Your Car Is Only a Fashion Statement

by Tony Chavira

When you know that you can get around in a bus or a train, or on a bike, pogo stick, unicycle, roller-skates or a skateboard, what the hell is the point in owning a car? Well, when plain ol’ T-shirts get the job done, what’s the point in owning anything else to cover your torso?

The answer is the same: because cars are only fashion statements: customized expressions of who you are, what you think of yourself and what you want to convey to those around you. The means to get around still exist in the city, but if you own a car it says something about you ... that you don’t take the bus to work every day, or bike to work every day, or take the train to work every day. You have a car! You can drive people around, you can haul heavier things with you, you can take your kid to soccer practice, you can buy a ton of groceries, and you can go from your door at home to your door at work without any real downtime (aside from time spent in traffic, of course).

Oh, and you can pay through the teeth in order to do all of those things. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that the average household spent roughly $8,758 in 2007 on all transportation (although only about $537.81 went to non-car stuff, including public transit and plane travel). To compare, the average cost of owning a bike per year is estimated by the New York Times at about $390 per person. So let’s say you have 10 people cramped into your home and everyone’s biking it ... that’s a hefty $3,900 annually between 10 people. The average cost of a new car or truck per year (just one) was about $1,571.80. Ergo, 10 bikes = 2 cars. Although bikes are clearly a bargain, admit it ... they’re just not as cool. Plus you can’t rev bikes at stoplights or do donuts with a bike in a parking lot and leave kickass skidmarks in the ground. And picking up dates on bikes feels pretty “14 years old” to me. I’d just recommend you use public transit instead, friend.

What does it mean not to own a car, exactly? Especially in Los Angeles—a city that’s helplessly car-dependent—does it mean being somehow lower on the socioeconomic totem pole? In the 1950s, this kind of disparity was much more prevalent: white flight was exacerbated by the fact that wealthy whites in cities had the ability to purchase cars and work higher-paying jobs in further-off areas. Poor blacks, on the other hand, could not afford cars, were less able to compete for jobs due to this, and therefore became more and more locked to their communities. Money in these communities rarely went in or out, and the local economies in places like the Adams District were largely limited to the borders of the Adams District.

Chinese DMV

Today, everyone and their mom’s got a car ... and it’s pretty easy to get one if you get your license. And it’s pretty easy to get your license as long as you a) don’t drive like a moron on your behind-the-wheel test, and b) read the back of the Chinese phone books for the answers to all of the DMV test questions. Yes, they’re all there. Once you have the license in hand, the sky’s the limit. And by “the sky,” I mean your budget. I’m sure enough of you out there have seen “My Super Sweet 16” on MTV to know that the only thing a 16-year-old girl wants for her sweet 16 is a Land Rover. Unless you get her a Range Rover; that will also do. How these spoiled-rotten-to-the-core 16-year-old horrors get what they want is very far beyond me, and studies have shown that giving your kids a car before the age of 18 is associated with both lower effort and underachievement in college. That’s right, providing your children with a status symbol before the age of 18 creates a high probability that they will not do as well in college. Although I guess the strength of that argument depends on which you think is a more important status symbol: a car or a college education. Let’s save that argument for another article.

Everyone knows that car ownership is a status symbol, but I don’t think anyone wants to think about what kind of symbol. I would argue that owning a car these days can give someone an automatically negative impression of who you are and the area in which you live. As an outcome of the financial downturn, the poor and destitute are increasingly moving into the suburbs. These areas are also becoming increasingly more dangerous and isolated, but that information isn’t new. From 1970 to 1980, there was a 130.7% increase in crime rates in the suburbs, versus a 47.4% increase in dense cities. And those were recession times.

The problem with increased crime and poverty in the suburbs is that there really aren’t that many jobs in the suburbs. So what do people do? They buy cars and they drive to work in the city. Does that mean that people who own cars are more likely to be poor compared to those who do not? Not necessarily, but it does mean that people who are less well-off have no choice but to use a car in order to survive. Worse, I mention in a previous article about the Bay Area Burden that transportation costs will continue to increase the further you live from work. This means that people that live in suburbs, are poorer, and spend a disproportionate amount of their income on transportation all happen to use cars.

In Japan, the youth population have begun to shun cars entirely. Since their infrastructure is pretty accommodating and urban, many don’t need them and see them as the financial and physical burdens car actually are. When monthly parking runs about $300 and gas is at $3.50 per liter, how else can young Japanese people see car ownership except as a ridiculous liability? Japanese car companies are naturally scared as hell that a whole generation sees their status symbols as pointless garbage, so they’re busting out every flashy marketing campaign you can imagine to enamor this high-tech younger generation with the latest combustion engine technology of the early 1900s. So far, things aren’t looking too good with an expected further drop of 11% in sales in the country.

On top of all of this, car-parking requirements in the city of Los Angeles continue to kill smart-growth opportunities for easy-to-use city spaces. The L.A. Business Journal has a telling story about the tragic fate of a fantastic-sounding ground-floor development:

Car parking requirements forced us to shrink everything—the ground-floor commercial was squeezed into a 400-square-foot space; the building had to have an extra story just so we could stuff a bunch of cars underneath. The cost on paper shot up, meaning that our four one-bedroom apartments turned into four studio condominiums—and once you subdivide a property into condos, you have to go through a whole bunch of planning hoops, bumping up costs even more.

This easy $200,000 construction project turned into a super-risky $1.2 million, four-story fiasco.

To make a profit, we’d have to sell 800-square-foot studio units for nearly $400,000 apiece! Even at the height of the boom, that was insane. So, after months of meetings, research and design sessions, the tiny project was scrapped.

The car parking requirements killed our project, which was precisely the sort of infill development that politicians and neighbors wanted: low density, modest heights, and room for small local businesses to thrive. Plus, we could have made some real money.

The question you should be asking yourself right now is this: is my city trying to accommodate cars or me? If you answered “cars,” you would probably be correct. But if you answered “me” you should probably look a second time at that pretentious hybrid sticker on your Prius and realize that you’ve been duped into somehow thinking that it makes you elite. But you’ll still get stuck in traffic, you’ll still blow a ton of cash on maintenance, and it will always be worth less tomorrow than it was yesterday, just like everyone else’s car. A car is still just a car, no matter what you’re driving. Yours does the same thing everyone else’s does; you just might be dumb enough to believe that yours does it better because you dished out (and continue to dish out) more of your money for it.

Next time you jump in your car, ask yourself how you feel when you’re in it.

Then ask yourself how you might feel if you were in a more expensive car.

Then ask yourself what it might be like if you never needed to use your car. Ever.

Then take your pick.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


after a couple of years (at least) of complaining about not having a car, my son finally got into the swing of public transportation and now loves it.  seems a lot of the young folk in the heart of the city are using it too and it has become a cool thing.

imagine that.  btw i have a hybrid with a sticker and it did save me time.  but that was before i moved out of state.  i still look at it with love.  ah.  the good old days.

2010-05-13 by florence

I doubt I would need a car if I lived in the city. I was perfectly happy using the subway in NYC to get around during my trip; it’s simple, it’s easy, and there is always more than one way to get to point B. Unfortunately, bus systems around my house are very time-sensitive and I do not like being so forced to stay to a schedule.

2010-05-27 by Mimosa

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