Ever since Karl Benz plopped a practical engine in them more than 125 years ago, cars have lived in our imagination as a boy’s ultimate toy, the steel throne of the stud. You can blame it on a number of factors: the romance of the open road, Manifest Destiny, Steve McQueen movies, or the primal pleasure of going really fast in a well-engineered hunk of metal. Either way, this much is true: the car has imprinted itself so deeply into the DNA of the American man, the two seem as inseparable as Batman and the Batmobile.
But it may be time we change that.
The numbers already say that our passionate love affair with the car is shifting into a lower gear. The New York Times hyperbolically proclaimed “The End of Car Culture” last year after revealing that the total amount of driving hours has declined almost 10 percent since 2004, and the average American household now owns fewer than two vehicles for the first since the early ‘90s. It’s even more drastic for the younger generation. Only 70 percent of 19-year-olds have driver’s licenses, down from 87 percent two decades ago.
Being a man is about more than just driving fast and having the coolest stuff. It’s about responsible and healthy choices.
Part of that shift, we’re told, happened in the wake of the recession of late aughts, when many of us couldn’t afford to pony up enough G’s to buy new wheels. But experts also point to a cultural shift of twenty- and thirty-somethings exiting the car-friendly suburbs and flooding back into the inner cities, where there are more alternative transportation options – cabs, buses, trains, now even bike-sharing services like New York City’s Citibike program.
I’ve personally opted out of car ownership for the past eight years for both economic and health reasons. Cars cost an average of $9,100 over the first five years of ownership, according to Consumer Reports. I save a huge wad of cash by relying instead on a combination of walking, biking and public transportation. Doing so has also worked wonders on my physical health— I’m 20 pounds lighter and way more energetic than in my car-commuting days.
Some of my friends have also ditched their cars, but others have stubbornly held on to their steering wheels as if they were hanging on to their own sense of masculinity. I can sympathize. We continue to be bombarded with images in popular media and advertising that tell us real men drive cars. It’s unlikely that Vin Diesel will don his dark shades and hop on a city bus to get to a stakeout in an action movie anytime soon. The Slow and the Reasonable would be a terrible follow up to The Fast and the Furious.
In moments of weakness, I sometimes get engine envy. A revved-up hot rod blows by me as I slowly pedal my three-speed bike down Chicago’s narrow streets, for instance, and I sometimes feel like Varys, the conniving and cockless spy of Game of Thrones surrounded by his sword-and-dick-swinging peers.
But then I remember that being a man is about more than just driving fast and having the coolest stuff. It’s about responsible and healthy choices. For many of us, that means hanging up our car keys. Eventually, who knows? Maybe pop culture will catch on, and we’ll see an ad for Schwinn depicting gritty dudes in cowboy boots riding tricked-out fixies down a bike lane in Portland.
Then again, probably not.