April 12, 2016 — Day 3: Car Ownership and Not Wanting To Do It

I’m ostensibly a responsible adult, and part of being one of those, at least in Milwaukee, is owning a car. I like having a car, but I haaaate owning a car. Car ownership is stupid and I wish I didn’t have to do it.

I bought my car, a 2011 Jetta SE, in August 2011, brand new off the lot. Volkswagen offered good rates for recent college graduates and I needed it for work, so it made a ton of sense. Plus, I was lucky enough to be able to put down a decent amount up front thanks to college graduation cash gifts. The Jetta has been a great car, it gets decent gas mileage, has never had a major mechanical problem, and is roomy enough that I can fit my giant dog in the backseat along with a fair amount of camping gear in the trunk. So what’s there to complain about?

It turns out there is plenty to complain about. Car ownership is a major money pit, even with a perfectly functional vehicle that has no issues. There’s gas, oil changes, tire rotations, wiper blade replacements, the list goes on seemingly forever. In fact, the list of things required of a car owner is long enough that it causes me real stress. Plus, beyond the obvious costs of owning a car there are moral problems.

Owning a car in Milwaukee is evidence of my class and emblematic of the class divide in Milwaukee in general. Milwaukee is possibly the most segregated city in the United States — we often trade that honor back and forth with Detroit. This fact is largely due to post-WWII black migrations from the South to Chicago; people moved to Chicago en masse for at least a decade before they started coming to Milwaukee because jobs were more abundant in Chicago’s northern neighbor. By the time people made it to Milwaukee federal housing assistance’s use of redlining to segregate neighborhoods was a fully developed technique. On top of that, whites in Milwaukee had seen what happened in other Northern cities after black migration…neighborhoods became integrated, whites fled, the suburbs grew. Milwaukee was prepared to skip the integration step.

One of Milwaukee’s great shames and most effective ongoing segregating tactics is our pitiful public transportation system. The only option for public transportation in Milwaukee is the inefficient, poorly funded public bus system, which can take hours to get to your destination, especially if you are trying to go to the suburbs. Thanks to the history of redlining and the city’s ongoing inability to cope with poverty and segregation, many of the jobs worth having are in those same suburbs that are so difficult to get to. We often hear dog whistle attacks in the supply side media on black people regarding laziness, inability to hold down jobs, or disinterest in community. What is often overlooked is just how hard it can be to hold down one of these jobs that often only exist in the suburbs. How many of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatives could hold down a job where you have to take a city bus 1–2 hours each way to get to work and you are at risk of being fired for missing a single shift if the buses aren’t running? And I haven’t even addressed how difficult working a service industry job can be when you have children and your job has irregular hours. The US is one of very few developed countries that doesn’t offer any childcare assistance to its citizens (among other things, like universal healthcare, parental leave, universal basic income, ugh).

This is the context in which I think about owning a car. I live in Milwaukee and owning a newish car is a very obvious symbol of where I stand in the class hierarchy, and I’m not very comfortable with it. I was born into a middle class family living in the suburbs, had most of my college paid for by my parents, was given enough money upon graduation to put money down on a car, and this all makes my lifestyle possible. I couldn’t work the job I have now without owning a car, my whole way of life is essentially blocked to anyone who needs to rely on public transportation. I don’t think anybody has consciously thought about how it would be near-impossible to work for the company I work for now if you had to rely entirely on public transportation, but the fact is still there…

Privilege is like the air we breathe, we don’t notice it was there until its gone. Rarely do people in my life think about how we came to be well-off enough to own cars and have the lifestyles we do, but I can guarantee that a lot more thought would go into it if this privilege was taken away. This is what I try to think about when I consider my car ownership — it isn’t just a waste of money, it is a symbol of my enduring privilege (plus its a Jetta, so its a pretty obvious symbol of my whiteness). Someday maybe the public transit system in the United States will be sufficiently built out so that there is more equality of opportunity, maybe the government will finally adopt economic development policies that reduce the need for people to take two hour bus rides the begin with. I’m not holding my breath though.