The reality of Car Freedom
Go anywhere you want, any time you want, with whomever you want. This is the promise the automobile industry has been selling since the 1950’s. But does anyone really question this? After all, the automobile industry only exists to make money for themselves; do they really care about our freedoms? Or are they trying to appeal to our emotions in order to enrich themselves at our expense? But the real question we should be asking is, does the car take away more freedom than it gives?
If you are among the working class, you probably earn your money in the servitude of others. This in and of itself is not a bad thing; contributing to society using skills and labour can provide one with a great sense of self worth which builds self esteem. It’s good that we live in a society where a person can focus on something they’re really good at and hone their skills. It’s how we achieve a high quality of life we all get to enjoy and share in. However, there comes a point for each of us where we need to achieve some sort of balance in our lives, because there is more to life than just work if we are truly to be free. One of the promises of the industrial revolution and the machines it brought was that people would need to work fewer hours at higher quality jobs and enjoy a higher quality of living. So why haven’t we achieved the 30 hour work week? Why are so many opposed to this concept? It all boils down to a modern version of debt slavery created by the automobile industry. In other words, many of us have become slaves to the machine.
Cars represent ongoing financial debt in a number of ways. If you buy your car new, you often need to finance that car over a period of time. Today, people are financing their cars for up to 96 months, which is eight years. Thanks to planned obsolescence, a strategy pioneered by General Motors, the new car you buy today is engineered to last only that long, if not only slightly longer. This means if you decide to save money and buy a used car, you’ll just be buying your next car sooner. Never mind the fact that, when buying used, you’ll either be buying someone else’s cast-off (nobody gets rid of a good car they like), or something that’s been used and abused, such as a former daily rental. But even buying new is no guarantee that your car will be trouble free, and the insurance is often higher. The decision alone can create a great deal of stress.
Just financing the car is only the beginning of your debt slavery. You will be required to pay insurance every year you keep your car on the road. You are subject to the whims of big oil to put fuel in your car to get anywhere. You will need to get your oil changed at least once a year, but usually more often than that. Every few years, you will need to buy new tires for your car. In fact, you will be subject to being a slave to a comprehensive maintenance schedule at your own expense for your car that cannot be ignored if you expect reliable service throughout its engineered life span, and even that’s no guarantee that your car won’t let you down one day. Starters and batteries fail. Alternators fail. Defects and recalls show up all the time. Even with a brand new car, you are not free from having a back-up plan for transportation; just because your car doesn’t work doesn’t mean your insurance company and lending institution are going to let you off the hook for those payments. And if something bad ever happens to your car that isn’t covered by insurance or your warranty, such as over revving your engine, you’re stuck with a big repair bill on top of that. And good luck trying to fix things yourself; automobile manufacturers have gone out of their way to make modern cars as difficult to work on as possible in order to ensure you bring it back to them as an additional revenue stream for their business.
Besides debt slavery, car ownership burdens us in another way. You can’t just leave your car parked anywhere you want; if everyone did this, our roads would be clogged with parked cars everywhere. If you live in a condo or apartment, you often need to pay for an additional parking space, and they probably aren’t going to allow you to do your own maintenance. This has contributed to urban sprawl, where people want a house with a driveway and even a garage. So now you are burdened with providing a home for your car, and your car may force you to live in a place where the only alternative to driving a car is driving another car, eliminating your freedom of choice.
But then there’s at least the freedom of the open road, right? It is pretty intoxicating the first time you set out going down the highway, but when it comes to the daily commute, it’s a different story. Driving a car is a job that requires your undivided attention. Take your attention away from the road for a minute, and it can get even more expensive really fast. It’s not just you out there, it’s you and everyone else who has bought into the myth of car freedom. So there’s a cognitive dissonance that occurs where we tell ourselves that our cars are making us free, while we are actually a slave to the operation of that vehicle, forced to stop, change lanes, and accelerate according to everyone else and the automated traffic signals on the road. Because everyone is doing it at the same time in the same place, everyone has to slow down for everyone else. You don’t get to choose when to leave; you need to get on that highway early or you’re going to be late as traffic gets progressively slower as the morning wears on, and you want to make sure to arrive in time to be able to hunt down a parking spot, adding even more time to your commute. Not everyone is paying attention. Not everyone wants to follow the rules of the road. People start looking for ways to spend less time as a slave driving their car, and put others at risk in the process. Pretty soon, the highway starts to resemble a war zone. It’s no wonder that road rage has become such a problem, and there’s no end of Youtube videos about this subject.
It can be a frightening experience, motivating people to buy the biggest car or SUV they can afford in the name of protecting themselves, although this often comes at the expense of the safety of others. Such a vehicle costs considerably more than the average economy car, and this puts people even further into debt slavery. The salesperson might convince you that you want the all wheel drive system for even greater safety, but this adds complexity and cost to the vehicle. Maintenance becomes even more expensive, as well as the initial purchase price, and fuel economy suffers.
The commute can greatly extend our work day, often adding a couple of hours of unpaid work at your expense. Eight hour days turn into ten hour days. Add in the visits to the car wash and gas station, and pretty soon you start to realize that there’s very little time left for you to unwind from the stress of your commute and your work day. Operating a car puts you in a seated position, contributing to an unhealthy sedentary lifestyle, so now you’d better make time to visit the gym as well if you want to live long enough to actually enjoy the fruits of your labour. So when it comes time to take a week or two off, do you really feel like driving somewhere? Maybe to the airport like most Canadians, just to get away from all the stress to try to reset so you can do it all again for another year.
The average cost of car ownership for the average Canadian is over $1,000 per month, and it’s not getting any cheaper. It’s not really something you would want to cheap out on, as that puts your own safety and the safety of others at risk and can cost you more in the long run. Meanwhile, the cost for a monthly Presto public transit pass in Durham Region is $117. When comparing the two, the car represents at least a $10,596 greater expense when compared to public transit. In Ontario, that extra $10,596 is going to cost you roughly $12,968 of your gross pay if you earn under $53,000 in 2023, and $13,738 if you make over $53,000 up to around $100,000. There are differences between the federal and provincial income tax brackets, so your own situation might differ slightly, but you can count on car ownership eating a significant portion of your pay. Without accounting for inflation nor the increasing cost of car ownership, if someone bought their first car at 18 and continued to drive until they were 81, they will have paid $667,548 in after tax dollars during their lifetime. Since there will be inflation and the cost of car ownership will continue to rise, it could be over a million dollars, so there is clear financial incentitive for the auto industry to mislead us about cars.
The public transit commuter has greater freedom in choosing a place to live closer to where they work, because they don’t need to worry about paying for housing of a car as well. When they step onto the bus or train, they simply swipe their card and find a seat, where they can choose to read a book, watch a movie or television show, take a nap, or just zone out and mediate. Their time belongs to them, not to any particular task demanded of them. No road rager cutting them off, no aggressive driver taking their right of way trying to run them off the road. When they arrive at their destination, they step off the bus or train and are free. No hunting for parking. No worry if the car is going to get broken into or stolen. Not a care in the world as they stroll into their place of work. The commute back home is also the same. Perhaps they can use their commuting time to binge watch the latest Netflix series, so when they get home, they get to do something more meaningful than just sitting on the sofa and mindlessly watching television hoping for the stress to bleed away before bedtime.
What of the idea of having the freedom to go where you want, when you want, whenever you want? Is it really just a myth, or is it something that can exist in our reality? You aren’t going to get that with a car or even public transit. For that, there really is only one mode of transportation that can truly deliver, and that is the bicycle.