I’ve been on a real car kick lately. Watching videos, TV shows, and listening to podcasts about cars, how they’re driven, how they’re made, how people fix and maintain them— it’s all fascinating to me. All this makes me think about the idea of the automobile and what it means to people all over the world.
My formative experiences with cars
When I was an 18-year-old in India, I wasn’t very enthused about cars. They were just metal transportation boxes, liabilities, a headache to use and maintain. My experience learning to drive a car solidified that mental model. I learned to drive in an old beat-up Hyundai Santro, learning to shift gears on a gearbox that felt like it was held together by crunchy peanut butter, with an instructor screaming instructions into my ears as I barely managed to avoid cars, motorbikes, bovine creatures and callous old ladies on the mean streets of Thane. It didn’t help that I chose to take lessons during peak traffic hours and that the instructor made me go to traffic roundabouts at a time when I barely had a few hours behind the wheel.
This video closely resembles what I went through in my first few driving lessons.
I went to a “driving school” as most 18-year-olds do in India. That’s where I got behind the wheel of the aforementioned Santro. The thing about “driving schools” in India is that they only really teach you how to pass the driver’s test. Once you pass your test and get your license, you’re on your own. That’s the interesting and honestly scary thing about learning to drive in India— having a driver’s license doesn’t mean you actually know how to drive.
The stresses of car ownership in India
From my point of view as a child and young adult, car ownership always seemed like quite the hassle. I lived in Thane which is part of the greater Mumbai metropolitan area (some might nitpick that but I don’t want to get into that). Due to this, some of the things I quickly learned to associate with cars were “stress”, “traffic”, “pollution”, and “the stress of parking”.
I remember whenever we had relatives over, or whenever we visited someone, one of the first questions was always about the drive itself. “How was the traffic?” “How are the roads?” “Which route did you take to get here?” , and so on. The discussion would go on for a few minutes before the conversation moved on to other topics, but the conversation about the journey was invariably present no matter the occasion or time of year.
Parking was another constant pain. I remember my father used to ask us to keep a lookout for parking spaces every time we drove somewhere. I remember the paid parking attendants, the merciless tow truck operators, and the moped owners chasing behind them to get their vehicles back. I remember parallel parking in a tough spot only to get bookended by cars parked bumper-to-bumper and having to go home in an auto rickshaw. Twice. It didn’t matter if you had a compact car or even a two-wheeler, parking always involved a bit of luck and a whole lot of patience.
The aspirational aspect
In India, the experience of driving a car is wrought with stress but the idea of owning a car is still aspirational. Being able to buy a car with your own money is a sign that you’ve made it in life. I remember hearing anecdotes like “Sachin Tendulkar bought a Maruti 800 with his own money when he was 18”, as examples of someone to look up to. The anecdote aims to show people the success you should strive to achieve, and the car is a symbol of that success.
From Urban India to the Midwestern United States — a shift in perspective
Four years ago, I moved to Indianapolis. Indy is technically a city, but it was nothing like the city I was used to living in. Much fewer people, much larger roads, and much longer distances. All of this, and a nearly non-existent public transport system.
In the midwest, not having a car is like a handicap. Distances are measured in how long it would take to drive there. A small indicator of how deeply rooted car culture is in the American way of life. Throughout my life as a grad student living in the midwest, I felt this handicap every day. Calling it a handicap might be hyperbolic, but it was definitely a small pain in the side, a small hurdle I needed to overcome just to be able to keep up with people better equipped on the transportation side of things.
The nearest Indian grocery store was eight miles away. The nearest Starbucks was a couple of miles away. Getting around on the University campus was not much of a big deal, but I remember spending up to twenty minutes at the bus stop waiting for an Indy-go bus that was always late, riding the bus for fifty minutes to the Patel Brothers store, trudging through wet lawns of car dealerships on the highway to get to the Wal-Mart that was “next door”, along the streets near the I-65 that were built with cars and drivers in mind (no footpaths and barely any crosswalks!). Then, waiting for the bus again, heavy bags in hand, trying to balance six bags of groceries in two hands and trying not to spill anything, balancing some of the grocery bags on the handrails, trying to ignore the other passengers’ looks of confusion mixed with curiosity, trying to hold back the restlessness in the fifty minute journey back as the bus stopped on each and every bus stop spaced two blocks apart…
This experience was enough for many of us to try to get driver’s licenses. And indeed, many of us did. It was like a whole new world of opportunities presented itself to us. Enter “ZipCar” — a car rental service that charges you by the hour, perfect for those trips to the Indian grocery store. The nearly hour-long journey was cut down to about fifteen minutes. There was no walking through lawns or footpath-less highway roads— just drive to the store and find a parking spot. We needn’t balance heavy bags in our hands anymore, just put them in the trunk. To an American, this was a mundane, everyday experience. But to us, it was like we were given the keys to the city.
Using ZipCars wasn’t always without its pitfalls, though. there were four cars for about four thousand students, and availability was limited. More often than not, the window of availability was only an hour to ninety minutes. That’s not enough time to go to both the Indian grocery store and Wal-Mart. Walking through the vast expanses of a Wal-Mart’s aisles takes at least an hour, and it takes fifteen minutes to get there. We were often found wanting more time, which more often than not, we didn’t get. The car needed to be returned to its designated parking spot on campus, where a new set of students lay in wait for a chance to get behind the wheel and do their own shopping.
Despite all these travails, it was still much better than taking the bus. Driving in the midwest was fundamentally different from driving in urban India. Wide roads, clear signs, everyone following traffic rules, and most importantly — almost no honking. All of this meant that for the first time in my life driving wasn’t just a chore anymore. Dare I say, it was almost… enjoyable.
Uber/Lyft— a new hope
In the midst of the revelation that was driving in the Midwest, I began using ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. I didn’t use it often as a grad student, but as a newly minted college graduate with a job, I use it almost every day. It hits the sweet spot for me. I can get to places I want to be but I don’t have to drive. Why wouldn’t I drive if I felt driving in the midwest was almost enjoyable? That’s because of the realities of car ownership and car buying, in the united states.
Wants versus needs
Getting a good deal on a car depends on a lot of factors, and there’s a lot of research that’s necessary. This car research is what got me on the car kick I mentioned in the beginning. I got so involved in research that I ended up spending my evenings binge-watching consumer reports videos. All my research points only to one thing— don’t buy a car unless you need to. I don’t need to buy a car. I live in an area well-connected by bus, and my ride-share app expenses end up being lesser than it would be to own and drive a car myself.
Despite arriving at a practical conclusion, buying and owning a car is still something I want to do. The answer to why that is doesn’t lie in the experience of driving, it lies in that aspirational aspect of car ownership. It lies in the fact that the car is a measure of success and personal responsibility.
It’s not the car, it’s just me
At times when I am in a pensive and introspective mood, I feel like having my own car will make me feel more like a grown-up, an adult, someone willing to take responsibility. Maybe I’m missing out on that. I feel like there’s this unending race towards self-improvement, “growth as a person” , all these things I’m seeing other people do, all these things that make me feel jealous of others with their perfect schedules and hobbies and interests and personal lives and successful relationships, maybe having a mechanical object that can transport me from place to place will placate this desire to fit in with the rest of these youthful individuals full of vitality and hopes and dreams, maybe I’ll feel like a responsible adult like so many people my age appear to be.
Maybe I need to get out into the world and cut myself a larger slice of this experiential pie. Maybe I’m hearing so much about cars all day that my mind is turning a corner on the idea of having a car. “The downsides are worth it I promise” I hear them say subliminally. Maybe I’ll go out into the world. Maybe I’ll drive down the highway for a few hours and go back to Indianapolis on a Thursday evening and go listen to some Jazz at my favorite Jazz bar. Maybe I’ll drive down an hour and go to that nature reserve that’s “super close” but I haven’t been to because I don’t want to drive a rental car.
Or maybe I’ll be a worry-worm just like I am today, but with one more sword dangling over my head. Maybe I’ll just drive around town with the windows up and the heater on, listening to some music loudly while screaming “look at me I’m not a loser”.
The modern automobile— the ultimate compensator.