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The Author Speaks: Why Cars Are Costing You Too Much

The title Carjacked is the first hint that the book is not another cheerful recounting of America’s love affair with the automobile. Far from it.

The authors, sisters Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, were inspired to write about America’s “car culture” after their 46-year-old cousin was killed in an automobile accident. They were intrigued by the contradictions inherent in our society’s reliance on, and infatuation with, the cars in our lives–the same cars, they say, that kill almost 40,000 people a year, cost us dearly in time and money, and contribute to urban sprawl, pollution and economic inequity.

Anne’s research approach as an anthropology professor at Brown University shows through in the authors’ meticulously documented manifesto. They spent a good deal of time talking with drivers across the country, car dealers and automotive executives, mechanics, cab drivers, toll booth operators, auto museum directors, crash victims, doctors, environmentalists, and EMTs and other health professionals, among many others. They also traveled to traffic court, Detroit proving grounds, DMVs, seedy used-car lots, exurban housing developments and junkyards, among other places.

Among the many surprises Lutz and Fernandez come up with is that the average two-car family spends $14,000 a year on their automobiles, more than 25 percent of the median family income. Yet, says Cathy, an English teacher with a marketing background, “people are not focused on that total.”

The authors talked to the AARP Bulletin about some other surprising findings and about what Americans can do to put the brakes on a runaway car culture. (Read an excerpt of Carjacking.)

Q. Automobiles haven’t looked this bad in print since Stephen King wrote Christine . What do you have against cars, anyway?

Anne Well, more than we did when we started our research! Like most Americans, we grew up loving cars. And in fact, we still love our cars. That love is no longer unconditional, though. America’s obsession with cars has led us to glorify their benefits and ignore many of their costs. But they take too much of our time, too much of our money, put us in daily danger and damage our health.

Q. How do they damage our health?

Cathy As a nation, we have lost more people on the roadways since the invention of the car than in all the wars we have fought in that time. And for every person killed in a car, about 70 more are injured, and many of them are severely and permanently disabled.

Americans are even less aware of some of cars’ more insidious health effects. While the risks associated with obesity—heart disease and diabetes among them—are becoming more widely recognized, the car’s contribution to our sedentary lifestyle is often glossed over. Our continued reliance on the gas engine means we add lung disease, heart disease, stroke, cancers and asthma to the list of health problems that are caused by the car. We’re most exposed when we are inside our cars.

Q. What did you learn from all of your interviews?

Anne We learned that cars appeal to core American values—like freedom, individualism, family and safety—that the automakers have exploited in their advertising for decades. The result is that many people come to value cars intensely, and treat them as much more than simply the means to get where they need to go.

Q. You put the blame solely on advertisers?

Anne No, some of the pleasures of the car are, of course, real, and our sprawling development is built for the car, so we have less choice in how much we drive than we might. But if were not for the relentless marketing—automakers spend consistently more than other industry, tens of billions each year—we would not be overspending on cars to the tremendous degree that we do.

Q. Describe an ad you have in mind.

Anne We are influenced by car ads in which a lone vehicle zips along an open, winding road through a vast and beautiful wilderness.

Q. But does the reality of owning a car produce such feelings?

Anne Though the car promises such freedom, many drivers we spoke with were frustrated by how unfree their cars make them, stuck as they often are in traffic, and mired as they often are in car debt and other expenses. Many drivers had taken second jobs to pay for an expensive vehicle, or were in severe financial trouble because they bit off far more car than their incomes allowed.

Q. You call 2008 a “tipping point” for America’s car culture. Why?

Anne Gas prices hit a peak in 2008, at over $4 a gallon, prompting Americans to drive 108 billion fewer miles that year. New car purchases plunged from 17 million in 2006 to an estimated 10 million in 2009. We found that many Americans decided to leave their cars in the driveway and take the bus or train to work, and ridership on public transit rose. It seemed to us that our current relationship with the automobile had become unsustainable, and that these changes in people’s driving and car-buying behavior might be more than a recession-related blip.

Q. Would we all be better off if nobody had cars?

Anne We can’t know what American life would be like without cars, but we do know we would be better off if we all drove less and had fewer cars. There are 220 million vehicles in the United States, more vehicles than people with driver’s licenses, and as a nation we drive nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles each year. If every American family that owns multiple cars owned one fewer, we could reduce household debt by $1.4 trillion. If every car owner in the United States drove just 1,000 fewer miles a year, we could save more than 100 billion gallons of gasoline in the next decade.

Q. And if we did both?

Anne If both these actions were taken, thousands of lives would be saved and tens of thousands fewer people would be injured in car crashes. Also, lower emissions would improve air quality and reduce deaths from air pollution. Not a shabby list of benefits for eliminating just a small percentage of our annual driving.

Q. How much could someone save over, say, 10 or 15 years by not owning a car at all?

Cathy In just one year of not owning a car, which I did while we worked on the book, I saved about $8,000. I got around that year by scooter, by train and occasionally by renting a car. Granted, I live in a compact city—Providence, R.I.—that easily allowed for this. But those options are available to many Americans, particularly if they carefully choose where to live in relation to their work. Most families have multiple vehicles, and by owning one less could save $70,000 to $105,000 over 10 to 15 years.

Q. Especially since the economic downturn, there’s been a lot of attention paid to the growing gap between the richest 5 percent of Americans and everybody else. The car culture, you write, exacerbates this skewed distribution of wealth.

Cathy One of the most surprising things we found was that our car system makes everyone from the poor through the middle class poorer and the rich richer. American cars, even older used ones, are the largest day-in-day-out expense besides housing for any family. They take an especially big bite from the budgets of families with modest incomes. The urban poor in particular find it difficult or impossible to find or keep jobs that they don’t need a car to get to, and are charged more than other buyers for the same cars, loans and insurance.

Q. Why is the country’s reliance on the automobile tougher on older Americans?

Anne Because our communities are often designed in a way that assumes everyone has a car, the majority of Americans need one just to buy a half-gallon of milk or to get to the doctor. Outside of compact urban areas, the aging and aged become more isolated and vulnerable once they no longer drive. Those we spoke with were often very concerned about the loss of mobility they had or would soon experience. Also, the elderly are more prone to injury in a car accident than are younger people, and they have longer recovery times.

Q. What options do they have?

Anne Most would be happy with public transit as an alternative; in fact, four in five seniors tell pollsters they think good public transit is easier and safer than driving—and they’re right.

Q. What about older Americans who can’t access good public transportation?

Anne For drivers at any age, a mix of transportation can keep people mobile. The mix may still include cars, because taking taxis, ride services and carpooling are part of the solution. In a group of seniors, for example, the more capable driver can take the wheel and be a form of designated driver.

Q. What are other solutions?                               

Anne Also, moving to a more walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood is an obvious solution, and if done well before someone needs to give up driving, then the change is a choice, not a hand being forced. Finally and crucially, older voters have a great deal of political power they can bring to bear on local, state and federal governments to help bring about the improvements in public transit more of us will need as our population ages.

Q. You talk about the effect of poor urban planning on people’s lives. How can better urban planning lessen Americans’ dependence on their cars?

Cathy Encouraging both commercial and residential development in areas that are within one-quarter of a mile of public transit, for example, would mean fewer people would have to drive to work or to shop. Creating incentives for higher-density building on smaller lots discourages the kind of sprawl that has created longer commutes and greater distances to shops and leisure activities. Encouraging mixed-use developments—where people live, work and shop in the same area—is another strategy.

Q. What models should we be trying to follow?

Cathy Portland, Ore., is often held up as a model. It has transformed land use by investing in streetcars and light-rail systems. Portland established an urban growth boundary in 1979 that has increased development density inside the line and protected rural and natural resource areas from sprawl. While they increased population density this way, the city’s planners also worked to make these denser neighborhoods easier to get around in by making them pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

But a number of other cities have successful light-rail systems, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and St. Louis. Even a modern, sprawling city like Phoenix has benefited from light rail. Because every town and region is different, the solutions will likely be different across the country as we create a better mix of transportation options.

Q. You sound cautiously optimistic that the United States may be moving toward a more balanced transportation system. What gives you that hope?

Cathy The Obama administration’s proposal for new emissions and mileage standards by 2016 is a promising step toward a saner national fleet of cars, and almost $9 billion has been allocated for public transit as part of the federal stimulus plan. In recent years, more cities and states have invested in light rail and other significant transit projects, and ridership on public transit across the country is up. Warren Buffett’s recent investment in trains shows that private investors see the future of rail transit and transport. Cities with better transit systems and more walkability are seeing population increases, and their families have transportation costs that are $1,300 less on average than those families in more sprawling cities. So there are positive signs of change.

Q. But how long will it take?

Cathy Too long.

Dianne Donovan lives in Baltimore.

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