Was The Personal Car A Mistake?

Eric Carlson
The Urbanist
Published in
10 min readMar 28, 2022

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It might be time to see a different future for an increasingly congested America

The autumn I turned sixteen, I bought a car from my boss at the Country Club where I worked. I remember the feeling of excitement when we met in the parking lot and exchanged the money. In my hands were now the keys to a Ford Explorer Sport, a car I needed not only to get to school, but also to cushion my social standing in a crowd where SUVs were the coolest thing since Abercrombie cargo pants.

It’s hard to believe that a gangly, fresh-faced kid like me was legally able to drive a hunk of explosive metal around my hometown in those years. My sense of the repercussions of an accident were dim at best, and, like most kids, I drove my car with all the gusto and irresponsibility of a teenager high on his newfound freedom.

Though nothing bad ever happened while I was driving, I have since heard horror stories about the car accidents that have taken the lives of teenagers and adults alike. Nowadays, the thought of reckless sixteen-year-olds taking to the road in fast cars makes me shudder a little, wondering how we ever thought it was okay to let everyone drive around in these machines.

Car ownership had its golden age, even if it was never safe to begin with. By the year 1930, more than half the families in the United States were car owners, a number that would continue to steadily grow throughout the decades. At that point, the road was nothing less than an adventure, offering the oft-wished for freedom hanging at the edge of each person’s dreams.

It’s not a reach to suggest that cars, in their most mythological form, represent freedom. In post-World War II America, the booming economy and growing middle class made the personal car what it is today, pushing suburbs farther out and offering every American the chance at their own little slice of the good life.

In this way, cars represent much more than practicality. They represent romance, abandon, opportunity. All you have to do is cruise the strip in a convertible with the perfect song on the radio — perhaps Don Henley’s Boys of Summer or Bryan Adams’ Summer of ‘69 to grab a slice of this effervescent joy.

Public policy attempted to make this dream a reality for the average American. 1956…

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Eric Carlson
The Urbanist

I write, I play music. Work in Urban Planning, Graphic Design, and Marketing. Sometimes I feel like I need less hobbies. https://ericcarlson.pro