12 July, 2008

Death Knell for a Car Culture

Gas prices these days, as my grandmother would say - and often, still, does - are rigoddamndiculous which, of course, is an example of an expletive infixation. In one year, the price of gas has risen by over a dollar a gallon (July 9, 2007 - the price of a gallon of regular gasoline in Chicago clocked in at $3.149; source here; in just 18 months, the price of a barrel of oil has risen from $50 to $140, source here) and this is in combination with an already depressed US Dollar and an economy that is heading into the proverbial shitter.

I used to work in the City so my commute involved a train, a book and my iPod and the price of gas didn't affect me so much. But I've filled up twice this week commuting to my new job and come to find out, it affects me quite a lot now. When the needle is on "E" and you have to choose the closest station, try not to be caught in the Schaumburg area. That's just an FYI. I actually paid $4.42/gallon for 2 gallons this week - I didn't pump anymore than that because I knew the stations closer to my house were a bit less rigoddamndiculous and all I needed right then was enough to set my mind at ease for the remainder of the afternoon commute.

Seriously, we are a car culture. We embrace all modes of freedom but most especially those modes that don't require someone else's schedule and sharing cabin space. We drive our cars to the most exciting events of our lives as well as the most mundane. Drivers define themselves by the cars they drive in a country where a 1964 - 1/2 Ford Mustang can cost you just as much as a 2008 Kia Sonata but is worth ever so much more to the driver who wants to make a statement more than s/he wants to get from point A to point B.

I blame Henry Ford a little bit, but as a fan of my own car and the freedom it affords me, I thank him as well. When cars were first introduced to America, only the wealthiest and most narcissistic families could afford to buy one. Ford understood this, wanted to change it and thus revolutionized the way his automobiles were built so that he could sell them for little enough to sell more of them. With the implementation of his factory-line methods, the Model T became the first car to be available to a more middle-class society and thus began an America-wide love affair with The Car.

The 1950s saw a great upswing in the car culture and in fact, this era is still the visual reference that comes to mind when discussing America's love for the automobile and our car culture in general. I was taught to tell the difference between a '55, '56 and '57 Chevy (the size and shape of the fins) and I think my mom would die happy if she were to obtain her dream car: a '58 Impala. The '64 - 1/2 Mustang mentioned earlier is still The Hot Car on most lists - tricked out to update to the 21st century, no doubt; I know I would kill a few people for one. The '65 was nice, of course, pretty much little difference, but it wasn't the '64 - 1/2.

When I traveled to Europe a few years ago, I was taken aback by how many bikes ruled the road where cars were few. We were told there was no point in flagging a taxi in Amsterdam and rather, we would be better off hoofing it or renting a bike for our time there. Don't grab a cab to get from the airport to Centraal Station, just take the train. From my many years living in cities, I had no problem understanding transit maps and taking the train in Amsterdam and Paris but our entire time there, I missed being in a car.

And now these soaring gas prices. Turns out, they're going to take down a few travel methods we've come to rely upon as well as the car culture. Airlines are charging for the most assinine of services, services that should logically be - and once were without a second thought - included. We're trying to find tickets to return to Jamaica for another music festival (Caribbean Holidaze)and trying to decide if we should buy now or wait. Two years ago, I would have said wait - there will be a sale and we'll get them cheaper. This year ... I say we buy now because gas is going to keep rising and if we wait, they'll raise their prices to accommodate and we'll be kicking ourselves for missing out on the high prices and being forced to pay the unthinkable prices.

And I think that's what's bugging me enough that I spend a Saturday afternoon writing about gasoline and not a new job or -gasp!- enjoying a summer day outside: as long as we are dependent on a very finite and rapidly vanishing source of energy and making it a speculator sport to boot, we endanger our freedom of both individual and group travel and as that is in my top 3 list of priorities in life, I have been driven to first: bewilderment, then: frustration and now: outright anger over this issue. Apparently, the United States is attempting to handle its oil and energy policies in a subpar fashion and is little concerned with the quality of life for the majority of its citizens. What other explanation is there? We know it's not a bottomless well and we know we're not terribly far from the bottom and yet we don't seem to be putting too much energy into finding its alternative. Instead, we barely fund scientists and engineers to come up with poor substitutes and then use them as excuses as to why we can't come up with anything equal or better. We are severely lacking a Plan B and Plan C mentality and that's going to create a more desperate situation than we can imagine even now.

I am in fear of seeing a sign that starts with a $5... I kind of know it's going to happen and there isn't much we can do about it but I'm going to remain in denial for now because I have to drive my car to work and I can't carpool because no one I know of yet lives as south as I do and I really can't consider moving because the housing market sucks and we would be selling in order to get closer to work so really, all I can do is live in denial and hope that some semblance of our car culture and our travel desires can be preserved until at least the day after I die.


Danielle Filas said...

Oh amen!
A few things:
- I heard that Chicago has the highest prices in the nation because the city makes its taxes a percentage of the gas price. So as gas prices go up, so do the taxes.
- The US still boasts one of the lowest gas prices even though we get most of our oil from other countries.
- Gas prices make up the proverbial tip of the melting iceberg as most of our products are petroleum based... plastics, paints, etc.

And here we are out in the country thinking about biting the bullet and buying a second car because, as you say, I'll need it for my job (whenever it should come.)

I almost am happy to see the gas prices go high, though. At some point, funding the alternate sources will actually become more feasible, forcing the powers-that-be to finally do the right thing.

I hope.

Honk if you agree.

dbz said...

buy a scooter :D I always wanted a scooter!

Mel said...

Scooters are great but not if you're highway driving. (I've thought about it -- the inability to drive on the highway and the whole "winter" thing is what's keeping me from doing it) A lot of my students, though, are getting scooters instead of cars when they turn 16.

If hybrids would only come down in price . . .

Peter Von Brown said...

Cheers, Dbz, for your research and outcry. I also agree with Danielle...let it force the use of a fuel alternative. We already have many...surely one can be developed into feasibility and then improved further still.

Do you hear the people sing?
Dbz - knowing your penchant for that musical, I just had to say it.

dbz said...

Pete, niiiiiiiice! My worry is that we have a tendency to not try to fix problems until they become too large to fix easily or cheaply. We've known for a couple decades now that the oil supply is limited and that one day we'll have to come up with alternatives that are equal or better and yet, we've put little money into a Plan B because Plan A is still raking in huge bucks for some and money is the real leader of America. It's not a matter of recognizing we need an alternative but rather recognizing that the almighty Dollar is a flawed god.

Mel, that is precisely what has kept me from a scooter as well - too many highways to make it worth the while. It was an easier proposition in San Francisco where there were fewer highways and less reasons for me to leave the city. I agree on the hybrids although they are much better for city drivers than highway drivers - that's where their advantage becomes very evident.

I was supposed to get less political as I age, but apparently, that ain't gonna happen