Features & Articles : Car Culture
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Way We Were
We can't look back at these decades without thinking of the cars that
guided us through them, our collective memories tangled with that
of a prized Bel-Air, a double-finned Thunderbird, a dangerously cool
Corvair, Herbie the Love Bug, the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee,
Knight Rider's KITT. I wasn't born until the mid-Seventies (just after
the gas crisis, in fact), but I have my own nostalgia cars: the 65
Dodge Dart GT with Slant Six engine that I just sold, the bright orange
Volvo station wagon my friends' mother drove, my grandfather's El
Camino and also his lemon yellow Volkswagen, another grandfather's
old green Ford truck, the Chevy Nova my mom drove 'til its bitter
overheated end. (My father, as you might guess, never held on to a
car long enough for me to form a real attachment.)
However, unlike many kids growing up today, my automobile memories
are dwarfed by those of roaming through our town and woods every day,
by walking home from school with my friends, biking to the store and
swimming pool. In her book Asphalt Nation, The Nation
architecture and planning critic Jane Holtz Kay cites a study which
pitted the lives of ten-year-old children living in an unwalkable
southern California suburb against those of children growing up in
a walkable small town in Vermont. The researchers found that the California
children watched four times as much television as did the Vermont
children. Their inside world was simply much more inviting than the
Are today's kids going to wax nostalgia about the sight of a clogged
highway as seen from the backseat of the minivan? Of eating dinner
in Mom's SUV? I sure hope not. But that seems to be the way we're
headed. As a child I remember being enchanted by displays of custom
vans with beds, televisions, and mini-bars. At that time, that kind
of excess was rare, as novelty and foreign to me as a bubbling jacuzzi
in a stretch limousine.
Living Rooms on Wheels
"Cars have gotten too comfortable," fumes septuagenarian Ina Evans
of Chapel Hill, N.C. "I recently read an advertisement for a car with
chintz seats. Chintz seats! I thought it was a living room."
For many of us, that's exactly what cars have become.
More than an SUV, it's an office on wheels. With a
power outlet located in the dash, center console box and rear cargo
area, you can connect your fax machine. Plug in your laptop. Then
tell your assistant in the back to hold all calls.
A vehicle so large, it has two separate climates... You must admit
those heated front seats are quite inviting after yet another corporate
Ad copy for the
2000 Lexus 470
The Lexus is one of the most egregious examples of car comfort. But
many drivers would not consider its amenities the least bit outrageous.
Cars have always been vehicles for dozens of things other than their
We live in our cars. We blast music and listen to books and the news.
We try to learn languages. We rehash the day's events-- or try to
forget them. We talk on the phone: we conduct business. We chat. We
argue. We eat and drink. We shop. We check our e-mail. And- oh yeah-
In Atlanta, Ga., a city notorious for its out-of-control sprawl, commuters
spend an median time of 31 minutes in their car every day, more than
any other large city on the planet. Some people spend more time in
their vehicles than they do with their families.
And at what cost? By some estimates we average upwards of $6000 yearly
to own and operate an automobile.
Every second we drive 60,000 miles, use 3,000 gallons
of petroleum products and dump 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into
the atmosphere. And the amount of energy used and waste procuced
to manufacture 15 million vehicles a year is not well documented.
We give over half our cities to roads and parking lots.
Jane Holtz Kay,
"Overheated Car Culture"
Only every so often do we stop and consider the impact that car culture
has on our planet. Environmental awareness really took hold in the
1970s when cars formed huge centipede-like lines at the gas pumps
during that decade's fuel crisis. It caused some Americans to opt
for more fuel-efficient vehicles- for a while at least. But when money
is aplenty and gas prices are cheap- which, until this spring was
the case- it's easy for many of us to ignore the environmental organizations
and others who point to statistics about the damage caused by our
SUV...much maligned and much admired...