Waking Up from the Car Cult

Recently I sat in a meeting of an organization devoted to creating a sustainable version of my home city, where I heard a person say that the Twin Cities Boulevard vision — recently unveiled by Our Streets Minneapolis in response to Rethinking I-94 — is aspirational but perhaps not realistic.

The speaker wasn’t even a person who drives a car as their main mode of transportation. They just wondered aloud if it can be accomplished in our political climate, by our state government.

This was on the day the IPCC released its most recent report, which showed the damage already inflicted by 1.1 degrees of warming.

This is the car cult we live in, that we all grew up in. By the very definition of “cult,” it surrounds us every day and in every way and shapes our thinking. We don’t see it because we are it. When (or if) we start to glimpse it, it’s a process, a continual realization. We have to work to get out of it, and free others from it. 

If anyone wants to address the climate crisis, changing the car cult is an important part of it.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a few months because January was a time when there were a lot of tweets revealing the car cult. Early that month, there were quite a few talking about the sheer direct cost to individual car-owners:

America is a land of affluent people who feel like they’re living on the edge because of how little cash they have after making their mortgage, car, and insurance payments.


Reminder: the purchase, care and feeding of cars and trucks represents 14.1 percent of the total CPI “basket of goods” and those prices collectively rose 23 percent in 2021, a big driver of total inflation.

Jeff Davis @JDwithTW

Owning a car is just plain expensive. So many young people I know call it their worst investment where they’re trapped in expensive car premiums. And yet 83% of US adults drive. Why? Because biking is unsafe and public transit is unreliable and nonexistent.

Darrell Owens @IDoTheThinking

in my opinion you should think of the de facto mandatory car ownership for life in the united states as a hefty tax on the working class, except the money goes to banks, oil companies and manufacturers rather than to the public coffers

Jamelle Bouie @jbouie

The lowest income quintile in the US spends ~30% of its income on transportation, in the EU the lowest income quintile spends ~8%

James Medlock @jdcmedlock

The value of the de facto mandatory car ownership tax is about $2 million, average, per car owner, over the course of their lives. We are a nation of millionaires who burn our money in the gas tank.

Matthew Lewis @mateosfo

That last person, Matthew Lewis, went off on a rant 10 days later about car culture:

Having done my best to piss off a lot of people on this website, one thing that stands out is how people who are accustomed to driving their car everywhere have never even really given car culture any thought. Like, no part of it.

People don’t know how roads are paid for — or that their taxes don’t cover them. People don’t know driving is the leading cause of climate pollution in the U.S. People don’t know cars are the leading killer of children on earth, and leading cause of hospitalization for all humans. People don’t know that their suburban, car-oriented lifestyle leads to virtually guaranteed municipal bankruptcy. People don’t know that it’s not actually cheaper to “drive til you qualify” when you … include the cost of the driving.

Lewis goes on to talk about the way car ads target the weaknesses of human brains, how manufacturers intentionally sacrifice fuel-efficiency for “performance,” the ways distraction is intentionally added to driving, how traffic engineers contribute to deaths on the road, the high cost of free parking and how it causes the housing crisis, and wrapped up with this:

People don’t know that almost everything they claim to want — good health care, schools, streets safe enough to let their kids walk to school, affordable housing, jobs that aren’t 3 hours away, parks/open space, walkable neighborhoods — can’t happen in cities dominated by cars.

He supplied links to his suppositions, too.

Some time later in the month, Dave Roberts @drvolts, past writer on renewable energy topics for Grist and Vox and now creator of his own Volts newsletter, posted this:

There’s something infuriating but also deeply sad about how many people contemplate the standard American life — roads, pavement, parking, SUVs, strip malls, suburbs, fast food — and conclude, “well, that’s just what consumers want! It’s just how Americans are!”

It just seems like lots of people would rather say, “actually, I like this shit” than admit that American life has been shaped at every level, right down to hearth and home, by the profit motives of corporations and the manipulations of the public relations industry.

And you can’t do any better than our own local cult demystifier, Julia Curran @happifydesign, who wrote this on Twitter in early February:

If you’re in a lifestyle that takes $10,000+/year, more dedicated space than many families’ homes, hurts your quality of life, risks death, steals from your kids’ future, and you fear/know that you will lose full access to your job, family, and friends if you quit? THAT’S A CULT.

So when you hear anyone say that the Twin Cities Boulevard vision isn’t possible as part of Rethinking I-94 — when we face a climate emergency and the literal (not figurative!) loss of a stable, civilization-supporting habitat, as documented once again in the most recent IPCC report — remember that you live in a car cult.

What are you going to do to wake up from it?


A couple more links:

Top image: Our Streets Minneapolis

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the streets.mn Climate Committee.