“People Like Their Cars”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this phrase. “People like their cars!” It’s usually followed with a inane trite like “we’re not Europe or Manhattan.”

Actually, now I remember seeing that exact thing in the comment section on a piece for Southerminn.com talking about bringing rail to Northfield:
Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 4.24.50 PM

Sidebar: I really wish people would define HSR at the beginning of their articles, because much like BRT, there are varying definitions.

Anyway, even though VMTs have been dropping for a solid nine years, the argument persists.

I saw this comment and I thought… says who? Was their a national studying done showing that people truly, honestly like their cars better in comparison to mass transit, walking or really anything? Did someone go around and ask? Did I miss it?

I’m baffled by this argument every time someone brings it up. I’m not a psychologist and I don’t study human nature, but I have to believe that we can’t truly gauge the fact that people “like” their cars.

A quick google search will give you a plethora of articles pointing to why we love our cars. There’s a pretty good one from Scientific American and even a click-bait list article from Cracked.com

Growing up in Southern Minnesota, yeah, I loved my car. It got my where I needed to go, when I needed to get there and I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I used to think “wow, it’s amazing that I can get anywhere in town with my car!” Not stopping to think that we could have designed our built environment differently.

Sidebar again: I grew up in New Ulm, MN, a town that is incredibly walkable, so I definitely had it better than others.

The problem, in my completely unprofessional opinion, is perception. Sure a car is awesome…in a city that makes you get everywhere by car… but I can’t help but think that there are so many people across the country that have never experienced anything different and that effects our transportation policy.

Madison Ave

I drive to Madison Ave because I just love my car so darn much!

And policy is the real problem. Because of this love affair (perceived or not) it’s a political gold mine to talk about better roads and bridges thus perpetuating the (again, perceived or not) love affair with the car, which leads to more auto-oriented development, which means more driving, which means more strain on infrastructure, which means it’s a political gold mine to talk about…see where I’m going?

What’s a guy to do? I “like” my car in so much as I bought it for cheap (from my parents). It always starts, gets me from A to B and it has a CD player (big deal for me, never had nothing but a tape deck growing up!). Would I rather have the option to forego it at least ONCE a week? Gosh yes–and I make an earnest effort to do it.

I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think people “love” their cars. I think it’s Stockholm syndrome. There are large swaths of the country that know nothing different, even those that live in moderate to large cities.

But the drop in VMTs, the bump in transit ridership (despite cheap gas) and the record number of people experiencing a different country leads me to believe that this “love” won’t be around forever.

If you’re going to tell me that “people like their cars” at least recognize the fact that there are people who don’t and would ditch it if they could. And please don’t write them off as sub-human or un-American for doing so.

34 thoughts on ““People Like Their Cars”

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    “People like their cars!” Well then it’s a good thing that 99% of America is built for those people. But when there’s such an imbalance in our investment, it’s really people who like their cars forcing their views on everyone by removing alternatives. Auto-imperialists.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I think people both like their cars and generally hate commuting is rush hour traffic.

    The funny bit is that so many of them keep doing it. I think part of that is not realizing there are alternatives and part is the alternatives being crappy.

    1. Nathanael


      I like my car (I drive a Tesla Model S).

      And I don’t want to be FORCED to drive it ALL THE TIME for EVERYTHING. Particuarly when I’m tired and know I’m not going to be a safe driver.

      Many people like relaxing country drives, done on their own schedule. Few people like long, forced drives made when they don’t feel at their best.

  3. Wayne

    Sub-human un-American here! I ditched driving 14 years ago and haven’t had a license in almost 8. I didn’t love my car, or even like it. I don’t like anyone else’s car either. In fact, I despise a good portion of cars that are piloted by people who seem to value 10 seconds of their time more than a human life (mine).

    I grew up in a sprawly auto-only California town and hated it. I never knew anything different growing up, but I knew that I wanted something else. So I went to college across the country in Massachusetts to get as far away as possible. I grew up pretty poor so I hadn’t travelled much, but once I was on the east coast I could get all over for very cheap … and all without a car.

    I experienced a completely different way to live and honestly to this day cannot understand why so many people seem to prefer life behind the wheel. I’m sure a lot of them haven’t experienced the joy of a walkable environment, but for those who have and still run back to their cars … I’m just confused. And anyone who wants to undermine what little walkability there is here in the cities just makes me especially furious.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      It is confusing to hear so many people go to Europe or the Northeast and talk about how easy it was for them to travel and see cities without a car. And how pleasant and charming (walkable and traditional) these places were. And then they come back here and talk about how we’re not Europe, and we shouldn’t try to be Europe, and how bikers in bike lanes and people in crosswalks are holding them back from driving fast, how their 40 minute commute was two hours because of a snowstorm, how freeways are so stressful, etc. etc. It baffles me.

      1. Wayne

        It’s like they’re assuming they can never have that and compartmentalizing it as some kind of Disneyland-like experience. Oh it’s a vacation thing, but *real* authentic people don’t live like that, just froofroo Europeans or snooty new Englanders.

      2. Monte Castleman

        Traveling on vacation is a different thing, Walking around a quaint city to get croissants is different than hauling home a weeks worth of groceries and taking the kids to soccer practice and walking or taking transit to work every single day in all kinds of elements. Although I always rent a car on vacation, I have been known to leave it behind at a park and ride and take the train in the city for a day, as I’ve done in Boston, Chicago,

        I love my car, but I realize there’s people that don’t, therefore I’m not one of those people yelling about what a “waste” transit is on the Strib comments section, unless it’s a particularly stupid project like the Red line.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Yes, our societal misunderstanding of food is absolutely a contributing factor to overvaluing our cars.

          There is simply no need to buy a whole week’s worth of groceries at once (real food often doesn’t keep a whole week anyway!), at least if you live in a people-oriented place where a pop in to the store is enjoyable instead of a traffic-fighting nightmare.

          Of course, few of us do.

          When I bought my car (I’d lived the student and young professional life for a few years without one in DC), I thought I’d walk to work and use it primarily for getting groceries on the weekend. Then I figured out that it was a lot better to stop for groceries on the way home from work a few times a week, allowing me to eat a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables and removing the aggravation of weekend grocery shopping crowds.

          1. Steve

            I’m 48 and have never had a car. I work in downtown Minneapolis, and I frequently run over to Target on my lunch break to pick up some groceries; typically just a dozen or so items that I can easily carry home. I stash the perishable stuff in the lunchroom refrigerators. It’s much less stressful than buying a week’s worth of stuff at a suburban store. (Disclosure: I do usually take the skyway to Target, so I guess that makes me a somewhat evil person).

          2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

            @Adam “at least if you live in a people-oriented place where a pop in to the store is enjoyable instead of a traffic-fighting nightmare.”

            So extremely (and sadly) true. Great point.

        2. Wayne

          As someone who rode the red line (ok, once) I will agree that it’s stupid. Not that providing better bus service along that corridor was necessarily a bad idea, but the design, implementation and over-spending on it was. Also the offline station. So. Dumb.

          I get that plenty of people have things that make car-free living difficult (not impossible, though!), but there are so many who don’t have kids and who have flexible work schedules who *still* insist on driving and road rage the entire way. I certainly won’t insist that everyone give up their cars tomorrow, but I still think there’s a sizable portion of the population that easily could but doesn’t.

          And actually, since you brought up some of the most common reasons people give why going car free would never work, I’d like to address the one I have experience with: groceries. I have been getting groceries for many years now without a car, and it’s really not as hard as people think. You just have to plan a little better for it. When I get groceries, I have several options that I’ve utilized over the years, and a few that I cannot but others certainly could.
          1) get a cab. Unless you’re doing your grocery shopping across town, it shouldn’t be more than the $5 minimum. If you live farther than that from a grocery store, you didn’t really plan the whole car-free thing very well.
          2) live next to a grocery store. I do this when possible, and it means you can make frequent smaller trips. It’s good exercise too. You just have to be careful not to buy too much, and I guess you can’t buy in bulk as much.
          3) grocery delivery! I’ve tried this and I liked it, but it can be somewhat expensive and limit your options for produce or brands. Overall I liked the convenience when it came to getting heavy stuff like milk.
          4) (this one I haven’t done) Car-sharing for your grocery trips. Maybe not the little ones that charge by the minute, but the hour car or whatever would be ideal for grocery trips. Plus you have access to it for other incidentals where you might need to drive.
          5) carpool with a friend/neighbor/relative to the grocery store. I did this a few times with a neighbor/friend and it can work well if you coordinate it and get along. I wouldn’t suggest it with someone you don’t already hang out with socially, but it’s still an option.

          so, tl;dr there are ways around all of those issues. I guess people just prefer the occasional convenience and feel it’s worth the hassle and expense (for now).

          1. Matt Brillhart

            “I certainly won’t insist that everyone give up their cars tomorrow, but I still think there’s a sizable portion of the population that easily could but doesn’t.”

            Well said. I think/hope that we’re making progress, but it sure does seem to be going pretty slow. On the flip side, both smart phones (making transit 1000% more approachable/usable) and car sharing are both pretty new things. A lot of our bike infrastructure is pretty darn new too, including Nice Ride. I think we tend to forget that a lot of this stuff is less than 5 years old.

            So I completely agree with your statement and wanted to isolate it for others to enjoy. I think we’re on the right track, we just need to be a little more patient (while simultaneously making transit/biking/walking even better).

  4. Wayne

    Also, I wish I could point out to the person whose comment is pictured in the article that privately-funded toll roads also generally do not exist (what is there, like one? two?). Not that they would care.

  5. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    “And please don’t write them off as sub-human or un-American for doing so.” This might be the most important line. Yes, people like their cars. Anyone who has been to Europe or Manhatten can tell you, congestion is there, too. But, any capitalistic minded person should also understand that people appreciate viable choices. I agree with comments above- people like their cars, they may not like them in rush hour. Give them a real choice, they may be happier.

    It is interesting, too, that the commentary cited mentions seeing if privated funding could work. Hong Kong has been known to have excellent transportation, which to my knowledge is perhaps the only privately funded mass transit anywhere. Older TC residents tell about the wonderful trolley system “back in the day.” That was privately funded. I think that employers sometimes give cheap transit passes as an employee perk makes our current transit partially private funded.

    I think there are many people who view transit as a service that allows people to give up cars completely, and that may be an outcome for many were transit service vastly improved in this state. However, there isn’t any city in the world that is 100% there. The Twin Cities could improve a lot and convince people like the commentator cited in the post if we just focused on building competitive transportation that even people who had cars *wanted* to and *chose* to ride. Consumer choices seem to be about as American as anything.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Exactly. Although we don’t need to focus as much on building competitive transportation (transit to transit-hostile automobile oriented land uses in the distant suburbs will never be competitive) but rather focus on a transit-complimentary land use. Locate a business downtown or along a transit spine instead of a sprawling second ring campus or office park. Buy a home in a walkable node with transit service rather than buy a home in an exurb and then complain that the park & ride doesn’t have enough free parking. Etc. The problem is land use. If we fix that, the transportation will follow much more naturally.

      1. Wayne

        Yeah I really think we should try to place a greater priority on improving transit in places that can already support it with their land use. I’m so sick of getting what amounts to just awful transit service when I deliberately live a lifestyle that relies on transit, all while seeing SW Express buses zoom by from their elaborate transit centers and free park and rides to better facilities downtown.

        So if they want to kill SWLRT, I won’t miss it. Maybe if they come back with a plan that actually serves dense areas with transit at or beyond capacity on buses …

    2. Kevin Love

      “… there isn’t any city in the world that is 100% there.”

      Yes, there is. The city of Venice, in Italy, is 100% car-free.

      And property prices are much higher than the adjacent Italian mainland, which is not car-free. Looks like people like living in a car-free city and are prepared to pay a lot of money to do so.

  6. Scott

    Real options are coming soon. Mate a Google self-driving car with a car2go, and we’ll see just how much people love “their” cars. Moovel expects to have self-driving car2gos on the streets between five and ten years from now.

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m torn between two different thoughts. On the one hand, I agree with Matt how bizarre it is for people to get around by bus and train in Europe or denser cities and really enjoy it and love the walkability, and then come back to Minnesota and glue themselves to the driver’s seat. My mom spends three months of the year in Oslo, and is quite happy with the metro and bus system there, but probably hasn’t taken a bus in Minneapolis since she got a driver’s license 50 years ago. It may be that there is a pervasive sense that automotive design is simply the way America/the midwest/Minnesota/whatever “is”, and there’s nothing to be done about — without realizing that our auto orientation is due to decades of intentional decisions and massive public investment to make it that way.

    That said, having also spent a good amount of time in Oslo, I’m amazed how — although I can get wherever I need to go on the bus and train — it really does feel empowering to have (temporary) access to a car. In Minneapolis, we often compare how crappy transit is compared to the speed of driving (one Streets.mner aptly pointed out that it’s faster to drive from downtown Minneapolis to Wayzata than take a bus from one end of Nicollet Mall to the other). However; even in Oslo, which has a much more robust transit system, the experience of suddenly having access to car makes me feel alomst superpowered — everything is twice as fast!

    Does this mean the car is the superior to transit? No, but it means that the short-term experience can be better, even if streets aren’t as big and transit is better. Then again, the short-term experience of eating a donut is better than eating kale and quinoa. The difficult case to make is to prove to Joe Motorist that, even though the donut tastes great, it’s really not working out in the long run.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Having access to a car feels empowering until I need to get new tires, and pay the next half year of insurance, and pay for tabs, and when someone drove into my car so I bought a different one, and on and on. I think part of the imbalance is that there’s high fixed costs to owning a car, whereas the marginal costs to drive a mile are (or at least feel like) close to zero. So we feel that we are empowered, except for when these big bills come due.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        They have a heavy-rail trunk system (T-bane) that’s quite fast, although not super frequent. Outside of city center, most trains come every 15 minutes.

        I think the main improvement we could learn from is the bus. There are fewer stops — every 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile, frequent service, and the driver is removed from the payment process. There are three doors on each bus, and you can board on any of them; fare payment is verified by random inspections, just like the train. The option exists to buy a ticket from the driver, but it’s much more expensive, so almost nobody does. You can also download a mobile app to buy tickets.

        The bus stop experience is also much better — most stops have shelters, which include detailed system maps and wayfinding. The shelters are also clearly labeled from the outside as to what stop they are so you can wayfind from the bus. Every single stop lists which buses serve it. On the bus, the next three stops are listed on a screen so you can plan ahead.

        The actual service — number/frequency of buses — probably isn’t much different from our Hi Frequency network. And the buses are clean and new, but most MTC ones are, too. The main difference is improving the efficiency of boarding, reducing stops, and improving the waiting experience.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Good stuff. Hopefully some folks from MTC read this. It really amazes me that we’re still so far behind from a payment standpoint. Going from increasingly poor memory… I was using stripenkart prepayment cards in The Netherlands over 20 years ago and Oyster in London 10 or 15 years ago.

          Are their buses a bit lower as well? It seems that it’s more of a climb to get in to MTC buses than many in Europe.

        2. Nathanael

          Minneapolis is kind of infamously bad on bus stop signage. I’ve been to a lot of cities, even tiny ones, which are a million times better.

  8. Keith Morris

    They may love their cars, but what does that mean when they hate to drive? If they loved to drive they’d be so happy every time they’re slowed down by us cyclists because they get to drive even longer.

    1. Nathanael

      Well, that’s how I feel when I take a relaxing country drive in my electric car. I’m happy to cruise behind a bicycle at a safe distance, matching the speed of the bike.

      (The bicylcists keep looking back nervously expecting me to drive aggressively, however.)

      I actually have a theory about this. Gasoline cars have a “preferred speed” in each gear; if you’re going slowly, the car “wants to go faster”. Automatic transmissions will move forward even if you don’t have your foot on the accelerator and you have to ride the brake to go slowly. The car fights you if you try to drive slowly.

      I think this is subconsciously influencing many drivers. They want to make the car happy, and they speed up to do so.

      I actually suspect that the introduction of electric cars will change that. In my Tesla, I have absolutely no problem cruising at 15 mph, or 5 mph, and the car will coast to a stop if I take my foot off the accelerator. The car isn’t fighting me.

  9. Doug G.

    People love their cars in the same way a town with just a McDonald’s for a restaurant and no other food options for miles could be said to love hamburgers.

  10. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Matthais, good post. I make several trips to Europe every year and the differences (both positive and negative) are amazingly stark. From a transportation standpoint coming back to the U.S. is always a negative both in terms of how we drive and our domineering car culture. I wish that everyone, politicians, planners, architects and traffic engineers in particular, could spend considerable time in The Netherlands, London, Paris, and Germany.

    Cars aren’t bad, only perhaps our over-use or need of them. Even in The Netherlands, Paris, and other places with relatively low modal shares of private car transportation people still own and use cars for appropriate purposes—like picking up a desk from Ikea. But you hit on an important point and that is mind-share. We simply don’t think of using anything else—even if we can from a practical standpoint.

    For 25 years I’ve lived about a mile from a grocery, several eateries, and other stores. For most of that time I did just as my neighbors, I drove my car. It wasn’t until I left my car keys in my wife’s purse and had to do without for a day that I considered walking or riding a bicycle. None of our many bicycles were really appropriate to the task (exposed chains, no fenders, etc.) and walking for a ‘quick’ trip to grocery wasn’t practical. It wasn’t until we made a very conscious decision to ride bicycles that we purchased more appropriate bicycles and began riding. Today our default for many trips (except during winter*) is by bicycle. Yet we’re the only people that I know of in our 200 house neighborhood who ride a bicycle for one mile rather than drive. There are though a handful of others (and more each year) who ride their bicycles to our church on Sunday mornings.

    * It’s not the cold or snow but having to share the road with cars and trucks that is a problem during snowy winter. On the other hand I can ride from my office in Shoreview to lunch all year around thanks to Shoreview’s quite good segregated paths (though I do admit to not doing so when it’s extremely cold).

  11. Anders Bloomquist

    “I wish that everyone, politicians, planners, architects and traffic engineers in particular, could spend considerable time in The Netherlands, London, Paris, and Germany.”

    It’s been a few years, but I recall the D.C. Metro to be pretty impressive. So obviously there is the fact that convenient & shiny public transit is a workable option…but only for *certain people*. Therefore it would be best if the majority of the country continued to pay out of pocket, to a corporation, to get from one place to another.

    It’s similar to the healthcare debate. When we really get down to the details, the United States provides a radically centralized form of healthcare coverage…it’s just reserved for active military and their immediate family. So obviously we COULD provide something similar to a wider part of the population (or all the population), there just isn’t the political willpower to demand that everyone deserves it.

    Washington D.C. gets no actual voting representation in the federal government, yet they have a pretty nice underground rail system. So we COULD implement something similar in ever metropolitan area (with high speed lines connecting the cities), it’s simply that not enough people in power believe that the average American deserves such a wonderful system.

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