We're Crazy About Cars
Soaring gas prices this summer have angered people, but no one seems to be
driving less. Like "Granny" in Jan and Deans popular 1964 song "The
Little Old Lady from Pasadena," we cant keep our foot off the
We are crazy about our cars and always have been.
"The American," William Faulkner lamented in 1948, "really loves nothing
but his automobile." His sardonic observation retains its force over a
half century later. There are now over 200 million cars in the United
States. In Los Angeles there are more cars than people. Some families
spend more on their monthly car payments than on their home mortgage. We
dream of cars as we dream of lovers; they express our fantasies; they
fulfill our desires.
Our intense love affair with cars began as
soon as they were invented. Since its first appearance in the 1890s, the
automobile has embodied deep-seated cultural and emotional values that
have become an integral part of the American Dream. All of the romantic
mythology associated with the frontier experi-ence has been transferred
to the car culture. The hope of everyone to be the "captain of your
soul," of pursuing happiness on the open road, now rolls along on four
Americans have always cherished personal freedom and
mobility, rugged individualism and mas-culine force, and the advent of
the horseless carriage combined all these qualities and more. The
automo-bile traveled faster than the speed of reason; it promised to
make everyone a pathfinder to a better life. It was the vehicle of
personal democracy, acting as a social leveling force, granting more and
more people a wide range of personal choices where to travel, where to
work and live, where to seek personal pleas-ure and social recreation.
As a journalist explains, the automobile is the "handiest tool ever
devised for the pursuit of that unholy, unwholesome, all-American
trinity of sex, speed and status."
A century ago, automobiles
were viewed as friends of the environment; they were much cleaner than
horses. In 1900, for example, New York City horses deposited over 2.5
million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets.
Some 15,000 dead horses also had to be removed from the city streets
each year. The motorcar promised to eliminate such animal waste.
The car also offered a quantum leap in power. In 1901 Motor World magazine
highlighted the subconscious appeal of the motorcar by alluding to its
horse-like qualities: "To take control of this mate-rialized energy, to
draw the reins over this monster with its steel muscles and fiery heart
there is some-thing in the idea which appeals to an almost universal
sense, the love of power."
But it was one thing to rhapsodize
about the individual freedom offered by the horseless carriage when
there were a few thousand of them spread across the nation; it is quite
another matter when there are 200 million of them. In 1911 a horse and
buggy paced through Los Angeles at 11 miles per hour; in the year 2000
an automobile makes the rush hour trip averaging four miles per hour.
American drivers are stuck in traffic for eight billion hours a year.
Young graduates entering the work-force in the summer of 2000 will spend
four years of their lives behind the wheel.
congested traffic, road rage, polluted air and rising gas prices,
Americans have not changed their driving or car ownership patterns.
Suburban commuters have resolutely stayed in their vehicles rather than
join car pools or use public transportation. Teens continue to fill
high-school park-ing lots with automobiles. And the Sunday driver
remains a peculiarly American phenomenon.
Americas love affair
with the car has matured into a marriage and an addiction. We refuse to
consider other transportation options. As a popular bumper sticker
resolutely declares, "Youll Get Me Out of My Car When You Pry My Cold
Dead Foot from the Accelerator."
The automobile retains its firm
hold over our psyche because it continues to represent a metaphor for
what Americans have always prized: the seductive ideal of private
freedom, personal mobility and empowered spontaneity. Our solution to
rush hour gridlock is not to demand public transportation but to
transform our immobile automobile into a temporary office, bank,
restaurant, bathroom and stereo system. We talk on the phone, eat meals,
don makeup, cash checks and listen to music and audiobooks.
A company that records audiobooks reports that two of its most popular selections among com-muters are Henry David Thoreaus Walden; Or, Life in the Woods and Mark Twains Huckleberry Finn.
An interstate highway is not exactly a path to Walden Pond, nor does a
BMW much resemble Hucks raft, but Americans remain firmly committed to
the open road even if only in our imaginations.