In my first post on this subject (Car-less – Part 1) I covered my family’s dilemma on deciding whether or not to buy a car. My second post (Car-less – Part 2) talked about how it is possible to live without a car in many places in the USA, but this post is now intended to explore the other side: why a car is very often necessary, not only in the USA but also in most countries of the world.
Not just in the USA, but in all nations of the world today, if you want to live a farmer’s life or even a somewhat country life you need a car. But the USA was the natural place for cars to gain popularity very quickly, because, unlike Europe, it was very costly to create an infrastructure of railways that adequately covered the entire country and met the needs of the majority of the population. Even before the invention of Henry Ford’s model T in 1908, the USA was a very large and spacious country with a population who prized having plenty of land to stretch out on, even if they were not farmers or even completely country folk. Roads that had been used for horse-drawn wagons were easily used for cars with practically no cost resulting from changing the nation’s infrastructure. In Europe, the cities and villages had many main roads that could be used for cars, but for centuries the towns were built close together and on top of themselves to accommodate pedestrian traffic as a main mode of transportation. Even though this is true, and the pedestrian way of life is more common in Europe than in the USA, most nations of the world have now latched onto all the possibilities that private car ownership brings and have built to accommodate most families’ expectation of owning not only one car, but often a car for every adult within the household.
So what is the big deal about cars? What about it has made millions of people trade the health benefits and spacious freedom of walking to spend hours of everyday locked up in a tin can?
The fact is that the car has made it possible for an individual to travel hundreds of miles in a day without any effort, carry hundreds of pounds of goods that same distance, and still be protected from the weather. Just a single small car opens up a much wider range of options and possibilities in a very unpredictable world. In an emergency, such as a natural disaster or family crisis, a person can just pack a bag, load the family, and drive without depending on public transportation schedules or help from others. The added cost of owning a car is, for many Americans, much more valuable than even owning a house. In fact, this order of priority is part of the reason for the invention of RVs and camping trailers. It isn’t unheard of for young people in USA history to convert vans into traveling homes or for folks who were in difficult times to sleep in their cars. Why? Because a car can take you where the jobs are, a house can’t.
Even without talking about the modern city’s sprawling neighborhoods and massive parking lots that requires traveling miles from your house just to get to the nearest business, we already see that cars often feel like a necessity. This is part of the reason that it is often only the very richest and very poorest who don’t have cars in most countries. Of course, there are exceptions, but I have found that the middle class tend to own at least one car whether or not they use it on a daily basis. The rich who don’t own cars often don’t for ideological reasons and can afford the apartment in the downtown area or the trendy new “villages” that have all that a person could want or need within walking distance. The poor often have no choice but to make do with the public transportation-system whether or not it is adequate and to get help from friends and family to accomplish the tasks that require a car, such as moving a large amount of stuff like groceries or belongings. In many places, not owning car can limit what jobs you can get, and this can keep a person in poverty. Unfortunately, I have seen that first-hand in our first full year in the USA.
For my family, the ideal has been to live without a car for the reasons I had given in my last blog on this subject (Car-less in USA – part 2), but until a person has an established job or source of income, this just doesn’t work, and that is part of our reason for moving to Houston, Texas. When a person is searching for work, it become very easy to exhaust all possibilities within walking distance. This then requires a person either to move (if a person is really poor and without help, that also does not become an option) or to try to get a car in order to open more options by having a larger potential commuting distance. We are going to try to do both.
By moving to Houston, Texas, we are going to have a larger job market and be able to make use of my in-laws’ vehicles, which broadens our possibilities exponentially. It is this experience that has confirmed to me that the final result of my family’s choice on whether or not to get a car is that we must have a car, but we can always minimize the usage of it as we become more established in a community. Even though I dream of the day I never have to drive again, I find in today’s ever-changing and unpredictable world that a car is going to be the tool that keeps the most options open to us.