the 2008 and 2009 census data, respectively.

Tell me what you think in the comments. How do you think this will change next year?

H/T Jason Henderson, SF State Geography Professor

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Fred Barnes: Americans Mainly Want to Stay in Their Cars


Adding a few more lanes should do the trick. Photo of the 405: Atwater Village Newbie

After yesterday’s electoral drubbing, the Obama administration will have to deal with a starkly different Congress when they make their expected push for a multi-year transportation bill early next year. We know that some influential House Republicans, like John Mica, don’t necessarily believe that bigger highways will solve America’s transportation problems. And we know that some pro-transit voices in Washington originate from the right. But no one expects the GOP ascendancy to make transportation reform any easier.

For a taste of the right-wing line against transportation reform, check out the election week issue of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. Inside, editor Fred Barnes (under fire recently for accepting speaking fees from the GOP) mounts an attack on just about every federal transportation policy other than highway spending. There’s nothing really conservative about Barnes’s screed — it could have come straight from the pen of an asphalt industry lobbyist. Wondering what a transportation bill would look like if it were reshaped according to what highway boosters believe should be the “core program”? Read Barnes and find out.

He starts by ridiculing Ray LaHood’s speech at the 2010 National Bike Summit, where the transportation secretary said that Americans “want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in livable neighborhoods and livable communities.” Barnes disagrees:

LaHood was half right. People hate traffic congestion. But they want to get out of their cars about as much as they want to get stuck behind a bicyclist who rides at a donkey’s pace before running through red lights and stop signs. What people mainly want is to stay in their cars and have LaHood do something to reduce congestion.

Like finance the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges to facilitate the flow of autos and trucks. That, rather than promoting “livability” or “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized,” is the job of the Department of Transportation. Always has been.

This is, basically, his entire argument: People just want to “stay in their cars.” We have zero interest in getting around any other way. According to Fred Barnes, we are perfectly content to drive and drive and drive, as long as we don’t have to put up with all the other people driving. If you believe that, then his cheerleading for highway construction makes a lot of sense.

If being inside our cars is what we’re really all about, by all means lets throw more money down the sinkhole of highway expansion. That will guarantee more quality time inside our cars. Then, a few years later, when we’re in our cars but not enjoying it so much because the new lanes are jammed with traffic again, we’ll repeat the whole expensive process.

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“Snipers for Vipers,” Armor-Piercing Rounds for Your Compensationmobile

As lethal as this gun is, it probably hasn't killed as many people off the battlefield as a Dodge Viper. Image: Barrett.

As lethal as this gun is, it probably hasn't killed as many people off the battlefield as a Dodge Viper. Image: Barrett.

I mocked Max Muller of Max Motors last summer for offering free AK-47s with the purchase of a new vehicle from his Butler, Missouri, showroom. We noted the “Kalashnikovs for Clunkers” deal was the second annual offering of guns with new cars, after he offered Glocks or Gas in 2008. At the time I wrote the article, Cash for Clunkers was all the rage so my angle was how kooky an incentive a firearm was for re-upping your ride.

Well, this year Max has gone right for the jugular, trying to sell his most compensatory vehicular stock by offering one of the baddest weapons on the market, whether for the battlefield or the Viagra crowd: the Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle. If you aren’t already familiar with the Barrett, it’s made by Ronnie Barrett in Murfreesboro (pronounced “Muf-freeze-burrow”), Tennessee, and it has become the poster-child for gun-control advocates trying to keep military-grade weaponry off the civilian market.

I’ll admit right now to my Streetsblog readers, I grew up a gun aficionado on a ranch in Nevada and, at age 13, I wanted little more than to become a sniper for the Marines. Well, I also really wanted a red pick-up truck with chrome roll-bars, a gun rack in the cab and vanity plates that read “Matt.” So in a deep-down, reptilian-brain way, I understand the appeal of a big V-10 and a bigger firearm, though every fiber in my adult sensibility strains against these impulses.

Short detour into my adolescent psyche aside, if you haven’t already gone to Max’s Snipers for Vipers radio ad, I highly recommend a listen. The deep voice of the narrator beckons you to make like Randal O’toole (funny, for a Portland-area bike rider, he sure loves hot rods) and head over to the nearest dealership to get a real manly killing machine with your manly killing machine.

What did your dealer throw in with your new vehicle? Did he top off your blinker fluid? Give me a break! Max motors is taking it to the next level. They’re calling it “Snipers for Vipers.” Yeah, you heard me, Max Motors is always taking aim at lower prices. You can take aim too, when you buy a new Dodge Viper from Max Motors, you’ll get a free Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle. It’s a gun with the power to match the car. A cool Dodge Viper and a .50 caliber sniper rifle. Max Motor has 10 Vipers to choose from, so go ahead, pull the trigger. Ask about “Snipers for Vipers” now at Max Motors in Butler Missouri, home of the free, the brave, and the guaranteed lowest prices in the USA.

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National Fuel Efficiency Standards Could Require 62 MPG Within 15 Years

The Obama administration got a lot of attention earlier this year when it raised fuel efficiency rules to an average 35 miles per gallon across the nation’s fleet of automobiles that will be produced between 2012 and 2016. Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT), have laid out an ambitious road map [pdf] to push tougher greenhouse gas emission and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and trucks built from 2017 through 2025, standards that hypothetically could push the national fleet average up as high as 62 mpg.

“We must, and we will, keep the momentum going to make sure that all motor vehicles sold in America are realizing the best fuel economy and greenhouse gas reductions possible,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Continuing the national program would help create a more secure energy future by reducing the nation’s dependence on oil, which has been a national objective since the first oil price shocks in the 1970s.”


GHG and MPG levels analyzed for various scenarios. Source: US DOT

Today’s report provides an initial assessment for a potential national program for the 2025 model year horizon and outlines next steps for additional work the agencies will undertake to meet the yet-to-be established GHG reduction goals. Depending on the scenario eventually chosen, the industry will have to reduce CO2 production across the national car and truck fleet from a minimum 3 percent (or the equivalent of 47 mpg) up to 6 percent (or the equivalent of 62 mpg).

The report outlines the costs and benefits of several approaches for reaching the targets (technology pathways A, B, C, or D), from focusing on reducing vehicle size and advanced gasoline, to relying on gas-electric hybrids and full electric vehicles (EVs). Rule makers assert that even the 6 percent target is achievable with existing technology, though the higher benchmark would require more hybrids and EVs within a manufacturer’s fleet. Read more…

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Our Mobile Money Pits: The True Cost of Cars

Rowena learned about the true cost of cars the hard way. Raised by her mom, a Filipina immigrant, in a happy if carless home in northern California, Rowena marveled upon graduating from college and getting a steady job that she could afford to lease her very own car. For a small down payment and $199 a month, she was in a beautiful new Honda.

Three years later, lease up, the dealer convinced her to buy a somewhat nicer car, one with “just $299” in monthly payments. When the car was repossessed a year later because she couldn’t make the payments, she figured she had handed her dealer and loan company over $15,000. Sitting down to do the math, she estimated that insurance, gas, parking, tickets, tolls, taxes, and fees had vacuumed an additional $12,000 out of her accounts.

So four years and $27,000 later, Rowena had no vehicle, no savings, and a credit rating in ruins.


The full burden of car ownership far exceeds the purchase price. Photo: slambo_42/Flickr

Like most Americans, Rowena had no idea of the true total and ongoing financial cost of car ownership, and, like most Americans, she found her dealer in no rush to warn her about them. While rent or mortgage remains the largest budget item for the average household, transportation now comes in a close second, and in some zip codes it even exceeds housing.

Transportation swallows one out of every five dollars earned by the average American family, double the bite it took in 1960. This increase alone could account for much of the plummet, over that fifty-year period, in the household savings rate, which by the aughts had skidded close to zero.

We know how things got this bad. Back in 1960, developers had not yet fully sprawled out our housing stock; government had not yet spent billions on road building, letting transit atrophy; automakers had not yet piled on horsepower, luxury, and cargo space; lenders had not yet become so likely to set unsustainable and predatory car credit terms; and drivers had yet to consider short trips unwalkable and bus trips social suicide.

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Eyes on the Street: Tango Electric Car in Glen Park

Commuter_car_1.jpgLarry Page's Tango in Glen Park. Photos: Matthew Roth.
The Tango personal electric vehicle made a bunch of headlines when George Clooney bought one in 2005, but there haven't been too many on the road given the cost of $150,000.

The manufacturers pitch the vehicle as a high-performance electric car that can zip through traffic given its slender frame. Assuming you can split lanes legally (California is the only state where it is explicitly legal), you can use it as you would a motorcycle on congested roads. The Tango is also short enough that it can be parked perpendicular to the curb, just as a motorcycle would. 

Rick Woodbury, the President and Founder of Commuter Cars Corporatation, which has made 12 Tangos to date, said it was "designed it to be the fastest, safest, most convenient car for 90 percent of urban trips." 

Woodbury said the problem with traffic and commuting is a case of inefficient use of space, though his solution is not transit or bicycles, but narrower cars. "There are 106 million single-occupancy vehicles clogging the streets. That's 106 million people using the wrong tool."

Woodbury said the ability to scale up production is hampered by money. He can build the current model at its sticker price at cost, but to sell it in the $10-15,000 price range, he would need around $1.5 billion in capital outlay to mass-produce the vehicle, an unlikely scenario without getting the buy-in of a major traditional car manufacturer.

"Car companies just don't invest in disruptive technology," said Woodbury.