Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reading: "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives"

Photo c. D. Woodard
On Thursday, August 5, Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez spoke to a group of about 15 people at Powell's Books on SE Hawthorne Street.  They discussed their new book, "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives". They've wound up a cross-country, book tour (car-free, of course), with subsequent stops in Seattle, WA, and Vancouver, BC.

The idea to write "Carjacked..." came about, they said, through a related series of events, some tragic.  First, they both switched lifestyles - Anne moving from an urban area to a suburban neighborhood, and Catherine making the opposite change. As they adjusted into their new lifestyles, the changes each experienced prompted a deeper conversation between them.  And tragically, at around the same time, they lost several close friends (to whom the book is dedicated) to automobile accidents. They sought to answer the question - if cars are apparently so bad for us, how did we end up in the situation we are in?

C. Lutz records a recent Sprockettes performance.
Bringing her experience as an anthropologist to the table, Catherine has great insight into how this happened culturally.  Anne complements this with a keen business insight. The fact that they both have educational experience at both the primary and secondary levels is reflected in a thoroughness yet easy readability. The book is well-documented with endnotes, quotes from extensive interviews, and sheds light on some commonly held (and in some cases, intentionally created) misperceptions about our relationships with the automobile.

Here are some interesting facts from their research:

* Americans spend, on average, 18.5 hours per week either driving or riding in a car.  In a year, car owners spend $14,000 a year on direct expenses related to their cars, commonly the second greatest household expense, and approaching the greatest household expense in some areas.

* Their research further indicated that rather than providing freedom for their owners, cars actually accelerate the economic disparity in society. In fact, a car is not freeing or empowering, it is impoverishing.

* Cars create carnage. 40,000 people die each year in car-related incidents.  Additionally, 2.5 million people are injured in cars; these injuries can affect the quality of life of the victims for the rest of their lives.  More people have died in car accidents in the history of the US than in all our wars combined.

* The "Public Transit Diet" - by opting to take public transit or other forms of active transportation, people can easily drop between 5 and 10 pounds of weight.

* Fuel efficiency is not, on average, improving. The Model T, when introduced, got 28 miles per gallon. The modern average fuel economy is 24.7 mpg.

* Electric cars are not the answer to car culture - their experience (Anne owns a Toyota Prius) has been that the only thing they change is the source of power for propulsion. Granted, there are benefits from switching power sources, but that won't move us away from a car-centric culture. Also, they think, the electric car is something of a red herring, in that car companies are saying they're constantly just at the horizon, but "in the meantime, please buy this SUV".

When asked about what can be done to move Americans from a love/hate relationship or a sense of ambivalence to their cars, in addition to the recommendations that they make in their final chapter, "A Call to Action", they recommend we overcome the ingrained car culture through awareness and education.

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