The cultural significance of cars

As I was writing that title, it occurred to me that this is a slightly odd topic for me to be interested in. I certainly never thought I’d write a blog about it, but I am interested. Here’s why.

Most American households own a car. Quite often, more than one. Driving is the primary mode of transport; so much so that people give estimates of distance in terms of the time it will take by car, not by foot.

Comedians make jokes about having their licences taken away and being reduced to dependence on public transportation. Films showcase the ‘loser’ character as the one riding a bike everywhere. Funny, right?

Maybe this is true all over the world, but I never noticed it until travelling here. People simply love their cars. That joke about Americans driving to the gym? Pretty true!

To not own a car here (or, shock horror, not have a licence) signifies a lack of responsibility, success, even the status of adulthood. It is uncool in a way I don’t think it is back home.

There are no doubt multiple reasons for this. First of all, it’s a huge country and buses and trains are hardly as efficient as they could be. This is quite the catch 22, because until they do provide a viable alternative to driving, the number of people relying on the car will continue to grow.

Secondly, I think cars hold a certain place in American culture. What do people associate with the USA? Road trips. Cadillacs. Route 66. The American Dream comes complete with a ride.

Cars act as a signifier of social status. For people who don’t drive, it’s often not a choice – they simply can’t afford it. Poor people take the bus (this isn’t an insult, after all I include myself in that statement). The people I met during this trip who didn’t have cars were certainly less mainstream. They fall outside the bell curve on more than just their vehicle choice, and that’s my point, really, that cars are the norm.

Owning and showing off a car demonstrates certain things about your lifestyle, your bank balance (even if the payments are getting you into debt…but that’s another story); your reputation.

While I find this fascinating, it’s a reason why I couldn’t/wouldn’t live here. I hold a drivers licence, I’ve owned cars in the past and I certainly accept their practicality. Having access to a car would have made this trip easier.

But still, I don’t want to have to drive. I like and respect cycling, I’m a huge bus fan and writing about trains for three years will rub off on you one way or another. I am interested in how we can create smarter ways of travelling; systems which carry more people faster at a lower cost (to the environment as well as the passenger), that provide access to crucial services and bring communities together. Transport which could genuinely change the world. (Okay, more than merely interested.)

In the past six months I’ve used seven different metro systems. While working these out gives me a certain geeky pleasure, it’s also allowed me to form a lot of ideas about what makes a system good. What makes it user friendly? How do you get people to use it? How can public transport fit into wider society for both tourists and locals?

I’m starting to get a bit carried away, so I’ll leave it there. Any other perspectives would be very welcome – is the car craving only an American thing?

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