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The black hole of car ownership

To make up for how long it’s been since I’ve read a novel, I’ve decided to read a really huge one: Pynchon’s Against the Day. I don’t have much to say directly about it so far, but when reading it, I get a sensation that I often get when reading about or watching movies about the pre-Fordist era — hearing about all the streetcars, the interurban trains, the massive nationwide rail network, I think, “Man, people were really free to move around back then!” (This sensation is even counter-intuitive when reading Pynchon, who of course views the rail network as a vast paranoid conspiracy choking the life out of the continent.)

Now this thought is kind of paradoxical: I assume people would more naturally associate freedom with having a car, embracing the open road, and that whole thing. A big part of that is the simple fact that the US actively tore out the rail system that made it traversable without a car — in most parts of the country, indeed in most parts of the city of Chicago, you’re pretty trapped without a car. That’s been the case for a few generations now, so people don’t really have another horizon. (I know that from experience, because when I realized I could go without a car in Chicago and wanted to sell mine, my parents really bent over backwards to prevent it or at least slow down the process — presumably not really believing such a thing was possible.)

But what a car really represents is massive overhead: the car payment itself, surprising and often hugely expensive repairs, insurance, exposure to wildly fluctuating gas prices. If you buy a new car, you’re paying a lot of money for an asset whose value is going to plummet dramatically the second you pull it off the lot. If you buy a used car, you’re facing the possibility that the thing is a ticking time-bomb that could break down at any minute, potentially forcing you to spend even more money than you’ve saved compared to a new one.

People have talked a lot lately about how our messed-up health insurance system locks people into jobs because of the blackmail of tying your (and especially your family’s) insurance to your employer. One also hears discussion of how the fetishization of homeownership can entrap people when the economic winds in their area change — for example, in the Flint area where my family lives and where everyone views selling a house as essentially impossible. I don’t want to trivialize either of those concerns, but on a certain level, the blackmail of car culture is even worse. In the vast majority of the country, you either need to figure out some way to maintain access to a car, or else you basically suffer from social death. You can’t get a job, because you can’t get to the job. You can’t go anywhere or do anything. When you’re unemployed, the car keeps eating away at your economic resources, and even if a car suddenly became unnecessary and you could sell it, there is literally no possible way you are going to get out of your car the money you put into it — the main benefit of selling a car is actually to insulate yourself from the future costs of having a car. (This is the reasoning you often hear from people like me who move to one of the few transit-rich areas and seldom use their car: suddenly it is revealed as the black hole for money that it actually is.)

Compared to all that, the tyranny of the train schedule seems pretty mild.

The most serious issue, though, is that just as car culture is a black hole for the individual, it’s a black hole for society. The development of car culture was the basis for the economic growth that produced what was probably — for all its many, many faults — the Golden Age of America, Fordism. Car culture has since gutted the great cities that made it possible. It has squandered the greatest source of energy that humanity has ever known and likely will ever know, mainly so that people can have a nice lawn on a weirdly curving street and drive twenty miles to the grocery store.

Now we want a revolution in our transportation and energy system. We want high-speed rail. And obviously, I say, great. Whatever works against the hegemony of the car is wonderful in my opinion — I would love never to have to own one ever again. But let’s say we build all these high-speed rail connections between the great cities in the Midwest. Why exactly are people going to be making the trip? What will they be doing on either end that’s so attractive? Will they have a really great Best Buy outlet in Cleveland that people take the train from Cincinatti to visit? Are we envisioning tourism? What? People keep saying we need to rebuild our productive capacity, but exactly what are we supposed to produce? Are we picturing consumer goods here? Artisanal bacon? Homebrew beer? Electric cars? Are we somehow going to figure out a way to have a green infrastructure-based economy? (Pretty sure infrastructure isn’t an end in itself.)

This is the danger when you build an entire culture around the illusion of rugged self-reliance, which then morphs into self-expression through consumerism: once that reaches an end, what is there? Once your roads are irrevocably clogged and everyone’s closet is just about as full of crap as possible and their credit cards are maxed out anyway and their second mortgage (rebranded as a “home equity loan”) is a towering burden they’ll never get out from under — exactly what the fuck do you do to create a viable economy under those conditions?


March 1, 2009 - Posted by | public transit


  1. Evil Christians (at Trollblog):

    Comment by John Emerson | March 1, 2009

  2. Evidently you troll.

    Comment by ben | March 1, 2009

  3. For the most part I think I have a fine nose for trolldom. Yet when I’m on the receiving end of John Emerson’s comments, it feels pretty much like I’m enjoying having a conversation with someone, whereas there are a number of pointedly engaged commenters whom I would definitely excuse myself please I think I see something I urgently need to tend to to. This probably indicates something odd about my conversational tastes.

    When I finally bought a car it definitely felt like welding a slave collar around my neck, and when I got rid of it it definitely felt like liberation. And yet I depend pretty drastically on my housemate’s car for grocery shopping. This probably only indicates hypocrisy, however, which isn’t odd at all.

    Comment by Ray Davis | March 1, 2009

  4. Balloons.

    Comment by Jonathan | March 2, 2009

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