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Published on Sunday, July 9, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Well, America:
Is The Car Culture Working?
by David E. Shi
 
Soaring gas prices this summer have angered people, but no one seems to be driving less. Like Granny in Jan and Dean's 1964 song "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," we can't keep our foot off the accelerator.

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 more than 200 million cars in the United States. In Los Angeles there evidently are more registered 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 experience has been transferred to the car culture.

Americans have always cherished personal freedom and mobility, rugged individualism and masculine force. The advent of the horseless carriage combined all these qualities and more. The automobile 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 pleasure 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. About 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 materialized energy, to draw the reins over this monster with its steel muscles and fiery heart - there is something 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 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 workforce in the summer of 2000 will spend four years of their lives behind the wheel.

Yet despite 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 parking lots with automobiles. And the Sunday driver remains a peculiarly American phenomenon. America's 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, "You'll 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 audio books in them.

A company that records audio books reports that two of its most popular selections among commuters are Henry David Thoreau's Walden; Or, Life in the Woods and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. An interstate highway is not exactly a path to Walden Pond, nor does a BMW much resemble Huck's raft, but Americans remain firmly committed to the open road - even if only in our imaginations.

David E. Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

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