The Love Story of Americans and Their Cars

Here's an outrageous claim: In America, it is cheaper to own a car than to not own one.

That's a weird thing to say, right? How can paying for something that you don't really need be cheaper than to not pay for it. Well, the answer may come as a shock to you, but it's quite simple. Let me make my case:

To get to the bottom of this, we have to go all the way back to the year 1903. The young and talented Henry had just acquired a loan of $28,000 and was ready to start his own automobile company very close to Ann Arbor.


Detroit seemed like the perfect place to realize his vision of cars for everyone. After Henry moved his company from Mack Avenue to Piquette Avenue, where I had a relaxing summer night walk not too long ago, things really took off for the Ford Motor Company. 
Neither did Henry Ford invent the car, nor did he invent the assembly line. In general, Americans tend to not invent things, but they are ridiculously good at making things better: Bikes, weaponry, computers, Mexican food, you name it!

Ford did a great job at combining the two uprising technologies of personal transportation and mass manufacturing. This didn't only make the Ford Motor Company the Apple of the early 20th century, but turned a heretofore expensive curiosity into a practical conveyance. This conveyance had an unrivaled impact on the economic and social progression of the United States. Fords were the first American product to conquer the world market.

Only 25 years later, one out of six Americans owned a car. Nowadays, cars are considered a necessity rather than a luxury good with every second American owning one. The car is not only convenient but also a symbol of freedom and prosperity. National pride is very closely attached to vehicles, too. The sighting of a foreign car on the roads is a rare occurrence. 


With this in mind we can tackle my crazy claim: In America, it is cheaper to own a car than to not own one.


Actually, let me tell you about the structure and arrangement of public space in the States first. This is only going to take a second and it's very important to my point. So, just when the first Fords hit the road at around 1900, another American phenomenon was in the makings. It would restructure and redefine the American way of thinking about consumerism and self-determination: The first department stores opened their gates. A department store is basically a massive shopping center with the purpose of keeping people entertained through shopping rather than selling groceries or similar necessities. With the rise of the department store and increasing wages, Americans started to buy for pleasure to transform themselves through the commodities they consumed.


As cities started to grow and space became scarce, these shopping centers were moved from urban areas like downtown New York to more rural areas like suburbs. The high supply of space kept the rents low and allowed to build huge 'shopping towns' we now know as malls. Lower rents meant lower prices. This is still true today, of course. It is still much, much cheaper to buy things a little outside the city. This is where the car comes in.

We established the social role of the car in America. Let's focus more on the practical aspects now. 

This is where we finally have a look at why it may be cheaper to have a car here than to have none:


1) The prices for groceries in the city (Ann Arbor) are at least twice as high as somewhere a little outside. 


You may think: 'Well, that's what public transport is for!' You'd have a point... But you would also reveal that you didn't read my article on public transport in the US, yet. Public transport is... not very good here. Just to go to a shopping center or supermarket on the bus will cost you about 1-1,5 hours. If you don't plan ahead very well - that's me and probably most other university students - you have to shop for groceries at least twice a week. That is three hours of riding around on a bus and waiting in the cold.


And this is a best-case-scenario. The general case would be a bus being late or not arriving at all because it's too late, too early, too rainy, too snowy, too weekendy, too holidayy or whatever other reason the bus company might think of. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I spend about 3 hours a week just waiting for the bus. And there we have the second problem:

2) If you want cheaper groceries, you're going to have to invest a lot of time to make up for it.


Just travelling from my house to the supermarket and back consumes more of my spare time than all my weekly showers combined - and I am not a quick showerer. It consumes more time than what I spend on eating my meals all week. You could watch any of the Lord of the Rings movies in the time it takes me to go to the supermarket and back. In a car, it would only take me about 20 minutes.

Ok, the article might be a little... 'out there' from here on out:


The question now, of course, is how much I usually spend on groceries. I'd say it all adds up to about $80 a week. If I'd buy my groceries in town exclusively that'd be $160. In total I would pay an extra $320 a month if I only shopped in town.


Is owning a car really more expensive than $320 per month? Well, the AAA says: Yes! Yes, it definitely is. In fact, they estimated the average expenses for a car to be about $725 per month, so about twice of what you would spend only shopping in town. They did not take into account, however, that cars are basically cash cows. How? I'm glad you asked. Let me elaborate:


We established that the public transport system in the US is subpar - and that's not 'super', dad, that means 'below the acceptable'. This creates a demand for transportation. There is a reason for Uber kicking off in the US. I could Uber around all day with hourly earnings of up to $25. 30 hours of Ubering a month would pay for my car. 30 hours are quite a lot, though. Luckily, there are other ways to earn money with your car. For example, renting out permanent storing space in the trunk or transporting illegal substances. 


I think it is safe to say that I made a valid point here and proved that it is, in fact, cheaper to own a car in the US than to not own one. I have to admit, however, that I don't mind the waiting and the walking and the long bus rides. It is time I have to myself, time I am forced to enjoy with some music playing in my headphones or an audiobook. It is an opportunity to meet interesting people - and believe me when I say that I have made a lot of weird friends on the bus.


That's why I won't bother buying a car for my last couple of months here, even though I might have more money in my account if I did...

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