“You don’t have a car anymore? I bet it was hard adapting to this lifestyle, huh?”
“Yea it was, except the difficult part wasn’t getting around, but becoming comfortable with the idea of not owning a car.”
American Cities Have an Automobile Addiction
“It wasn’t getting around?” It’s hard to believe that. After all, America has an automobile dependency issue. It’s a vicious cycle that works like an addiction:
When a place is getting congested, we build more roads. To do that effectively, we get rid of “impediments” to traffic flow, such as pedestrians, signalized crossings, cyclists, and trams. These sprawling roads stamp out buildings and replace them with parking lots, open-air shopping streets with enclosed malls, and walk-in businesses with drive-in ones. Slowly, cities become hostile to pedestrians, cyclists, and other transit options. More people are forced to drive and are denied the freedom of choice, which crams more cars onto the streets. And then we have traffic congestion all over again.
We have evolved our cities and suburbs to accommodate more cars at the expense of other modes of transport. This is a vicious cycle of automobile dependency, and the nature of which is no different from an addiction, one that is deeply carved into our urban landscape and modern culture. Living in an American suburb without driving a car is flat-out impractical for those with kids to send to school, no transit options, and errands to run.
No wonder Americans are so dependent on cars.
However, the problem in my choice to not own a car wasn’t my mobility, but rather something else.
Cultural Barrier to Becoming a Non-Owner
Two months ago, I moved to Mountain View and decided to put off buying a car until I settled in. Nobody thought I was going to last long without wheels in a gasoline-powered American suburb, but nervous to swerve off the paved road, I began life without owning a car.
Two months later, I looked at my spending and summed up my monthly transportation costs: $300±20, which is cheaper than the average cost to maintain a car. Suddenly, I could no longer justify owning a car.
In my process of adapting to a lifestyle without auto-ownership, what I found harder than getting around was becoming comfortable with the idea of not owning a car. Living in a culture where cars are essential to most, ditching car ownership feels unnerving, powerless, even embarrassing. To many, owning a car is a rite of passage, it means that you have come of age and maturity, and have acquired a piece of adulthood.
I was extremely uncomfortable when I imagined this scenario: after a friend gathering, everyone else is swooshing away in their fancy wheels and I’m the only one left waiting for an Uber, in my mortal flesh. Car-less. Naked. Stuck. Desperate. Ugh, what a humiliating experience, poor kid! But why is this experience humiliating?
I think it’s an image problem. Mainstream thought goes: a man with a car is a man of capability and power with complete control over his freedom. A man with no car lacks something. This something implies more than just a gas-powered vehicle. Yes, that’s right, I was uncomfortable with my image and having the classic insecurity of not owning something everyone else does — without a car, was I still an adult?
The Dying Love for Ownership and Shifting Definition of “Freedom”
The reality is, the emergence of new transportation makes car ownership less and less appealing. Post-recession sales numbers might say otherwise, but the general trend is that millennials are less enamored with ownership and leaning more towards practicality and value. For those who still drive, car leasing is becoming ever more popular. In some circumstances, people like me completely rely on ride-sharing and public transit to get around.
Admittedly, I only spend $300 on transportation because I take shuttles to and back from work, which is mainly what most people use cars for. However, with the increasing amount of investment into transportation infrastructure, self-driving cars and trucks, and ride-sharing platforms, an increasing number of people will have more options to reach their destinations. It’s likely that sometime in the future even the farm towns in the Midwest will no longer require hands on wheels.
Will our generation grow up to send our kids to school using one of those “Uber for Kids” apps? Maybe, but the important thing is: we’re getting more choices. Car ownership and leasing won’t be our only options anymore.
Today, in cities like Tokyo and Shanghai where transit options are abundant, freedom means mobility without the crippling financial and materialistic burdens or the sacrifice of citizens who can’t drive. They are no less mobile. But we don’t need every suburban town to become dense urban centers to enjoy more transit choices, I think progress in our transportation industry, from autonomous cars to efficiently optimized carpool network, will change how we define “transit” and by extension, “freedom.” The image of a car-less adult won’t become a novelty for much longer.
Empowerment and Freedom of Choice
Can a country so fond of personal vehicles and with a passion for freedom in every sense of the word make an uncharacteristic switch to relying on other people to drive us? I’m not sure. But I think the choice of non-ownership will become more common and its values more recognized.
Not being forced to own a car is an empowering privilege, and it’s going to be more and more common. After all, it gives us financial flexibility, time, and freedom of choice. People should not feel afraid, but empowered to have more options to get around.
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This article was originally published on Fwd: Thoughts, a publication Jasper and I run on Medium. Follow us there if you'd like to read our thoughts on tech, design, and business.