Had Amtrak come to a screeching halt this week, as it was on the verge of doing, most Americans would not have noticed. Of those workers who still commute to in-person jobs, 76 percent drive their own cars, 10 percent ride a bike, and only 11 percent use public transportation.
Other countries tend to give us a bad rap for our car-loving ways. Most of us — nine in 10 Americans over the age of 16 — drive. And we drive a lot: 59 minutes and 30 miles a day, on average. We’re on the road twice as much as our friends in France, Germany, and Great Britain. So when non-American critics blame climate change on our driving habits, I can’t help but think they’re just plain jealous.
Here’s the thing about America: it’s huge. That means people can spread out, and we have. European countries, and European people, on the other hand, are tiny. Europeans live on top of each other, cram together in small flats with miniature appliances, and eat full meals that amount to an American appetizer. Ever notice how a lot of non-Americans you meet have next to no sense of personal space? NPR did, and wrote a whole analysis about how crowded places and their public transportation breed “touchy-feely” cultures. In America, we purposefully live far apart and delight in road trips to visit one another.
America is gigantic and also a newborn babe on the family tree of nations. When we built roads across this fair land, we made them plenty roomy. We had amber waves of grain to contend with, but not the windy, painfully narrow, cobbled passages that lend charm to European villages if not a whole lot of room to park your Dodge 3500 Heavy Duty Mega Cab.
Which brings us to another reason the rest of the world resents our motoring spirit: Americans have enormous vehicles because we have the space to drive and park them. We also have the ability to make our cars our second living quarters, storing clothes, food, all manner of work documents, basketballs — you name it! All while everyone else the world over is still struggling to fit a week’s worth of groceries into those inconveniently compact refrigerators (the real reason they’re all so thin).
Americans also have a lot of work to do that warrants something large and in charge. We farm, we ranch, we hunt, we manufacture steel and haul it along with other heavy stuff (like giant refrigerators). And most importantly, we tailgate. No one does football like America (pardon, Alouettes), and no one wants to get amped with beer, music, and the most delicious fattening snacks ahead of a game that could literally drag on forever. Plus, women find men with trucks to be more attractive. All the more reason for our vehicle ethos to drive other countries green (with envy).
With spacious streets and roads, plenty of places to explore, and expansive vehicles in which to do it, it’s no wonder Americans drive everywhere. We’re a nation of enterprising freedom-lovers who turned an undeveloped wilderness into the envy of the world in only a few generations. And that spirit of can-do independence looms large in our love of cars. A lot of Americans don’t like to be reliant on other people, especially the government, which is why a family of five will show up to a party in five separate vehicles.
For one thing, a train system anywhere but the crowded Northeast corridor and the repulsively congested West Coast is impractical. For another, public transportation is not reminiscent of the Orient Express. Train travel used to be great and glamorous; now, it’s pretty gross. Who wants to stand around and wait for a delayed train to show up so you can inhale the tuna salad breath of the sloppy guy beside you as you are lurched and jolted? You could be contained inside your own air-conditioned capsule, blasting Merle Haggard and manhandling the torque of your V-8 motor that our European counterparts can’t afford to fuel.
So we gladly accept the amazing BMWs and Mercedes they designed and built, along with those big, powerful motors, driving them safely at blazing speeds across the prairies of Kansas and the open deserts of Nevada, navigating them deftly through the Blue Ridge and Rocky Mountains, taking them on Sunday drives in the country, just for fun, and counting them as a joyous part of the workweek. We can pull over for gas and coffee pretty much anytime we feel like it, and American gas stations, especially in Pennsylvania, where Sheetz, Rutters, and Wawa battle for convenience supremacy, make driving all the more glorious.
Americans love to drive. It’s part of our DNA, and we will not apologize for it.