A Sweet Ride?

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Having just reentered the world of car ownership a week ago, I read with some amusement about how Terry Box revels in driving his '07 Mustang Shelby GT despite its obvious contribution to global warming. Faced with a middle-aged man's car fetish in all of its glory, I had one basic thought: Get over it.

Perhaps I should provide a little context here. I didn't own a car between the fall of 2002, when my then-boyfriend and I broke up (it was his Honda Civic before we started dating, so I dutifully signed over papers relinquishing ownership to him once we split), and this month, when my husband of nearly two months shipped his red Mini Cooper convertible from Seattle to D.C. and put my name on the insurance. Overnight, I became a car owner, without ever setting foot in a dealership.

Living in Adams Morgan, I had managed fine for the past six years without having a car to my name. I walk to work (or take the bus if the weather's bad), take the subway to visit my friends throughout the city and hop in a taxi when need be. For the record, I didn't lord my lack of a car over other people, the way vegans crinkle up their noses at meat eaters, and I know that many Americans live in places where public transportation options are scarce.

But to "refuse to go on the national guilt trip" about cars, as Box does, seems willfully ignorant in light of what we've learned about humans' contributions to climate change. The transportation sector accounts for roughly 30 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions -- compared to 20 percent globally -- and cutting down on the time we spend in cars helps solve that problem. According to Reid Ewing at the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth, compact development could cut metropolitan carbon-dioxide emissions by roughly 20 percent, because it would reduce the need for driving.

And let's do a side-by-side comparison of the manual transmission Mini Cooper that I now drive (24 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 miles per gallon on the highway) to a manual Mustang Shelby GT (15 mpg city v. 21 mpg highway driving). Is it really that much cooler to drive a Mustang?

Perhaps I focus so much on numbers -- like the fact that the globe's fleet of 800 million vehicles is expected to grow to 2 billion in about two decades -- because I don't buy into the American car mystique. I don't think these vehicles "supposedly say a lot about who we are," as Box does, though they clearly reflect our priorities. There's a whole Mini Cooper subculture, which apparently involves raising your pinky off your steering rule in salutation of another Mini Cooper driver, but my husband and I don't do it, and neither do any of the other Mini Cooper owners we know. And I've asked them.

In fact, I'm still trying to adjust to the comments people make about our car. Just this weekend, as I ran an errand, a passerby eyed the convertible as it was parked and commented, "That's a sweet ride, huh?" Searching for something to say, I replied, "Yeah, it's really easy to park," which I don't think really spoke to the question at hand.

I'm not saying that having a car isn't useful, or even, at times, fun -- like when we had the top down on Saturday night and were cruising along with music blaring from the speakers. (It did occur to me, however, that the folks walking along Connecticut Avenue might not share our taste in tunes.)

But life is full of choices, as my ex-boyfriend with the Honda liked to say, and part of growing up is taking responsibility for the lifestyle decisions you make. Both presumptive presidential nominees like to talk about how they plan to address global warming if elected, but any regulatory scheme they enact will ultimately translate into changes on the state and local level, affecting the type of homes we live in and how we travel to and from work. And in an era of rising fuel prices, where more people are crowding onto the D.C. Metro and the bus ridership even in remote places like Missoula, Mont., is on the upswing, gas guzzlers are looking less and less, um, hip.

So I understand why a middle-aged man would get a sense of validation from driving a car with a powerful engine that turns a few heads as he cruises the streets of Dallas. But I think it's also important to see that act for what it is: a decision with consequences that other people will pay for, even if they live far away. It's the way Americans will feel a couple of decades from now, when China's burgeoning middle-class can buy all the cars they want. And by the way, they make them even bigger in China, just so folks can have extra legroom while their chauffeur takes the helm.

Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post and the author of "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives."

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