Burn the suburbs – Cars as social delusion

Your average car is pretty unchanged since fifty years. Four wheels, four seats, four or six cylinders, and a body that rusts to limit the lifespan. Over the last few decades, cars have become safer, more reliable, and more comfortable, although fuel efficiency is pretty much unchanged for the last ten years (Figure 1.9, NZ vehicle fleet stats). But basically, cars remain mostly a tedious way from getting from a surburb to work/school/shop and back.

The reality is that the average NZ adult spends nearly five hours a week driving, up an hour from twenty years ago and NZ adults in my age group average over 15,000 kms per year (data). That’s two hundred and fifty hours per year of sitting on your arse, either stuck in traffic or trying not to break the speed limit.

Why do people do this? Plenty of people feel they have no choice and the reasons for that generally come down to infrastructure, to community design, to planning, to how we allocate costs between individuals and governments, to how workplaces are structured, to how work is specialised, and to social norms.

I’ve always been someone who’s willing and able to say “fuck social norms, I can find a better way”. So here’s one of my standards of success in my life – how little I have to drive each year. Now that we’re sharing a car with tatjna and ferrouswheel, we record mileage to share out costs. So since February last year, I can say I’ve driven (or been driven) for a grand total of 1100 kms. That’s hundreds of hours of my life that are now my own.

But seriously, why should it be so hard to people to break out of socially normative practices? Why do so few people think they have options? Why are people willing to cut off their options and then complain about being in a trap?

And rather than admit that we’re forced by circumstances outside of our control into wasting a vast amount of our money and time, why do we retreat into rationalisation, where we say cars are social objects and statements of identity? Someone who thinks about design as a reasonably interesting level described cars as solving an identity problem where sex meets territoriality. To which I say what?

Well, yes, all cars are social objects as are all objects used by humans. Equally, if you’re going to spend five hours a week with an object, then it influences your interactions with other people. However, underlying all that is that cars are metal boxes on wheels and if you live in the suburbs then you have to get in the box every day. How do social practices (and the analysis of those practices) become so disconnected from reality? Or rather, if your reality sucks, then what stops you from identifying as a sucker?

For the first time in history younger people are driving less. Maybe reality gets the last word.

13 thoughts on “Burn the suburbs – Cars as social delusion”

  1. currently I am interested in the ability to at least go and get things like building material or groceries from places further away than down the street, and I find these of some interest:


    1.6L/100K is that like… 180 mpg or something?

    But: it is an approach to continuing, in the short term, the same old way of using vehicles in the face of such minor obstacles as fuel cost increases.

    Also: the marketing. It looks like an attempt to fool me into thinking I have got Buck Rogers’ mobile stud room. And it is SUV style so the form of it sparks all sots of emotional responses in me which leave me feeling like DESPITE its apparent practicality I don;t want it because it is part of an existing line of the things that are the problem.

    If it was based on utility, which I would go for, it would be just a bit more of a load-carrying device and a bit less of a mobile La-z-boy.

    So I think this would do it for me:


    Solar charged, of course.

    1. Whereas if hardware stores in NZ could manage online ordering and same day delivery, then I’d never have to leave the house of a weekend. Most of my trips seem to involve driving to Bunnings in 1.3 tonnes of Mitsi to collect less then 10 kg of tools or screws.

      Much as I’d love an electric bike to get me up the hills, that runs into two problems. Electric bikes in NZ are limited to pedal-assist, so under 300 Watts, which is hardly worth the bother. Getting past that into a proper electric motorcycle runs slap bang into the problem of cars. Riding a bike is dangerous coz there’s too many cars, so damn nearly everyone who could ride a bike drives a car, causing there to be too many cars. And hence the vicious cycle continues…

      1. Hardware stores in NZ can’t even manage online stock listing or pricing. It is incredible. They cite “variance in local material supply” but the main things I would want to look up are things like bolts, nails, tools, etc. which are not usually local materials.

        Or they could change their pricing model and average things out because that’s going to get them sales.
        Certainly I’d pay a delivery charge if it saved me the couple of hours of pissing about trying to get to Petone Mitre 10 Mega on a Saturday morning and the cost of the petrol.

        For medium distance, such as from my house to say Kilbirnie Warehouse or the closer Thorndon Resene’s, I’d be happy with a bit of pedal assist. It might make some difference as to whether I’d bother riding that far and might just make it so I can keep up with the cars, which is a major issue with using roads and relevant to the safety aspect.

  2. Well, currently I bus/walk to work. Takes about an hour a day and costs a couple of dollars. Driving would take 10 minutes and cost say $15, mostly in parking.
    When I worked in the Hutt, however, the rail/bus trip took maybe two hours a day and was very marginally cheaper than driving. I think that’s really what drives most people.

    Of course, having the choice is a bit of a privilege. If you’re a teenage factory worker, you’re probably expected to be in some sort of god-foresaken industrial wasteland with no public transport at 7am each day. A car becomes the only real way to get to work.

    And there’s the social aspect. For a working class teenager, a car is often the only personal space they have and if all their friends have cars and they don’t, they’re kinda ostracised.

    1. Ok, but what’s the reason for people finding themselves in those situations?

      For a start, bus or rail isn’t lost time. For me it’s thinking/reading/playing games time. And walking is exercise time, which gains you time through a longer life (XKCD on the cost of picking up a penny).

      At one level, having a choice is a privilege, but the deliberate geography that allows personal choices is a social choice. There’s a reason why “god-foresaken industrial wastelands” exist, it’s because of zoning rules or residential developments aiming at taking away other transport choices and pushing factory workers into owning cars (for just one of many examples, Ford’s Willow Run plant was built at a car-commutable distance from residentially-zone land that Ford owned and developed into worker housing). Why don’t we have mixed-use communities? Why can’t people live where they work and work where they live? Most jobs, hell, most manufacturing isn’t noisy or noxious these days. Hell, most of us work in offices.

      And for social aspects like the one you point out – why is it that cars are the only affordable accessible personal space? You can say that other spaces are expensive, but cars are an expensive way of creating space, it’s just that the costs are subsidised. A car in a parking space on a public road outside a terraced house stops public use of that space, yet we treat it as a free service. If it was a garage as part of the house, it would be worth, let’s say a grand a year? That money would provide plenty of privacy for a teenager, but instead we have an invisible subsidy that supports the social use of cars.

  3. The YoT has had thoughts about doing a Carpentry apprenticeship. The very first thing that young fresh-faced potential apprenticeships are asked when they ring up to enquire about getting on board is “Do you have a driver’s licence and your own transport?”

    I am not sure why builders expect every apprentice to be able to drive themselves to every job individually, but I suspect that’s got a lot to do with instilling “I need a car to get to work” into young people.

    1. Some jobs are always going to require mobility. However, we’re back in the chicken-and-egg situation. If every builder can travel 5 km, then they’re competing for work with other builders within 5 km. If every builder can travel 50 km, then they’re competing for work with other builders within 50 km. So mobility becomes an expensive norm. Rather than providing an advantage, it’s a disadvantage to not put in the time, fixed costs, and running costs.

      You can try and fix this at an individual level, by creating a business advantage from stepping out of this treadmill: London’s bicycle-based builders. Or you can get a job that doesn’t require such an up-front investment in suburban mobility. Given that YoT is right in the middle of town, he has more options than if he lived in the wasteland of opportunities that is suburbia.

        1. Coz the social norms of rural versus suburban vary with the distance that people are required to travel?

          Coz shearing gangs are larger therefore there’s more benefit and opportunity for shared transport?

          Coz builders carry more equipment? (I know Cliff does.)

          Coz of other reasons?

          1. A builder may carry more equipment, but the averaqge apprentice carries a toolbelt or maybe a toolkit the size of my shearing gear. Hard on a bike, not impossible in a car with 5 people.

            Another thing shearing gangs do (the smaller ones) is carpool – the shearers basically take turns carting everyone to the job in one or two cars. This would work just as well in suburbia (sewing factories often run a van btw), but there seems to be a mentality in building that insists that each person finds their own way to the job, like it’s a mark of your independent work-readiness or something to not rely on public or shared transport.

            So yeah, I suspect it’s more about social norms of builders than specifically suburban that’s happening here, now you mention it.

    2. I see this a lot in the US: employers can shift a cost onto entry-level employees — use your own car to deliver pizzas! or get from the company headquarters to a remote jobsite! — but as soon as the employees are valuable, the company arranges rental cars that it pays for.
      Still gets you started out thinking that you need a car.

      1. Hell, if you’re valuable enough, they’ll lay on a 737 for you. But yeah, that’s a symptom of the casualisation of labour as well as part and parcel of the two-way process of creating/enforcing social norms – you do it coz it’s expected and it’s expected coz you do it.

  4. So I live out the far end of Upper Hutt and commute by bus to work in the CBD. Takes just over an hour each way, costs me $195 per 30days.

    Over the last two years I have spent $4,500 on bus passes, and got ~$6,000 worth of travel. I use the travel time to either blob out, listen to music, or read an e-book.

    The family owns 1 car, used by $Wife who has to commute 12k to work 3 days a week because public transport doesn’t get her there early enough (6am start). We manage about 20,000kms per year, which is helped by occasional long trips up country.

    Interestingly, I’m happy to bus to and fro most of the time, but $wife would drive rather than bus and waste the time.

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