I know guilt: I was raised Catholic. Over the years I’ve developed pretty effective tactics for dodging that particular emotion. Recently, however, I did something that my conscience just won’t let me forget.
No, I’m not writing this from prison.
I bought a car.
It was a pragmatic move.
Life in Washington, D.C., is certainly possible without a car, but it’s not easy. There are places the Metro just doesn’t go. I found myself borrowing my partner’s Jetta pretty regularly, at first to run errands and eventually even to go to work. When he took a job with odd hours in a distant suburb, it became plain that I could really use a ride of my own.
So why the angst? For lots of people, getting a car is cause for celebration, not self-flagellation. Yet in my dented brain, the endorphin rush of the purchase is all mixed up with a base feeling of criminality, as if I was an investment banker, or a habitual puppy-kicker.
You see, I hadn’t owned a car for decades, and that was a meaningful thing to me—a semi-political act of passive resistance. I gave up car ownership after college, along with red meat and Beer Pong. The decision about the car, at least, proved long-lasting, because as an adult I’ve always lived in cities with good mass-transit and cabs aplenty. (Truth be told, I did hail a lot of taxis.)
Not owning a car came with bragging rights, according to the self-important logic of my young adulthood. What fun to discuss an auto-free existence with residents of Atlanta or Phoenix. What a delight to ask, voice full of pity, “How long is your commute?” My interlocutors always seemed awed, or so I imagined, to meet someone who lived such a rich and fulfilling life without a functioning set of wheels.
Okay, people probably thought me a scold, the Grover Norquist of car ownership, but as an architecture critic and curator I was proud to be practicing what I preached. And what exactly was my gospel? That Americans, deep-down, don’t actually want to drive—most of them just don’t have any choice, given our nation’s meager investment in public transportation, bike lanes, and high-speed rail.
With the wisdom only a man in his 40s can possess, I now realize that Americans really do like their cars. So I stopped passing judgment. But that hasn’t lessened my worry that automobiles cost too much urbanistically, economically, environmentally, socially, and geopolitically.
My longtime carlessness wasn’t just an ideological thing, by the way; it made terrific financial sense. No loan, maintenance, repairs, gas, insurance, or parking. Assuming I could have afforded a car in the first place—and that’s a big assumption—I figure I’ve saved thousands by holding off for so long. Naturally, a sizeable chunk of the savings went to cab fare and shoes. (In New York, I wore out a good pair every four months or so.)
I did have a car in high school and college. It was a 1987 Mustang convertible, maroon with a tan top and interior, and it beautifully suited my peppy, preppy, Reagan-era persona. Granted, the engine lacked zip, the stereo was tinny, and the vinyl roof offered zero thermal protection. Still, I loved that car, and the sense of freedom that went with it. The power and privileges of modernity have never hit me so intensely as when I was in architecture school, cruising the Houston Loop at 70 miles per hour with the top down, watching the searchlight atop Philip Johnson’s Transco Tower sweep across the night sky.
Now, after years of riding shotgun with friends and peering out the rear window of taxicabs, I’m rediscovering the joy of driving. It’s awesome. No wonder Le Corbusier was enamored with automobiles: They’re the ultimate in fetishizable design objects.
I continue to fret about the ethics and effects of car ownership, though having rejoined the motor club it’s admittedly hypocritical of me. There’s no pretty way to resolve the paradox. So, rather feebly, I’ve tried to assuage my guilt by getting a model that at least gets decent gas mileage. Besides, if buying a car was such a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing, U.S. dealers would never have been able to move 14.4 million units in 2012. Right?