The cultural significance of cars

As I was writing that title, it occurred to me that this is a slightly odd topic for me to be interested in. I certainly never thought I’d write a blog about it, but I am interested. Here’s why.

Most American households own a car. Quite often, more than one. Driving is the primary mode of transport; so much so that people give estimates of distance in terms of the time it will take by car, not by foot.

Comedians make jokes about having their licences taken away and being reduced to dependence on public transportation. Films showcase the ‘loser’ character as the one riding a bike everywhere. Funny, right?

Maybe this is true all over the world, but I never noticed it until travelling here. People simply love their cars. That joke about Americans driving to the gym? Pretty true!

To not own a car here (or, shock horror, not have a licence) signifies a lack of responsibility, success, even the status of adulthood. It is uncool in a way I don’t think it is back home.

There are no doubt multiple reasons for this. First of all, it’s a huge country and buses and trains are hardly as efficient as they could be. This is quite the catch 22, because until they do provide a viable alternative to driving, the number of people relying on the car will continue to grow.

Secondly, I think cars hold a certain place in American culture. What do people associate with the USA? Road trips. Cadillacs. Route 66. The American Dream comes complete with a ride.

Cars act as a signifier of social status. For people who don’t drive, it’s often not a choice – they simply can’t afford it. Poor people take the bus (this isn’t an insult, after all I include myself in that statement). The people I met during this trip who didn’t have cars were certainly less mainstream. They fall outside the bell curve on more than just their vehicle choice, and that’s my point, really, that cars are the norm.

Owning and showing off a car demonstrates certain things about your lifestyle, your bank balance (even if the payments are getting you into debt…but that’s another story); your reputation.

While I find this fascinating, it’s a reason why I couldn’t/wouldn’t live here. I hold a drivers licence, I’ve owned cars in the past and I certainly accept their practicality. Having access to a car would have made this trip easier.

But still, I don’t want to have to drive. I like and respect cycling, I’m a huge bus fan and writing about trains for three years will rub off on you one way or another. I am interested in how we can create smarter ways of travelling; systems which carry more people faster at a lower cost (to the environment as well as the passenger), that provide access to crucial services and bring communities together. Transport which could genuinely change the world. (Okay, more than merely interested.)

In the past six months I’ve used seven different metro systems. While working these out gives me a certain geeky pleasure, it’s also allowed me to form a lot of ideas about what makes a system good. What makes it user friendly? How do you get people to use it? How can public transport fit into wider society for both tourists and locals?

I’m starting to get a bit carried away, so I’ll leave it there. Any other perspectives would be very welcome – is the car craving only an American thing?

The truth about public transport in North America

One of the questions I was always sure to hear when talking about travelling through the states was ‘You’re hiring a car, right?’

Wrong. I have taken a few Megabuses, three or four journeys via Amtrak, one lift from a Couchsurfing friend, and many, many Greyhounds.

There’s a lot I want to say about the entrenched cultural significance of the car in the states, but I think I will talk about that at another time. A two – part series, if you will.

So, public transport. For all those who were horrified on my behalf, it was fun. Sure it was unreliable (although less than everyone assured me it would be) and full of wierdos, but what better way to get to know a place?

Taking the bus was cheap and only slow when I forgot about the vast distances involved (the entire state of New Mexico slipped my mind at one point). Sometimes the departure times were inconvenient, but there was only one occasion where I was waiting in the middle of the night.

You have to be willing to be flexible when travelling this way, and of course to be prepared for the aggressive air conditioning.

But there is usually wifi,  a toilet, multiple stops for breaks and food. Some of the stations are exceptionally well designed and stocked, and there were only a few which were closer to a cupboard with benches in style. There are even plugs to charge your devices, in stations and on board.

I loved looking out at the view, often lined with trees (or cacti). Given my short stature, I was able to curl up and sleep quite comfortably.

A note for anyone deciding between the two bus companies: Megabus is almost always cheaper and has a nice upper level with lots of light, but is far less comfortable,  has fewer destinations and no stations (sometimes it shares other transport hubs, often it’s just a designated spot on the side of the road). Go with Greyhound.

While I took the train for my longer stretches of journey (I think my record was 25 hours, with a couple of hours delay), and it was nice to walk around, stretch out etc, I genuinely prefer the bus. Amtrak staff were markedly rude and the service poor. If I could read on Greyhound that would have been perfect.

But I’m glad I got to try such iconic modes of transport, and am thankful that I made it all the way with only minor mishaps. The hours on the road were wonderful opportunities to think, and I even grew to look forward to my bus trips.

I wouldn’t say no to a more traditional roadtrip in the future, especially to visit more of the countryside, but as a solo budget traveller, this was perfect.