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Car Myth, Car Realities: An Anthropology of Americans and their Automobiles
Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez

SFU August 12, 2010

BEST and the  Car Co-op were co-sponsors of this talk which was the last of the book launch tour. The authors said that they had been able to do the transcontinental trip without once stepping in a car.

There is in the US a massive government policy preference for cars. There are now

  • 250m cars and light traucks
  • more cars than drivers
  • 91% of households own a vehicle
  • 3 trillion miles are driven annually
  • Each person spends 18½hrs are spent in the car per week (equivalent to a part-time job)
  • 162k gas stations
  • 750m parking spaces

The car is the most important object in the world but is “little studied as an artefact or cultural system”. Their backgrounds are one in anthropology, the other in business and marketing, and it is these perspectives they bring to the study.

They started by noting the power of nostalgia. Americans have happy early experiences in cars and they recall fondly how it used to be. But humans notice least what is most ubiquitous – fish is to water as humans are to culture. We were raised in a car culture. They interviewed lots of car drivers and owners and  went to car museums, auto shopws, dealeships, car lots, emergency rooms and funeral homes as well as the Detroit vehicle proving grounds. They examined people’s attitudes and behaviour as elements of the car system. That looked at the cultural ideas – like freedom, and family values, which have been co-opted by the car companies and their advertisers. People are now being motivated by marketers to stay in their cars. The question that they wanted to ask was “How do we encourage people to get out of cars?”

The talk examined five myths of car ownership

  1. cars make financial sense
  2. cars are safe
  3. cars are more comfortable than other modes
  4. cars make me an individual
  5. cars provide opportunity – economic especially – “people without cars are losers”.

Cars are a lot like guns:  “Try to pry my steering wheel out of my cold dead hands!”

1. Is it cheaper to drive?

People tend to focus on the price of gas vs the price of a train ticket (for example). The obsession with gas pricesmeans that people do not tend to look at the entire cost of a car which is $8,000 pa,  of which gas $1,581. This is based on a new midsized car in 2009. Transportation now accounts for 17.9% of household spending and is second on the list: shelter is 19% and No 1. The average vehicle loan was $15,000 in 1970, but rose to $27,000 2010. The personal savings rate dropped from 10% in 1985 to 4% in 2009.

Government policy initiatives have all been about the  health and well being of the car corporations. For instance the  “cash for clunkers” program tempted individuals  to over borrow: they were encouraged to buy new cars when they woudl normally replace their old clunker with another used, but somewhat newer, car. In recent years we have see the  “gigantification” and luxurization of cars. Car loans are up to eight years long. It is often the case that people go “payment shopping” what they can acquire for a given monthly payment, not what they “need”. In recent years the market share of small cars has been dropping.

2.  Cars are safe

We now think that there is such a thing as “safe car”: it is not seen as an oxymoron. She showed a Mercedes Benz commercial which emphasized the feeling of safety. At the proving grounds when putting new cars through their paces they were constantly asked, after driving over a skid pan for instance “Do you feel in control?”. We have been easily sold on feeling of safety: technology, we think, can help us solve problems that cars introduced. This is seen also in insurance ads – (in Florida 25% of drivers now have no insurance).

Drivers tend blame other drivers, weather etc not themselves for crashes. Driving is not seen as a dangerous activity. The idea is that cars can make us safer in an unsafe world. The car makers play to a generalized fear of violent crime – people think that it is rising when it is fact falling – dangerous weather – illustrated by an On Star from GM automated crash response. We believe that  kids are safer if we drive them rather than allow them to use transit and a car with the right air filter can protect us from air pollution. However the relaity is that for people aged 3 to 34 the car is the No 1 killer. The rates of fatalities have remained remarkably steady over number of years but the number of severe collisions increased because we drive so much more. In  2008/9 the roads got safer because we drove less. Fatalities are actually the least part of the problem: the huge number of serious and severe collisions produce lifelong suffering for those injured to the extent that there is now a “hidden nation of the disabled”.

3  Cars are comfortable

This section was introdued with another ad that showed a mother deciding to spend a “spa day in the back seat” of her car. Once again the car is presented as the solution to the problems created by the car in this case the solution to traffic induced stress. Many people say “I hate driving, I am sick of it” but then go on “If I had a new car …”

Car ads have now moved to the city but there are still no other cars on the road: “even the pedestrians part like the Red Sea for Moses”. Research shows that people with long [car] commutes are unhappier – and so are their spouses – and it is the unpredictability of commute time that drives us mad.

4  Cars make me an individual

The myth is that buses and trains are for the masses, whereas the make and model of car you drive can distinguish you. When people paid cash for cars it was a fair marker of social class. These days people want to believe that their car matches their personality. The car is an accurate self expression for around 40% of drivers: the others said they can’t afford “the car that is really me”. In many ways we express ourselves through “social skin”, our choice of clothes for example.  The car industry has capitalised on this – if you are eco minded you need a hybrid!

5  Cars provide opportunity

Most people see the car as essential to attaining The American Dream. There is a  $20bn pa budget for car advertising, and a popular belief that if the poor had a car they could get a job. Cars are in reality the  most significant factor in inequality: transportation takes a proportionately bigger bite of the income of the poor. At the edge of car ownership many are just one car repair or parking ticket away from carlessness. The poor are subject to higher rates for loans, dealer fraud, and insurance rates by zipcode. There is a business called Rent a Tire – it may be the only way for some people to to get their car through a mandatory vehicle inspection. However renting a set of tires for a year costs far more than compared to ownership.  There has been a great expansion of car title loans, where the value of the car is used as security for a loan and of course leads to  repossession in default.

Challenges and opportunities

  • financial literacy

  • misplaced fears

  • ease and comfort of alternatives

  • alternatives will promote mobility, prop[???] and equity

  • attractive social identity around alternatives

  • generational changes – children now are not as keen on car ownership as their parents

  • positive form of identity

One sign of hope may be the recent drop in car sales.

US Vehicle Sales Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate

US Vehicle Sales Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate

Q & A

Q Can you say more about your perceptions about new drivers

A   I teach a lot of 16year olds: while there is  joy and delight at getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage, the parents seem to be more excited than the kids. The data shows that there are more kids who don’t need to drive, due to the recession there are fewer jobs to get to, and parents are still willing to drive them. But also there is the rise of youth bike culture.

Q I hope you know that the car commercials are filmed in Vancouver. We close the streets off for them. How much were people aware of the allocation of road space – and land use – of the suburban lifestyle

A – There are lightbulb moments – where you live creates the problem – and from that has grown a movement to defend the rights of the suburb dwellers. While many people are feeling trapped by sprawl – when buying a house further out they felt that they didn’t have a lot of choice because that’s where housing is affordable. We did note a sense of helplessness.

Q – Your mention of nostalgia reminded me that it is a classic sign of addiction. Perhaps should do the same as for somking and drinking and ban car ads

A – We certainly need to ban car ads aimed at children – the No 1 killer of kids is cars. However cars are now the primary source of revenue thew in US for the media, so they would be at risk to that loss.

Q – I recall that my first joy was the bike. I would like to connect to that: ads for trucks to rip up environment – throw something out of the window – permission to pollute: the message seems to be “Its OK to destroy your world!”

A  – That is an excellent insight into legitimising ads – there are many subliminal messages

Q – Do you look at the impact of car on climate

A –  We touch on it. The  household portion of the emissions that give rise to global warming could be tipping point but we were probably more optimistic then(when we wrote that) than now. Many americnas worry about CC but put their faith in technology is unshaken

Q – GM disassembled the streetcars – and  foretold what was coming with Futurama. Now they are bulldozing Detroit suburbs

A – We met many people who are working on changes. For example one planner who is finding new space for urban commercial development buy simply taking out  turn lanes. There is a growing understanding that the environment should not be held hostage to the car.

Q – Do people understand the economic relationship of transportation and housing? For instance the “need” to drive until you can afford the mortgage?

A – People don’t understand that: while  the idea that 30% is a reasonable share of income to be spent on housing, very few understand that 45% should be the maximum on housing and transportation combined and  lots of education is needed

[POSTSCRIPT There is now another tool that helps

Walk Score — the handy Web site which ranks a person’s home based on how close it is to nearby shops, restaurants and schools — has expanded the service to include a new transit rating. The Transit Score is now available for residences in more than 40 cities in the U.S., helping home owners or potential home owners to determine how accessible properties are to high-quality public transportation. Like Walk Score, it ranks the home on a scale of 0 to 100.

source Puget Sound Business Journal]

Q – Where do we go next? By the way there is a culture of transit for instance “Toronto loves the TTC”, Boston and the T, and so

A – There are both push and pull factors. Recently I became a victim of ebike ride addiction – “I got high” – – take ’em on a trip

Q – US gas prices July 2008 was the peak $4.10 – we pay that now here $1.10 litre – Is there a relationship between price of gas and willingness to drive

a – Increasing the gas tax would make other other options attractive but it is a difficult issue. I am not sure there is one number: moreover increasing the gas tax hurts the poor – and there are widespread anti tax sentiments – so it is not a politically viable option. But peak oil is here and people are now discovering their own limits without  the gas tax increase.  $4 caused people to drive less but it was the volatility and speed it happened that caused the change in driving habits.

Q  – When local communities reach their tipping point, what will the car companies do then?

A – Car ads have relocated, the battleground has shifted. Ray la Hood [the US Secretray of transportation] is now the villain for the right wing. Why does Rush Limbaugh love sprawl? He gets more listeners on the car radios when they are stuck in traffic. They also keep promising us electric cars, but selling us SUVs.

Q – Our prov government is conflicted. We have a carbon tax but also a road building program. The perception is that transit is subsidized, yet the auto is more subsidized.  Do you have that data on that in your book?

A – We do cover that. Oil subsidies and and the car company bail out are now both  unpopular. We do cover how much of your tax dollars go to car industry.



Two Americans have a new book aimed at Americans. Our problems may be similar, but we heard not one word about Canada until the audience spoke. Even then I found it laughable that Torontonians love the TTC! In my experience in  every city where I have been, transit users are always highly critical of their own transit system and especially the body that runs it.

I would like to have heard one thing that was new to me. I did not. I did not feel I needed to buy the book, even though it was being offered signed and at a discount. Not that anything they said was wrong either – just that it wasn’t news. Nor, I suspect, was it to anyone in the audience either, though everyone who spoke was very complimentary. It was a sermon to the converted. Just how many copies of tis book will find their way into the cold dead hands now on the steering wheels? Very few, I’m afraid.

I am also stunned still by their assertion that the car is “little studied as an artefact or cultural system”. I am sure that is not so. Since the appearance of  “Unsafe at any speed” there has been a steady stream of books aimed at car culture.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Posted in Transportation

5 Responses

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  1. Like Stephen I walked out without a copy of the book. It was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, but I didn’t hear much from the authors that was new to me. Nor do I suspect it was news to most of the audience. My impression is that audience contained a high percentage of members from the sponsor organizations (B.E.S.T. & Co-operative Auto Network), cycling and transit advocacy groups, along with some idealistic students. Someone was dressed in an “I love Canada Line” shirt; I suspect it was Jhenifer from the Buzzer blog.

    I think “well studied” isn’t quite the right term. As Stephen noted there have been a number of books written on the subject. The problem is that most North Americans don’t read books and if they do they mostly read fiction.

    The message really needs to hit the mass media, but it won’t. The auto makers’ $20 billion annual advertising budget is just too much money for newspapers and television to ignore. I’m quite certain I read last year that if local papers like the Courier stopped printing their regular car sections the loss of advertising revenue would force them to shut down.

    Add institutional bias toward cars from other major influences in our lives like government and the only messages we see are pro-car.

    I have to plead guilty to exposing my children to car culture. I let them watch commercial television where vehicle ads show up every few minutes and they love the Disney Pixar movie Cars. We have a family car that we use for recreation and shopping. I drive my son to pre-school because we really like the instructor and trying to take the bus would not only take 4 times as long it would require my 3 year old to walk a considerable distance. We’re also guilty of buying him his own toy cars after he took a strong interest in them at daycare. He has toy trains too, but even at the age of 3 my son knows they require the hassle of setting up track. He drives his cars on every available surface from tables and chairs to the top of my head when he can get away with it.

    On the flip side my wife has no drivers licence and she walks our daughter to school. After dropping off my son I take transit to work and he likes to point out the station where I get on the train. Although my kids enjoy counting certain kinds of car, they also get excited about seeing buses and trains. My son looks forward to days when his pre-school takes a bus to another pre-school and my daughter likes taking the bus with classmates and trips with Mommy. One of the highlights of summer vacation is getting to see big freight trains every day.

    We treat the car simply as a tool for getting from one place to another and don’t glorify it. I never talk about getting a newer, bigger/smaller, better car.


    August 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm

  2. The Canada Line t shirt was worn by Karen Quinn Fung – a postgraduate student and advocate for transit. She was the organiser of a Transit Camp in Vancouver not so long ago. She is on my blogroll as Countably Infinite.

    Stephen Rees

    August 13, 2010 at 5:44 pm

  3. David, you are the third person to confuse me with Jhenifer (including a troll on YouTube). It must be the haircut, or something about us both being young Asian women in Vancouver blogging happily about transit. ;P

    I’ll agree that none of it struck me as particularly new, as I had heard a lot of it when Katie Alvord gave her a presentation of her book “Divorce Your Car: Ending the Love Affair with the
    Automobile” at the closing plenary of the CUTA Youth Summit in 2008, and there had also previously been work around the idea of the feeling of safety being in sold in cars.

    What would have been very interesting to me is to see the authors being a lot more specific in their recommendations on how to reframe transit. The American Public Transportation Association (who held their conference here in June) are just scratching the surface on social media campaigns to amplify alternative perspectives towards public transit. It’s probably near impossible in the States, but it sounds like a good start is to concentrate on giving children positive experiences with transit and bike riding.

    That said, I know there’s lots of work already being done on that front. Now we just have to retrofit our cities to catch up…that was where Lutz’s comment on “being trapped by the built environment” really resonated with me.

    Karen Quinn Fung

    August 13, 2010 at 6:37 pm

  4. […] and Mail] Vancouver gallery faces staff revolt over funding of new buildings [Globe and Mail] Carjacked [Stephen Rees's […]

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  5. […] 25, 2010 In a recent talk at SFU to present their book, Carjacked, Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz fernandez were mentioning as a myth […]

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