Urban road warriors

by Carolyn Chase


y husband laughs at me when I habitually record my car's mileage, gallons of gas and price at every gasoline purchase. I inherited this practice from my Depression-era dad who recorded every penny; my mom would calculate the mileage. They also used it as a way to track maintenance and changes that could indicate systems which needed repair. It was their property and they took care of it. But he was right in noting that I had long ago lapsed from doing anything with it. So the other day, I decided to check-in to my car reality and see how we were doing.

Just as I was congratulating myself for getting an acceptable 32 miles-a-gallon, a Sport Utility Vehicle drove up. It was then it dawned on me how wealthy Americans are. To begin, with you have to lay out a minimum of an additional ten or twenty grand to buy one of these urban tanks. But the day-to-day operating and insurance costs must be at least double - and some triple - what I'm paying. The day I paid cash for my current zippy, red convertible, I cut my trips to the gas station in half, cut my gas bills in half and cut my pollution in half and I've never looked back.

Now, I don't have to provide a vanpool for kids either. But SUVs go above and beyond the needs of family life. They are a statement that size matters. They are designed to be big for bigness sake. The ultimate irony is that their very size undermines their safety, so we have the worse of all worlds: a big, dangerous, polluting machine only for the wealthy.

Don't bother to write to tell me that you own an SUV and you are not wealthy. This is an empirical impossibility. You may not realize your wealth, but trust me, if you own and operate an SUV you are part of an elite class. Poor people cannot afford the care and feeding of such a machine. Transportation systems in America are becoming more and more the great dividing line between rich and poor.

I used to do some volunteer counseling with middle and lower income individuals struggling to make it in San Diego. Their typical common characteristics were too much debt and too low an income. The process of climbing out of this hole entails making a list of all the people you owe money to. Prioritizing, consolidating and reducing then follows. At some point, people are forced to face the costs of care and feeding of the automobile. This is why I say poor people cannot own a car. When it comes down to it, you have to choose between a place to live and a car, or you end up living in your car. For poorer people, it's not question of which car, it's a question of any car at all.

But without systems designed for people without cars, this becomes a wrenching process of giving up a part of your identity and part of your freedom. Owning a car becomes a requirement of social status. If you can't afford to get around in your own car, you may feel less of a person. This is much less pronounced in other cities, where some wealthy people actually can be seen using public transportation and systems exist for people to get where they need to go. But in California especially, cars not only represent freedom, but also status for many people.

Car fantasy is very much divorced from car reality. Has anybody else noticed how you never see more than one car in a car commercial? SUVs particularly, are always shown as driving in the most egregious locations, environmentally speaking: through the middle of creeks, up the sides of mountains. You name it, an SUV is shown pounding over it.

They are not selling cars per se, they are selling freedom and power. More money buys you more "freedom" and more horsepower. At the same time, you end up pouring more and more of your money into the running of the machine. Car reality is SUVs and trucks getting 15 mpg, global warming, smog and traffic jams. The irony is that now we all have the "freedom" to purchase and care for a car, we have lost the real freedom of not having to own one.

This is simply another social wrong brought about by a lack of foresight about sustaining systems for the community good. We've designed most of our communities in a short-sighted, car-focused way and all along with society's willing and utterly understandable and even enthusiastic consent.

So why do I say it's "wrong"? Because you shouldn't be labeled or made to feel like some kind of second-class citizen just because you don't or can't adopt a car. There are many people who cannot drive cars, regardless of their economic status, and this number is growing. My parents are now 81 and 82 and are still keeping their car log. But they shouldn't be driving. For years now, mom has told me how she has to watch dad every moment, because he has a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel. Years ago, my father told me that my mother shouldn't be driving alone anymore. A few weeks ago when I called, I learned by mother was planning to drive my father to the hospital for tests after a fall. I told her she should not be driving. "Don't tell me that," she said. "But you know it's true," I persisted. "Call the hospital and tell them you need to be picked up." She doesn't think they offer that service. They don't want to pay for it. They can't get to a bus. Our suburbs are designed so that people require cars to get around. But more and more people simply won't be able to drive.

If growth keeps up without community and transit system design and support, more and more of us won't want to.