Cars have always symbolized--and provided--a certain kind of freedom for Americans. But that may be changing. The graphic above is a weighted design of what our survey respondents said they disliked about their cars. Most of what they said didn't have much to do with their cars per se, but with their implications: Costs, gasoline, parking, traffic, and the cost of repairs. The cars, in other words, seemed to trap their income.
Throughout our survey we gave people the opportunity to talk about their cars and their lives. Surprisingly, many respondents put a lot of time into their answers, which were generally negative and sometimes nearly despondent. They were using the survey as way to be heard: "I am currently working two part time jobs that do not pay much. I am looking for a full time job. My car is getting too old, and right now I can't afford to get a different one. " Without prompting, a fair number spoke of stress of not only their own expenses but also of family members who were either ill or unemployed. "Everything is more expensive, not just gasoline. My husband is unemployed and my daughter lost her home and is staying with us temporarily." We hope to develop a more systematic approach to analyzing the comments posted in the survey, but in a cursory read the term "necessary evil" came up a lot more often than "freedom."
This new wariness of the car comes as people feel their costs curtailing their choices in other parts of their lives. Anecdotally, many of the people we spoke with said they cut back other expenses--groceries, children's schooling, medicine--to pay for gasoline, because they felt they had no choice. In a recent Gallup poll, 16 percent of women said they were paying for gas by cutting back on groceries and other household expenses, which was more than twice the rate of men (8 percent.) Another study, done by economists Dora Gicheva, Justine Hastings, and Sofia Villas-Boas, studied supermarket sales data in comparison to nearby gasoline prices and found that when prices are high consumers reduce spending on staple foods like cereal, yogurt, orange juice, and chicken by purchasing cheaper products. The pattern they identified explains, in part, the graph in Chapter 2 that shows that income is a bigger determinant of gasoline demand than price: Consumers see gasoline demand as inflexible, and shift their spending around to accommodate it. At the same time the price of gas has a ripple effect on grocery stores who need to adjust to rising prices and changing consumer spending when gas prices are high.
As a society, having a physical and financial infrastructure that encourages people to cut back on medicine, education, and groceries rather than gasoline is very expensive. Cutting back on medicine or education creates higher long-term social costs including hospitalization and a less educated workforce. Importantly, consumers who cannot reduce their gas consumption do not send a "message" to the oil market that causes prices to fall. So gas prices continue rising. Consumers fraught relationship with their cars is part of a bigger chain of discomfort and helplessness that keeps them from feeling like they control their destiny.