:  part of the pedestrian and bicycle information center
sitemap about us -> goes to pbic website links join email list ask us a question
  search     go to
outreach and promotion news bicycling crashes policy and planning rails and trails research and development transit image libraryinsight health and fitness education and enforcement design and engineering community problems and solutions
insight home

features & articles
: car culture
: page 1
: page 2
: page 3
: page 4

PBIC Currents

fact sheets

find a ped/bike coordinator

ped/bike websites

who's who in the walking world


Features & Articles : Car Culture

  page: 1 2 3 4

Those Three Little Letters...
Enter the SUV.

Twelve yards long, two lanes wide, sixty five tons of American pride, Canyonero, Canyonero! Top of the line in Utility Sports, unexplained fires are a matter for the Courts, Canyonero, Canyonero! She blinds everybody with her super-high beams, she's a squirrel squashin' deer smackin', drivin' machine, Canyonero, Canyonero!
      —The Simpsons Episode AABF10:
        "Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'"

Much maligned and much admired- depending on which side of the walnut accented-dash and plush, leather-trimmed seats you're sitting- the sports utility vehicle or SUV is the most ostentatious popular product of car culture. Jokes and critics abound. The parody site, for instance "created" their own SUV line. Among the features of the "Dominator" are eight rear wheels "for handling those trips to Sam's Club," and a seating capacity of 20. And, the site is quick to point out, the Dominator fits under MOST bridge underpasses. (If you choose to upgrade to the Grand Dominator, you'll enjoy cathedral ceilings, full lavatory, four cell-phones, TV/VCR/Nintendo 64, Sony DSS satellite, and a permanent cellular link to the internet.)

Although real-life SUVs haven't yet caught up with the Dominator, they're certainly ambitious. Writing for the New York Times Magazine last year, Jeffrey Goldberg invited an utterly disgusted Ralph Nader to ride along as he took the Mercedes Gelandewagen for a spin. Goldberg described the vehicle as being "built like a tank," weighing nearly three tons, and going "from 0 to 1,000 in about two seconds." Nader simply dubbed it the "Stupidwagen." Originally designed for the German military, at $135,000 the "G-wagen" is the most expensive SUV on the market.

At that price tag, the average SUV-buying American is highly unlikely to purchase a G-wagen; when Nader and Goldberg test drove the vehicle last fall, its 150 owners were concentrated mainly in wealthy sections of Southern California and New York City suburbs. But for the less affluent, the Ford Motor company offers a bigger (I didn't say better) option: the Excursion. Although it weighs in at nearly four tons, at $35,000-50,000, the Excursion costs only a fraction of the G-wagen. When the Sierra Club found out the Excursion gets 10-18 miles per gallon, they ran a contest to give it a new slogan. The winner? "The Ford Valdez. Have you driven a tanker lately?" When it became public that the Excursion boasts an optional V10 engine, has six doors and seats nine passengers comfortably, prospective buyers rang up Ford dealerships to get the exact dimensions (it's 19 feet long) of the thing: they wanted to know if it would fit in their garages.

A Love-Hate Relationship
"How can you rough it with a leather interior?" the Dominator's "makers" beg to know.

The truth is, most SUV owners don't. Admittedly the percentage of persons who use the SUV in the true sense of its name "for offroading more than once a year (gravel roads don't count: cars and trucks have been handling them just fine for years), hauling rock climbing and camping gear, etc., is disproportionate to the number of owners.

"No, I've never taken my Explorer off-road," admits one SUV-owning man in Greensboro, N.C. "I guess the point is, I could if I wanted to. And I've had more fun driving this car than anything other I've owned." The majority of SUVs are driven to do the same old everyday errands as a Honda Accord: truth be told, you're more likely to spot an SUV in a stadium parking lot, or waiting outside a super store than you are hurtling up the side of a mountain.

In fact, while taking a lunch break during the writing of this story, I happened to witness a freshly dealer-tagged Cadillac Escalade solidly ram into the side of a gourmet grocery store. Fortunately no one was injured. The motorist was an experienced driver, but obviously not yet accustomed to manuevering the mammoth mobile: quite simply, the hood was too large to see over. In the process of trying to secure a space in the busy parking lot, the Escalade destroyed two newspaper boxes, each the height of a small child.

Even Ford Motor Company president William Clay Ford, Jr. has publicly admitted that "SUVs are generally worse for the environment than passenger cars." Despite their overwhelming popularity, with their environmental damage, safety reputation, and practicality in question, SUVs have received more widespread criticism than any model in recent years.

But is overgrown car culture really the SUV's fault? Or is the SUV merely a warning symptom of our automotive psychosis? After all, the SUV is by no means a recent phenomenon. As Hayes Reed pointed out in "I Want My SUV" in the Sacramento News and Review, "In fact, the longest continuously manufactured model in the country is, believe it or not, the Chevrolet Suburban. That particular four-door heavy-duty truck was introduced in 1935, and GM's been cranking them out every year since."

next page:  For most of us, giving up our cars entirely is not a realistic option, at least not yet. But as most happy couples know, the key to a successful long-term relationship is giving each other space...