By on July 4, 2008

new-car-hug.jpgMost Americans take their freedoms for granted. Thank God and our soldiers they can. But there is at least one generally recognized icon of our citizens' liberty: the automobile. Ever since the Model T, the fact that car ownership was within reach of the "common man" has been a point of national pride. A big, fancy car/pickup/SUV is still seen as a potent symbol of success. Europeans have long derided America's "love affair" with the automobile as a selfish extravagance. With global warming joining terrorism (and replacing nuclear war) as America's insidious unseen enemy, with gas over $4 a gallon, the average U.S. citizen may be more inclined to agree now than at any time in the last 100 years. Or are they? Has the recent pain at the pump really taken the bloom off the four-wheeled rose? Does the fact that fewer teens are getting their license indicate financial/legal necessity or the iCarly non-future of passionate personal transportation? Personally, I think we're simply exchanging one automotive lover for another. You?

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35 Comments on “Question of the Day: Do Cars Still Represent Freedom?...”

  • avatar

    They may not get licenses now, but once they’re out of the nest and have nobody to give them a ride to the mall or to work or to school, they’ll eventually give in.

    Of course, that’s all the better for me. Less dangerous drivers and less cars on the street means I can enjoy driving that much more.

  • avatar

    Most of the time, cars represent practicality and convenience as much as freedom for me. It’s sure a hell of a lot easier to haul a week’s worth of groceries in the car rather than on my bicycle (although I’m compelled to try one of these days). And, today’s a good example, too; I drove to work this morning instead of biking (yep, one of those folks who work on holidays… you’re welcome) because I felt poop on a shingle and didn’t want to ride seven miles. Sure was nice. But, as much as it would suck, I could walk, take public transit or ride my bike if I had to and it wouldn’t kill me.

    Ah, but those road trips. It’d take a big chunk out of my soul to not be able to drive my very own chariot for road trips. The only thing that keeps me going some days is knowing I can still do it. Best example, I take summer camping trips to the Oregon outback every year, and as long as no one’s around, I’ll even slow it down to 50 MPH just to take it all in. It’s that much of a buzz just to drive in a beautiful place, with good music on the stereo and a beautiful destination to come to at the end of the day. If I drove fast, it’d just be over with that much quicker (and yes, I pull over to let people pass). I realized on one of those trips that I don’t care about the cost, damn it, I’ll eat tuna fish for lunch, but if I can’t drive my car or get gas, the trip ain’t gonna happen.

    Cycle touring, as much as I love it, is a different kettle of fish. But I also don’t have the two or three weeks it’d take to get to Steens Mountain from Portland on bicycle.

    So, yep, my car represents freedom to me. Maybe a little differently than for some, but it does nonetheless.

  • avatar

    I think the status symbol aspect will be increasing as the cost of driving a car becomes higher, and out of reach of the “common man” so to speak. It especially will be rough between the teenagers of wealthier families that can afford it, and the many that can’t.

    And I don’t think motorcycles & scooters are the answer, they aren’t safe and are not for everyone.

  • avatar

    Cars represented freedom when the costs were low. But costs are going to get much much higher.

    The freedom was always tied to what one could afford, but in the past most people could afford at least a second hand car and plenty of gas. That gave most people a tremendous sense of freedom. The economics are changing, and thus the sense of “freedom” is changing.

    We used to happily burn a tank of gas cruising and drag racing – and this gas was bought with the minimum wages of the time (less than $3/hour) Now, if one had a part time (or even full time) job at minimum wage one would have to think long and hard about burning a whole tank of gas cruising/racing.

  • avatar

    For me cars have become like utility bills.

    Monthly car payments, repairs, maintenance costs, insurance costs, depreciation, parking costs and concerns, fuel costs, worries about damage and theft, potholes and traffic jams, speed traps, and red light cameras; these are a few of my most unfavorite things.

    Being able to rent a car when I need it, to pick up my kids from summer camp, or to take a vacation with my family to the mountains or the beach, has appeal.

    On the other hand, given the lack of public transportation in my current geographic location, having a car is essential. But I am green with envy when I hear about folks in Paris, London, or even New York, who can ditch all the costs and hassles of a car.

    The media like to tell us about how much freedom we have. I suppose if one has the means, America can be free. I suppose, if one has the means, Canada, the UK, France, Italy or Spain, just to name a few places, can be free as well.

    Freedom means different things to different people. Americans have the right to go to church. But to what extent do we have the right to be free from religion intruding into our lives? Americans have the right to send their children to private schools that cost $20K per year and universities that cost $50k per year. But do they have the right to attend good affordable public schools? Can they attend the best universities unless they are wealthy?

    And what rights and freedoms did being a native born U.S. citizen grant to Jose Padillo when he was arrested and detained, on U.S. soil, as an enemy combatant? How is the way we treated that citizen any different than they way he would have been treated in China?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Sometime over the last few years cars went from freedom to PITA. Before the gas price bubble, traffic was so congested, that driving was something to avoid. Now, driving is still something to avoid.

  • avatar

    Robert Schwartz:

    Hell, the act of just getting a damn license in NY or NJ is a serious PITA.

  • avatar

    Getting a license – insurance – maintenance – paying for the damn thing – speed traps – congested traffic – looking for a parking spot – paying for a regular parking spot – paying parking fines – worrying whether someone’s going to break into the damn thing where you’ve parked it. :-)
    Seeing the value of your Jeep go rock bottom and below.

  • avatar

    HELL YES. As someone who has had to take the bus 20 minutes to CSULB, I really agree. With a car, you can leave when you want, go where you want, be alone, listen to loud music, be with friends, go out to eat whenever you’re hungry, etc.

    The bus? Sitting next to rapists and prostitutes and old people on a bus that speeds up to 40 mph, then stops for the bus stop, speeds up, stops, over and over. Yuck!

  • avatar

    To me cars represent independence. With a car, I’m not reliant on schedules, routs, transfers, and wondering how long it’ll be before the next train arrives, especially when it’s pulling out just as soon as I reach the platform.

    I’m not worried about some panhandler asking for money. I don’t have to listen while a religious fanatic condemns the entire car to hell. I’m not cooped up rolling petri dish.

    For what it’s worth, you guys can have your mass transit. I’ll put up with the traffic jams, overzealous cops, and pain at the pump for the privacy (and dare I say isolation) my car affords me.

  • avatar

    My truck IS freedom, and security.

    I can live in it if I have to.

    A camping-style porta-potty, a propane stovelet, room for a basic set of clothes, showers at the truck stop or a gym membership some where or as I did before chip in on a struggling family’s rent for access to the shower and stove.

    Let the recession then depression come. I will survive.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    It does represent freedom… and so long as there’s enough competition in the auto, energy and insurance industries, the costs over the long-term should actually decline.

    It’s lack of competition, and bad corporate decisions, and government ineptitude, that keep the costs artificially high.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    Yes, the personal automobile = freedom. You can arrange your commute and your sequence of activities on the way home any way you please. You can, planned or unplanned, embark on a transcontinental journey, route according to whim, stopping at your convenience, on fuel most working people can readily afford.

    Gasoline is still relatively inexpensive in the US. Once this year’s rapid spike in price are assimilated, the freedom of personal mobility will endure. More to the point, the car as personal transportation will be prevalent still in 2100 and beyond, regardless how the motive power might change.


  • avatar

    I grew up on road trips. Seattle to LA and back when I was 3, Menlo Park to Boston when I was 4 (I still remember bits of that) and two more cross country trips by the time I was 8. Then, all over Europe the summer I turned 13.

    I drove across the country myself the first time when I was 17. The last time I was 22 and it was 1975 (actually, that was a bicycle trip.) I dream about spending six weeks driving around the USA, perhaps this fall, stopping where-ever, hiking down the grand canyon, etc. And even if I’m only driving from Boston to NYC or DC, or even the Cape, yes, my car is my freedom machine (and much else). I’d own a car even if I lived in Manhattan.

  • avatar

    carlos.negros said “The media like to tell us about how much freedom we have. I suppose if one has the means, America can be free.”
    No means required. Voting, speaking your mind, engaging in one’s choice of religious practice, etc.–it’s all at no charge.
    “How is the way we treated that citizen [convicted terrorist Jose Padilla a/k/a Abdulla Al Mujahir] any different than they way he would have been treated in China?”
    He got several years of legal process to make his arguments in multiple courtrooms to an independent judiciary, and to enlist public support via extensive coverage in the news media.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I have noticed that many teens today have a much more realistic, and less romantic, view of automobiles than I did in my time. The risk to life and limb is now something everyone is quite aware of, while in my youth we mostly seemed to enjoy a collective not-me view of the thing. Costs are far higher today, insurance is a real pain and so on. Also the schools and media have been beating the environmental drum very hard and the young have often absorbed that message deeply.

    Freedom is still being able to go where you want to, when you want to. But, the automobile is not the only choice on the menu. Those who live in dense cities are often quite happy to be able to hop on the trolley or subway to get where they want to go. Not everyone shares the fantasy of getting a little place in the burbs and spending 1-4 hours per day dealing with traffic.

    Me, I cannot imagine not being able to hop in the car and go where I want when I want, but like with so many things there are more and more choices about how to live life these days; and many people are choosing a less car-centric one than what I’ve always done.

  • avatar

    Phoenix had 2 gods: SUV and PU and following these gods has left Phoenix with its far out suburbs horribly designed for what lies ahead.

    Wish I could afford to live some place like NYC, Boston, SF, HK, Tokyo, London, or Paris and stop being a slave to a vehicle. Besides good public transit these cities are wonderful to walk around in.

  • avatar

    John Horner is right. I think the other trends are:

    1. Many parents today aren’t quite as lousy as they were a generation ago, so teenagers feel less of an overwhelming need to physically escape.

    2. The rise of electronics — video games, cell phones/PDAs and portable electronic media mean that teenagers can escape to be with friends/fantasies without the physical need to get away. Just go to your room or your basement and hang out.

    Bottom line is that cars just aren’t as important to many kids the way they were to 20-40 years ago.

  • avatar

    50merc wrote:
    “He got several years of legal process to make his arguments in multiple courtrooms to an independent judiciary, and to enlist public support via extensive coverage in the news media.”

    After he was held in isolation and tortured for years.

    As far as voting goes, sure, as long as you don’t live in Florida, or Ohio, or anyplace with Diebold voting machines.

    Freedom of speech? Try telling that to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who wanted to express themselves in 2004, in their own city, during the Repub convention and were prevented from doing so.

    Religious worship? Sure. But what of the Billions of tax dollars that are given to “faith based initiatives”? One being a evangelical college in Alaska. Is it freedom to force taxpayers to pay for religion?

  • avatar

    My car absolutely means freedom to me. When you live in Bumfork, Nebraska, you need to get out and visit civilization once in a while. Of course, a car is also a necessity, since I live 15 miles away from my workplace. I’m SO glad that I no longer drive a 3/4 ton Suburban with a 454 in it. I would be chained to the neighborhood if I still had it. My Aveo lets me go anywhere I want.

  • avatar

    A car is still a means of freedom, but the costs associated with that freedom have escalated as well. So, the vehicle itself may change to reflect the times, but the concept of what it can provide has not. This is really an emotional thing, too. I drive to a train station and take a train, then a subway to work. Round trip, 3 hours a day, and it often crowded and filled with annoyances like cell phone talkers and loud iPods. Driving the whole trip would take just as long and certainly cost more than the $320/month the tickets cost. But, I still love to drive. When I was a kid, most boys got their first exposure to the ICE via the Briggs and Stratton bolted into the mower. This usually lit the fire for things mechanical, especially for those of us who couldn’t give a rat’s ahole about baseball. We progressed , of course, to the first car. Problem is that this is kind of lost on today’s youth, who eschew anything to do with getting their hands dirty. Not to mention that today’s mower is probably powered by Honda but thats a different topic. I strongly suspect that today’s generation will not view a car the way the prior generations did. Some of that may be due to social issues like emissions and whatnot, but really I think most of it is because they never took the time to bond with the culture of the car itself.

  • avatar

    A car still represents freedom and independence to me. It costs more now than it did when gas was 32 cents a gallon or even $1.60 a gallon but is still worth it. I am considering buying a less expensive car the next time around. As I spend more on gas I want to spend less on the car itself.

    On the question of whether a nice car symbolizes success my views are shifting. At one point I would see a man driving a late model S class (or more recently an LS) and think he’s a successful guy. Now I find myself thinking that he may or may not have a lot of money but he somehow didn’t get the memo about global warming and the need to reduce our reliance on oil imported from unfriendly countries.

    But am I ready for a Prius? Not yet. I still want some sex appeal.

  • avatar

    My car used to represent freedom to me. Then I bought a plane. The car gave me the keys to the city, but the plane gave me the keys to the continent.

  • avatar

    Yes, my car is the key to freedom, but here in the burbs of the GTA its an absolute nessissity. Unfortunately, the government knows it and is treating me like a cash cow, fully knowing I have no choice but to pay up if I value my mobility.

  • avatar

    The automobile represents freedom now more than ever, and now too the automobile represents rebellion against the left-wing socialist elite. Every time I put a prius in the rear-view,(which is often), I feel like I’m sticking it to the man.

  • avatar

    The automobile represents freedom now more than ever, and now too the automobile represents rebellion against the left-wing socialist elite. Every time I put a prius in the rear-view,(which is often), I feel like I’m sticking it to the man.

    You seem to dislike the Prius and those who drive them. Let me see if I have this correct: Those of us who drive Priuses have spent a little extra money to enjoy this new gadget, save fuel, and as a by product leaving more fuel available to you and this makes you angry.

    Do you always get angry at people who are nice to you? And using extra gas to pass us makes you feel better?

    Incidentally I am a financial conservative but thanks for thinking I am some kind of elite.

  • avatar

    A paid-for car in good condition, is freedom. A parts-eating beater or a rapidly-depreciating SUV that you still owe 48 payments OWNS YOU, not the other way around.

    If you’ve got to go deep into hock to get that mega-mileage new car, your old paid-for still-good vehicle is your best bet.

  • avatar

    I would love to be able to take a subway and walk to work. It’s actually nice, just having some headphones on and seeing people get on and get off. It’s a lot of fun. Gives me time to think.

    I cannot however, give up mountain roads in my Evo X and all its gas guzzling glory. So it would become a weekend car, and not a daily driver anymore.

  • avatar

    Regarding the changed relationship of kids and cars (see John Horner, above, for example), I think that in my youth, a lot of what kids liked about cars was that they made social life much easier, especially in the suburbs. I tend to think that cell phones and IM have somewhat replaced that role. Cell phones are not just enabling technology, however. they are props, the way cars used to be, status symbols. Its probably easier that way than when it was cars, because its much easier for a teenager to afford a cell phone than a car.

    But for me, a car was about being able to do my favorite activity outside of pair-bonding behavior, and about being able to see the country.

  • avatar

    When I was 16 and living in the country, it represented freedom. Not being stuck at home was super important to my mental health. I would have done anything to get wheels, including indenturing myself for 10% of all future earnings, or more. But I didn’t have to do that, was able to save for a junker.

    18 years of driving later, I don’t look at it the same way. Now, cars are a hassle and expense. It’s something I have to do to get to work. I have to worry about them, about wrecking, about insurance. I have to share the roads where everyone thinks they’re super badass and absolutely have to get where they’re going as fast as humanly possible. There’s little to no traffic enforcement. There’s endless sprawl, redlight to redlight to redlight. Insurance, property tax, door dings to clench your sphincter over. If I could get away with out having to drive, I’d love it. But I still love to drive, I’d continue to do so recreationally. Sharing or renting something every now and then.

  • avatar

    though i knew few teenagers pondering the cost-benefit of car ownership, i’d suspect cars still represent freedom (and/or status) for many. this may expecially be true for boys. i remember getting my license and first car in highschool. the freedom of getting where i wanted to go when i wanted to was great, but that was still restricted by parents (as far as they knew). the REAL draw was the act of driving. it was such a right of passage, it made you feel adult, it made you feel cool. all of these things are still (as far as i know) draws to the average teenager). also, the car was a means of taking out a girl. granted the bus/subway/train/bike may be an effective means of transportation, but it is not romantic. you don’t get to open the door to the bus for your girlfriend (the f-ing Bus Driver will ruin that one every time. then, try telling him you’d like to “park” up at the lookout but you’d first appreciate him having all the other passengers get off since you would like some privacy. good luck.

    does the car represent freedom? hell yeah.

    finally, i’m not sure cost is that have very few expenses and making minimum wage at a part-time job can easily pay for gas and insurance when there’s no bills for the mortgage, helth insurance, cable, electric, etc. however, now that we have those expenses we feel like cars are not worth the extra cash. we see it that way b/c we’ve lost that love of just driving over time. the car is, as others have put it, an appliance. but remember when firing up the bbq was a thrill because it was new? i think for teens cars will always have a draw like little else.

  • avatar

    Cars do more than represent freedom. They are freedom. More specifically, affordable, personal long-range transportation is freedom. More specifically, cheap energy is freedom. Yes, the ability to take two-week long roadtrips and see the splendor of even just a tiny part of our nation at ones individual whim is one of the great privelages Americans have over almost every other westernized country. I would even say it is an idea which has been ingrained in the sodbusting history of America for the past 400 years.
    This idea of human osmosis (especially as it relates to our quality of life) is truely where the history of our country, personal mobility and freedom all come together. We talk about our right to vote. What about our right to vote with our feet? If I don’t like something about where I live or the leadership of my state or local government, I can pick up my family and belongings and move relatively cheaply to someplace that I think has better opportunities using a car and some gasoline. This same concept held true 150 years ago only substitute a horse, some oats and a covered wagon (again, cheap energy by the standards of the day). Maybe I only need to move out of the city to the suburbs or to the country if I feel like my tax dollars would be better spent there or if the schools are better for my kids, etc. etc. I’ll just make a longer commute to work. This all becomes harder as the cost of the commute rises. That’s when my opportunities become more limited, and I’m more likely to stay put even though it may mean supporting a system I don’t care for. It all comes down to a directly proportional ratio between range and opportunity.
    I find it a bit nefarious that in a country as large and diverse (socially and geologically) as the U.S. our politicians would have us believe that a European transportation/energy model would be the way of the future (unless we’re talking nuclear). The reason the U.S. is such a production powerhouse is because we are NOT based strictly on a high-tax, heavily socialized urban model. We are the breadbasket of the world, we have vast untapped natural resources, and we have a relatively low- cost energy model. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, we are blessed to have it. We are the only western nation that can still compete with China on a GDP basis (I don’t know for how much longer) and have a standard of living in line with the modern western world.
    While everyone considers it such a crime as to how much energy the U.S. uses as compared to other nations, nobody bothers to actually look at our GDP in relationship to those numbers. This metric is called Energy Intesity and effectively measures a nation’s energy efficiency by looking at the amount of energy it takes to earn $1 of GDP. Even with our vastly greater travel distances, the U.S. is still the fourth most efficient behind only Norway, Iran and the Neatherlands.
    While I agree that our 22% contribution to global production doesn’t quite line up with our 25% usage of global energy, I would probably attribute that 3% discrepancy to our high standards of living as compared to other top producing nations. I’m not just talking about material wealth here, but the fact that we don’t have to live in congested cities (i.e. Japan) if we want a sucessful career.
    Individuals here can still actually own acreage cheaply, and still afford to drive into cities and towns to work. This allows many people of lesser means to take advantage of the cost of living differential between urban and rural locations and is a real growth driver in most successful economic regions. That’s the kind of economic growth that can really change a person’s station in life. Unfortunately this mechanism for growth will cease to function if people aren’t able to afford the commute. That, to me, is a pretty direct affect on individual freedom.

  • avatar

    @ Folkdancer

    Somebody took a swipe in general at Prius owners and I think you took personally. You shouldn’t. Me for example, would love to buy a Prius but can’t since holier-than-thou Toyota seems to think Brazil is some faraway demented place (even though they opened their first oveseas operation here, di you all know that?) that oesn’t get or want some newfangdangled complicated technology. But maybe they are right. I for example defend every person’s right to call out the Prius for being so over expensive hat regular ICE models make more sense. You just need to calculate everything. When their price drops down, I’m all for them, but now, their extra price, heavy metal carrying batteries and probably more environmentally damaging construction, well, it just doesn’t float my boat.

  • avatar

    Way to go Gleetroit! Absolutely agree w / you.

    Yeas cars are Freedom. In the 3rd world. To many or all of so called 3r world denizens. To 1st world citizens this is changing. The 1st world has been lost. It’s a anti car wasteland right now.

    Why oh why? Just when we (3rd world) get close to emulating you (1st world), you say it’s wrong. Call me a sucker if I beleive you…and most of my fellow deizens are buying the new greenie “facts”.

    As regards kids, yes their dislike of cars is a way to stick it to the older generation that has destroyed the earth and killed the polar bear. Hence Detroit’s new and Jeeez so old (1973?) dilemma. Get a small car already. Ooozing technology. Economic. Full of crazy multi setting internal functions (yes, lights and all. Kids love and are used to their computer making a noise at each keystroke, MAKE THE CAR THE SAME). If you don’t appeal to the kids, you will continue yur downward slide.

    And the kids have all bought the pc of the last decades, so… Adapt!!!

  • avatar

    folkdancer – I didn’t say I was angry, I do get angry with allot of people on the road, Prius drivers usually aren’t among them. I was more referring to the politicizing of the automobile (new CAFE standards, CO2 paranoia ect.), that may limit my freedom to choose what car I drive. The left-wing elitist I was talking about were the Euro types R.F. mentioned in his article, those who would sit around and discuss what the American “People’s car” should be, some utilitarian device that goes from point A to point B, and not a symbol of freedom and independence.

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