“Although it may be true to say that an American is a creature of four wheels, and to point out that American youth attributes much more importance to arriving at driver’s license age than at voting age, it is also true that the car has become an article of dress, without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound.”
~Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
In high school, it seemed like everyone had a car.
I lived in a small town and though there was really no need to drive to school, everyone did anyway. Alternate modes of transportation were not fashionable. Instead, those who were lucky enough, made the short commute across the orchard-sprinkled valley, through the over-occupied, single-lane streets, to the sounds of horns and blasting tunes, passing dense family neighborhoods, the prominent post office on the main avenue, eventually reaching the final destination of: High School Parking Lot, a.k.a., the hub of gathering and sharing of all that was cool.
The first bell rang at 7:41 a.m.
The last bell rang at 2:41 p.m., and at this point, the battle for exodus of that parking lot began—a 30 minute mingling of engine revving, music blasting and bumper kissing with the final climax of screeching tires shooting out the last feet of parking lot.
There was Hank, the muscular football hunk in his jacked-up Chevy Silverado truck, so shiny you could see your reflection in its ebony paint; and sweet Hannah, the innocent, long-haired blonde, who floated easily among social groups, always friendly, always dependable. She drove the family hand-me-own Toyota Camry. Then there was that petite girl named Alexa that played volleyball whom I would often see walking across the quad twirling her key ring on her finger just in case anyone had forgotten she had car—it was a beautiful, dark green Jeep Wrangler.
In high school, it seemed like everyone had a car, everyone except me.
And oh, did I want one. Bad.
As it was, I had to take the bus or was driven by my mom, but like every kid, I wanted those four wheels that would bring coolness to my name.
In fact, it was early on in my life that I learned a car would have the power to manage how I felt about myself and where I belonged in society.
Years before high school, nearly all of us have miniature car toys to play with. For many boys, truck is a popular first word. Furthermore, before we can even walk, we push ourselves through the living room on little plastic cars. Yet, how often do we stop to consider how strange this relationship is and how early it actually begins?
This relationship of human and car becomes further solidified as we grow up. For most American teenagers, getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage. Some elect to go to the DMV to get their license the very day they turn 16.
A somewhat Freudian idea posed by Clotaire Rapaille in his book The Culture Code, suggests that the American emotional connection to the car is so strong because more than 80 percent of Americans’ first sexual experience is in the backseat of a car.
Later on in adulthood, the car serves as not only transportation, but as a home away from home and even an extension of who we are. Inventions over time such as fast food in the 1920s, have led our culture to spend more and more time in cars.
Inevitably, the car is part of American identity. The biggest industry after the decline of cigarette advertising that I can think of which appeals to people’s sense of identity is the car industry. “What you drive, is who you are,” is the message many auto companies would like us to think and it works; most of us are attracted to a car because of the emotional appeal attached to the marketed image. Just take a look at these advertisements.
A 1991 survey by the Roper Center at University of Connecticut found that 75 percent of Americans believed a car was essential to “the good life,” and according to the book, Energy and Equity, by Ivan Illich, Americans spend a whopping 1,600 hours a year in their cars (28 percent of our time.).
For information on the cost of maintaining this relationship, click here.
With numbers like these, it’s almost unthinkable for most of us to imagine life without a car. When author Chris Richards described her relationship to her car as an “overly dependent lover” in an article titled Life Without Car, she was probably not far off the dynamic that constitutes the majority of human-car relationships.
What will a divorce take? Or even just a partial separation?
If we can raise our consciousness a little, taking a moment to look at our relationship with our companion, Mr. or Mrs. Car, just maybe we can begin to develop a new identity.
Consider a quote from Elliot Sclar: “We buy our cars to go to work and then we work to go buy our cars.”
We value our independence, and yet we are entirely dependent.
How much of our life do we want to devote to a car?
At the end of high school, I fell for it: I bought a car with what saved up money I had—a used, red Honda Civic with 109,000 miles for $5,500. It was a stick shift and even though I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, it didn’t matter. I was willing to take a few hits of embarrassment, stalled out in intersections around town as I searched for that sweet spot of clutch and engine chemistry. The important thing was that I had a car, the relationship had finally been sealed; we belonged to each other.
I was finally part of the cool club.
Today, almost 10 years later, my desires to belong have changed. I have the same car, but I try to bike most of the time. My self-expulsion from the cool club has meant not only an increased heartbeat, but a deeper connection with the immediate environment. I am saving both money and time as well as decreasing my carbon footprint. The world doesn’t go by in a blur, like images on a T.V. that leave me feeling safe and separated. Instead, I feel the wind on my face and smell the scents of the great outside. I am not a stranger merely passing through the world, but a participant—awake, engaged and alive.
On a bike, I belong to nothing but myself.