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I have a complicated relationship with cars.
As a kid, I desperately wanted one. My parents started out poor, but my father built a good career. By my teenage years, we had a nice home in suburban Salt Lake City. Nice, but there was nowhere to walk, except the grocery store. Walking was weird. Neighbors who saw a group of teenagers walking down the street saw a threat at worst, an anomaly at best.
I saved much of the money relatives sent me for holidays and birthdays and began working at 14. By age 15 (with some boost from my parents) I had $3,300. My father and I went looking for a car.
I was set on a 4X4 truck and I found one: a 1983 Toyota pickup. I had a few hundred bucks less than the price for which the woman was listing the truck. My dad told me to make the offer. I was terrified but I did. She accepted and I walked away high from pride.
The truck had a manual transmission. I spent the summer alternating between staring at it and learning how to drive it.
The day after I turned 16, I drove my friends to school. That afternoon, 12 people piled into the bed of my truck so I could take them home. It only took a day for the fun to become a burden.
One evening, we drove up a canyon outside Salt Lake City to camp. We saw friends stranded on the side and stopped to help. As we talked, we saw my truck whiz past us, unattended. I had neglected to put it in gear or engage the emergency brake. It would have careened into the canyon had the bumper of the broken-down Chevy Suburban not halted its slide by digging a 7-foot gouge into its side.
The Suburban’s bumper was fine but my truck was mangled. The next day I parked and went into the house and pretended like all was normal. A few hours later, my dad found me. I won’t forget the look on his face or the pain of his disappointment.
Years later, after a particularly violent off-road frolic, the metal beam that held the truck’s battery in place snapped. We secured the battery with a clothes hanger.
It remained secure until I drove home from college one day (I commuted to college via my truck) and smoke billowed from the vents. I got out to look, and the truck erupted in flames. I watched that white 1983 Toyota burn like a marshmallow in a campfire. They towed it home and, once again, I had to face my father. But he didn’t need to make me feel worse.
I had killed the one thing I had always wanted.
I soon got another truck, this time a new two-wheel drive pickup from the dealership. They gave me a loan, whose payments I made with my job as a bartender. I worked mostly to be able to drive to work and to the university.
I had always tried to stop at lemonade stands. One day, on my way to that job in downtown Salt Lake, I bought lemonade. I didn’t put on my seat belt as I arranged the little drink and approached a busy four-lane road. I wanted to turn left.
In the suburbs, there’s often a left-turn lane you can sneak into when entering a busy street like that one. I went for that. For some reason, though, I hesitated as I entered the road. I can’t remember why. But I do remember the big Ford truck hitting my side. Still, 22 years later, I can close my eyes and summon the collision from my memory. I always flinch and cower when I do that. I went to the hospital for five days with a collapsed lung and bleeding spleen.
Once my obsession, driving had become a dreadful burden. I was ready for a different life. My dad was an insurance man, and he had made sure I had full coverage on the pickup. The check I got from my totaled truck left me a few thousand dollars to take to Madrid, where I had gotten into a study abroad program.
Suddenly, I was living in a city where you didn’t need a car. I loved it. I fell in love every time I rode the Metro. The whole system was so efficient and resplendent. (I also literally fell in love in every subway car I entered but I never managed to say hi to any of the women.)
I would leave a Metro station late at night and see plazas alive with people – kids playing while their parents talked with friends. It felt natural – the streets alive, safe and walkable. Nothing like that was imaginable in suburban Utah.
But I was never going to end up in Madrid or Paris or Hamburg or New York or even Chicago. I’m from the western United States. I met a woman in Utah for whom I drove back and forth across the country several times. Now, we camp, we surf, we hike, we drive to Utah (the stretch from Las Vegas to Southern California is never not a dystopic fury road of pain and despair). Our cars (I have a Toyota truck and a minivan) are second only to our home in essentials.
I cannot imagine how you would live in San Diego, have a good job, kids and an active fulfilling recreational life without a car. I suspect there are people who do. I know there are people who have no choice. NBC San Diego recently profiled John P. Anderson, who I know, who has managed his family for 10 years relying on bikes, transit and walking. Anderson, an accountant, was able to do an estimate of just how much money he has saved: $9,000 per year.
But that’s just it: A family living like this is news. Even Anderson writes about how hard and dangerous it is to maneuver through the city without a car.
Also: Anderson has a car, though just one for his family. He told me he still needs one.
We talk about the Sunshine Tax – the little extra we pay to live here – but a more obvious burden our region and so many others impose is the car tax. We collectively made explicit decisions to lay out the American West like we did, with single-family homes, suburban sprawl and long, wide roads. That creates a baseline economic burden. The government may not require you to own a car, but it has created a landscape and expectations that, to be a productive resident, require one. And thus, you have to absorb the costs of maintaining it, storing it, insuring it, fueling it. Then the government puts more actual taxes on top of that. There’s a tax on gas. To renew the registration on our minivan, we just had to pay $268.
It’s not just local or state burdens. The new federal tax law imposed an income tax on parking benefits that employers provide.
All of that adds up to at least $9,000 a year. That’s what you have to pay just to function well.
If you can’t afford that, you risk getting stuck in a vortex of poverty. You can’t get to a job to even afford to get to a job.
California is booming with record low unemployment and a bizarre “surplus” of jobs. Our notorious poverty rate is not the result of people earning less than in other states. It’s a result of an inflated cost of living. And the yeast inflating that froth is scarce housing.
But housing and cars are linked. Every single discussion about how to alleviate the housing shortage is poisoned by cars: Will it create too much traffic? Where will they park? If you build those homes so far from employment centers, what will that do to air quality and how will it influence greenhouse gas emissions targets?
We have a cost-of-living crisis and the car is driving it.
The next year in San Diego will be, more than anything, a big argument about that. Two laws: one local, and one statewide, require the San Diego region to radically retrofit itself to make it possible to thrive here without a car. The laws – the city’s Climate Action Plan and the state’s own climate goals – demand that a big portion of us ditch our cars and commute by transit, bicycle or our own feet. Sure, laws can change, but they haven’t yet. And they have put in motion a reckoning with one problem: It is impossible for us to follow them.
You can despise SANDAG’s Hasan Ikhrata if you want, but he is the single biggest reason we are confronting this divide between our ambitious law and the status quo. He plans to lay out just how costly, just how ambitious that transformation will need to be. And if we’re not willing to do that, then we are not willing to conform to the expectations of these laws and more broadly, the climate and walkability goals progressives have led us to adopt.
Southern California is very much like me: We have a complicated relationship with our cars. They are part of our families and have been for our whole lives. They are almost as necessary to life as our homes, and we can’t imagine how to live without them. It’s not surprising that so many people descending into poverty give up their homes before they give up their cars.
In 2020, we will argue about tax increases – one that will partially go to road repairs, another proposes to raise a sales tax for the areas the Metropolitan Transit System covers to pay for transit improvements. We will debate parking requirements, parking options on city streets and a plethora of housing development decisions that all dissolve to this very same debate: Will we create a region where it’s possible to live without a car?
I know a lot of people will respond to that with a not subtle “hell no.”
OK, well first they need to change the laws that say we’re doing that. Then they need to deal with the fact that we have hit the limits. Thirty years ago, we began decoupling housing from jobs – we stopped building housing at the rate we were creating jobs. We ran out of easy-to-develop land. This has caused housing prices to skyrocket. We cannot address that gap without more densely accommodating the growth. And not all those people can own and store a car in those environments.
Not all of them will want to, either. I meet teenagers all the time simply uninterested in getting their driver’s license. As inconceivable to me as that is, it’s real.
There’s a techno-futurist crowd catering to them with an alternative vision of mass transit. They hold, as best I can discern, that the arrival of Uber and Lyft portend the end of car ownership. We won’t have to own, insure and store our cars anymore. We will order them on demand, relieve ourselves of the enormous costs associated with them and recover so much of the space we have set aside for them.
That sounds nice. I can’t quite picture how the robot will take me camping. But a robot car does seem less likely to forget to put itself in gear and careen into a canyon.
I’m a realist. I would love for cars to be unnecessary by the time my kids are old enough to sit behind the steering wheel. I know that’s unlikely.
I also know that many of you will never give up your cars. Nobody is asking you to. We all have to decide whether we want to make it possible, though, for anyone to live here without a car, especially people who are treading water at the poverty line. Even the world’s most pedestrian and transit friendly cities still have cars.
Cars are part of us. We created a world where guys like me eagerly anticipated the chance to fly through the suburbs wielding a 2,500-pound death machine at age 16. I do not know how my parents handled it.
But if cars and their enormous burdens are still necessary for every active adult in San Diego in 10 years, I do know that our biggest problems will only have gotten worse.