What Grinds Our Gears About Cars
Now that I’ve gotten my letter to my own little clunker out of the way (and promised to take her to the car wash at least soon). I want to get into what I believe are the issues that urbanists and honestly everyone has with cars.
Expensive to Maintain
I just dropped nearly half a grand on a timing belt. I’m thankful that the thing didn’t break, otherwise it would have been far more. Honda’s are great, because outside of this one part, our maintenance doesn’t really get out of hand. Feed them oil roughly every 3,000 miles, of course give them gas to drink on the regular and they don’t really have problems. And I’m a post 100,000-miler too, I hear that I may reach 300,000 total miles before Betsy decides to pass on and that’s exciting.
Yet, for so many people, this isn’t the story. Some know going in that they are going to have high repair bills if they buy something older or European. Some people love spending money to build up cars. We love them too, because if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t see working models of amazing classic cars, such as old school Mustangs, smooth Packards. and anything that had wings. Yet, there’s the poor soul who takes the shiny car home and no sooner than the new car smell has worn off, the smell of lemon waifs from the smoke coming from out of the hood and that’s not fresh at all. This all assumes that a person can afford any car at all, since the cost of entry isn’t cheap and when it is, you may be looking at a string of lemons, all with thousands of dollars of maintenance attached.
Cars are killers. Depending on the demographic group you choose, car accidents kill more people than cancer and AIDS. Plus, the idea that you literally are inches from taking someone’s life if you blink or don’t pay attention for one moment, is figuratively killer. Even more the horror of being hit by someone not paying attention. Less fatal, but no less annoying is the flat tire waiting for you first thing in the morning in the parking lot. Or the bird poop in the middle of the windshield. Or the various dings and dents you didn’t do. Or maybe you did in my case. Sigh. Back to parking in the back of the Target parking lot. Instant walkability! Exercise!
Can introduce you to my friend GasBuddy? I’m sure he’s a lot of folk’s friends too. I’m old enough to remember when gas was last $0.79 for Unleaded 87, but young enough to have not been driving when it was that cheap. Bummer. By the time I really got cranked up and rolling around, gas was regularly above 3 bucks a gallon. Of course there was that spring where we saw prices drop in the $2/gallon range. I’m at the point now where I celebrate the dimes. Ten cents cheaper. Yay! And three cents more off with my Sheetz card! Even better. And once again, when you are 20 in the city/28 on the highway, you don’t have to whine too much. Just be jealous of the Prius and even Honda Hybrid folks. And remember, once again, the folks with the 12-17 miles a gallon tanks are hurting. They need the van for the kids, but they might not be able to treat them thanks to the gas bill. Don’t be too hard on those folks though. The average person can’t help it that all the kid’s activities are spread out. The powers to be, can work on funding parks and recreation programs, in each neighborhood, that might reduce this burden on families who want their kids to be involved in something besides sitting in the house messing with the X-Box. And if this is you, as we say in the South, bless your heart. How many of us also love having a friend with a pickup truck? Guzzles gas, but gets all the IKEA boxes home or moves the kid to college. One last note here, price may not be an issue for you with maintenance or gas. However, does the smell bother you? What about smog? While there are some studies saying that hybrid models and alternative fuels don’t really help with the ozone layer and carbon problems, in some areas, they would be a dramatic difference, namely those where the sky is brown, when it should be blue.
I honestly don’t think anyone likes parking. People who have issues with driving don’t like physically squeezing their baby (or burden) into spaces that are either too tight or the wrong shape. My most recent bump-up was trying to squeeze into something that was the former. And come to think of it, my very first bump-up was parking related. Meanwhile, many folks who haven’t studied transportation planning don’t understand this, but in popular areas, parking is in high demand, therefore, there is a market value to it. In other words, when a lot of people want to park, some are willing to pay to park just to park. That kills free parking, just because parking isn’t around. This happens in big cities regularly, but even in somewhere small on First Friday, parking gets scarce. And we all know scarcity is a part of supply and demand, therefore part of the marketplace. For those of you who want an even more wonkish answer, Donald Shoup is the expert on this whole why is parking worth money thing. He wrote a paper, then a book on it. He also has found that charging for parking makes people park less, and makes them walk, bike or take transit more. Which makes since, in a perfectly dense market like Manhattan. Downtown Greensboro on a quiet Friday morning, not so much.
Who doesn’t enjoy the thought of driving certain cars around. I’ve seen a couple recent pictures on social networks of some of the most rabid railfans I know relishing driving classic cars. And I just sung the praises of the people who keep the classics on the roads and available for a nice leisurely drive away from wedding venues with cans banging on the ground. The problem though, is when there’s no such thing as Point A to Point B without putting a key in the ignition. Especially when it’s just you and the car. No other people. No groceries. No IKEA flattened box. We need to work so that the only vehicles on the road are those making out-of-town or crosstown trips, those in taxis or taxi-like services, buses, cargo trucks and anything that counts as a human service vehicle (i.e. people who can’t walk due to health issues).
To close, there are plenty of reasons why cars grind our gears. Yet even as those gears crank too tight, there are advantages to having them. Come back next post for the reasons why cars can work in a walkable, sustainable, urbanist environment.
Kristen Jeffers is The Black Urbanist. She holds an MPA with a concentration in community and economic development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She writes to bring together the community members with its designers, planners, policy-makers and visionaries. She's been obsessed with cities since her childhood, when she started taking trips on the floor with maps, toy ...