What I Learned About Cars

Hello, my beloved Signal Problems friends! It has been a while, and I come bearing news. Starting Monday, I will be the new senior writer at Motherboard, VICE’s tech website, where I’ll be covering the intersection of infrastructure, transportation, and climate change.

In many ways, this beat will be a successor to the work I did for Signal Problems. Here, my ongoing project was to figure out why the MTA works (or, perhaps more often, doesn’t work) the way it does, why it undertakes the projects (or, perhaps more often, doesn’t undertake the projects) it does, and what that means for us, now and in the future. This is basically the beat I outlined for my new bosses, but beyond New York.

In particular, I want to write about what America gets wrong about infrastructure. There’s a lot of material! But I want to take a hyper-local approach.

I feel like everyone I know grew up frustrated by a bridge, highway, train station, road, or pothole in their home town that either never got fixed or was constantly under construction. Or maybe there was a low-key project that cost a head-scratchingly large amount of money for no clear reason. If you know of one of those, hit me up. I’d love to look into it for you.

Now, this means I have said goodbye to my colleagues at Jalopnik, the car and transportation website I’ve called home for the past eight months. It’s been, a, uh, interesting time, no doubt about it. But corporate shenanigans aside, working at Jalopnik was a tremendously fun and valuable experience. I got to go to a Hyperloop conference, do a deep dive into Uber and Lyft’s fare structure, spend months diving into the history and current day ramifications of urban highways, and so much more. And I learned how to drive stick.

Even more importantly, I got a crash course on the automotive industry. I don’t think there are many reporters who can say they’ve covered public transit and the car industry back-to-back.

So, I thought it might be fun, and perhaps useful to some folks, to share a little bit about what I learned about cars and the automotive industry in general, with a focus on things that matter to people hoping to reduce the number of single-occupancy car trips. Some of them might seem real obvious, and indeed they do seem that way to me in hindsight. But I didn’t fully appreciate their implications for the policies I favor and the future I want to live in. Perhaps that’s the case for some of you as well.

Car Buying Is Not Rational

There is a man who lives on my block who drives a relatively new Toyota 4Runner, which, for those who might not know, is a pretty large SUV. A couple of times a week, I watch him attempt to parallel park this vehicle. Typically, the spot is plenty large for a sedan, but a tight squeeze for his 4Runner. He’ll be out there five, ten minutes trying to get the angle just right. I have never seen another person in the SUV with him or any stuff in the trunks or seats. Why, I think to myself every time, is he doing this to himself? Why doesn’t he just drive a smaller car?

I don’t know this guy’s deal. Maybe he has a really good reason for driving an SUV. But I suspect not. And this reflects the first and most important lesson I learned at Jalopnik: car buying is not rational.

Car buying is aspirational, not practical. Most people purchase cars not because of who they are, but because of who they want to be. Car companies know this, which is why they collectively spend billions upon billions of dollars every year on advertisements. The total market domination of SUVs over the last decade, which are impractical vehicles for the majority of people who buy them, speaks to their success. (For more on the SUV trend and car buying being an aspirational purchase, I highly, highly recommend the book High And Mighty by Keith Bradsher.) Nearly every purchase of an SUV is a mild-to-moderate self-own, and yet people keep doing it, over and over.

So every time I asked my colleagues why people don’t purchase more plug-in hybrids, or why electric vehicle sales remain stubbornly low, or why perfectly fine small, cheap commuter cars continue to do poorly in the American market, I always got the same answer: car buying is not rational. And auto companies have ample incentive to keep it that way, since they charge more, and make more profit on, the big vehicles that are the least practical.

This observation doesn’t directly impact any one policy choice or goal, but it is worth keeping in mind when considering nearly any of them. Car buyers do not respond to clear incentives in the traditional economic sense. It is a mistake to assume they do.

Millions Of Americans Make And Sell Cars For Their Livelihood

Americans buy around 16 million to 18 million cars, trucks, and SUVs a year. Between making and selling those vehicles, the auto industry employs some three million people. Many of those factories and parts suppliers are in swing states and therefore have outsized political influence, as do the unions that rep many of those workers.

People who advocate for banning cars, disrupting car culture, or anything along those lines often do so from the perspective of the use of street space, efficient transportation, the environment, etc. That’s all well and good. But, rarely, if ever, do these plans wrestle with what that means for the three million people who are employed making and selling these things, in an industry where even a few percentage point drop in sales amounts to a bad year. Advocates for those policies should be aware of how they sound to people whose livelihoods depend on robust car production and sales.

Any proposal to wean Americans off widespread car ownership—more than nine out of ten American households own at least one car—needs to have at least some way to address this concern. Because to the people working in the auto industry, calls for people to stop owning so many cars sounds an awful lot like a call for them to be out of a job.

I don’t have any great answers here. One possible tactic is to talk less about defeating car culture without defining the term and talk more about how street space is allocated.

In any event, our country is hooked on cars, in more ways than one. Getting it unhooked will be a very hard problem to solve. But I am increasingly of the belief relying on purely rational arguments will not be sufficient, because 1. those are never sufficient and 2. too many people have their livelihoods at stake.

Beware The Cult Of Innovation

As a reporter, there are some words that I consider red flags. They’re terms that often signify a lack of underlying thought, examination, or justification for the topic or policy at hand. One is “safety.” Another is “innovation.”

To be sure, these are real words with actual meaning. But they’re often not used that way. In my experience, they’re deployed as cover for policies that either have no rationalization or ones that the powers-that-be prefer to keep hidden.

Working for Jalopnik, I heard the word “innovation” or one of its derivatives a lot, especially arround autonomous vehicles (AVs). To be sure, AVs are genuinely incredible engineering feats (the ones that don’t kill people, at least). But, just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should. But once you spend a couple billion dollars building something, you probably want it deployed as widely as possible, no matter what. That could be bad news for transit advocates.

As I wrote in one feature, AVs are not going to solve the problems people think they will. In fact, they very well may make those problems worse, because all of the people involved in developing these technologies are experts in, well, developing these technologies, not in urban studies, road planning, or traffic engineering. For example, one of the earliest and most influential AV funders and evangelists was Google’s Larry Page. And the people who are experts in those things are very worried.

More often than not, when I heard the word “innovation” it was deployed as a tautalogy. Why will this new thing be better? Because it is new, and therefore better. I’m sure I don’t have to convince you, my beautiful subway, bus, and bicycle riders, why that isn’t the case.

Unfortunately, the purveyors of these innovation myths are often very rich and politically connected. Moreover, politicians like to use the “I” word themselves—none more so than our friend Governor Cuomo—because it makes them appear hip. After all, it is no coincidence he called Elon Musk to ask him to fix the subway.

“Car Commuter Culture”

Well before my time there, Jalopnik writers used a term I quite like: car commuter culture. It is the culture of nine out of ten Americans needing a car to be productive members of society. It is the culture of car companies churning out identical econoboxes that inspire none of the fascination or joy that car enthusiasts have. It is a culture where cars become appliances (for more on that theme, read this hilarious post about “What a Car Enthusiast Looks Like to Everyone Else”). It is a culture where the production and maintenance of cars is a major sector of the economy.

Many car enthusiasts are on our side, the side of people who want public transit to be better. I’m not going to say all of them, but I have learned the divide is not as clear as many people assume.