This car ad isnt real. Yet.
This car ad isn't real. Yet.

Cars are so great, you guys. They’re liberating, fun to drive, so easy to obtain, and upkeep is a breeze. Every person on Earth should have a car, whether you celebrate Honda Days, Toyotathon, or Datsun Solstice.

Ha ha. Ha. That’s what car commercials want you to believe. The reality is not quite so appealing.

Cars cost thousands of dollars, leaving you saddled with debt — on average, around $500 every month for years — to say nothing of the on-average $8,000 per year you’ll spend on gas, repairs, insurance, and parking. Cars are deadly, killing around 3,700 people every day. They’re a waste of time, with traffic eating up 2.5 weeks of your life every year — more time than you probably spent on vacation. Cars are fragile, requiring constant upkeep, and even then you never know when you’ll be stranded by the side of the road. Finding parking takes forever. You have to wrangle a designated driver when you go out drinking. Where did all those crumbs come from? Why won’t that alarm down the street stop?? Why would someone steal my hubcaps??! Oh my God how is the tire flat AGAIN!!! And so on, and so on, and so on.

And while cars may be annoying to own, they’re also annoying for everyone nearby. The air pollution, the noise, the ridiculous amounts of public space wasted on storing them. No, you can’t cross the street there, the cars are going too fast. No, you can’t have a public park, a hundred empty cars need to sit there instead. No, you can’t have a discount on your rent, each parking space in the building costs $35,000 to build and the developer needs to recoup the cost.

Cars are like cigarettes: They’re bad for the people who use them. They’re bad for everyone around the people who use them. So what if we did to car companies what we did to big tobacco?

This topic has been on my mind lately because of the talk about rescuing Pike Place Market from the constant prowl of cars, and restoring it to the original configuration in which farmstands filled the streets. Slap up a few “authorized vehicles only” signs to allow deliveries, create an “accessible parking” area by the entrance for people with mobility needs, bring out the benches and chairs for visitors to relax and enjoy themselves, and ta da: You’ve got an international destination. Even the Seattle Times agrees this is a good idea, for crying out loud — so what is up with those weirdos in the comments who say it should stay as-is?

When I read the public feedback to the idea of pedestrianizing Pike Place Market (or adding bike lanes to streets, or creating housing without dedicated parking, or making Healthy Streets permanent, etc), a pattern emerges: Outraged car-owners speak up to defend a strange parallel universe that has never existed, but that they seem to think they’re entitled to. They want a world where they can drive directly from their homes to their destinations, fast, with a parking space right next to the entrance. A world where gas is cheap, where traffic doesn’t exist, where nothing stands in their way — not bikes, not pedestrians, not snow, not even other cars. A world where cars are always clean, where crashes never happen, where the open road beckons and cars are never, ever, ever inconvenient.

This reality exists in only one place: Car commercials.

Look at cigarette ads from the 1950s and you’ll see a similar warped reality, in which doctors recommend Chesterfields. I’m old enough to remember when cigarettes got prominent product placement in Superman movies, when smoking was portrayed as glamorous, and Joe Camel was a popular cartoon mascot. Cigarettes looked relaxing and cool, something cowboys and film stars enjoyed, part of a normal life that nobody even thought to question — and if they did, everyone else would roll their eyes.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people died horrible premature deaths, and everybody smelled terrible — smokers, spouses, kids, everyone. It’s hard to overstate just how bad the world smelled until everyone realized it didn’t have to.

The reality of smoking never measured up to commercials — it couldn’t, because cigarettes kill you and annoy everyone around you! And neither can the reality of owning a car.

When reality intrudes on car ownership, drivers get mad. I understand: I’d be mad too if I’d devoted tens of thousands of dollars, plus thousands more every year and countless hours, to an object that a company had convinced me would solve all my problems. It sucks to think that you’ve been taken for a rube, so instead of blaming the car companies for selling you a bill of goods, it’s much more comfortable to blame someone else: Pedestrians. Bikes. Buses. Parks. City planners. Traffic lights. Plazas. New construction. Everyone ELSE who owns a car, but not me.

But of course, even if you took all those things away, owning a car would still be dreadful: They’d still be expensive, they’d still pollute, they’d still get stuck in traffic, they’d still kill people. All you’d have accomplished is removing everything worth driving to.

I think that going after car-owners — shaming them, humiliating them — is the wrong approach, since they’re really not the problem. It’s tempting to yell at the bad driver who takes up ten peoples’ worth of space on the road with their giant truck, but really it’s the car and oil companies who are to blame, with their ludicrously unrealistic ads. There’s a gigantic automotive industry out there that depends on selling a silly fantasy of car ownership, just like the tobacco industry sold the fantasy of smoking.

So, as with smoking, maybe the solution is to counter that propaganda with a bit of reality.

Is it possible to bring car-owners’ expectations back down to Earth? They’ve sunk an awful lot of money and time into their metal death cages, and it’s hard to admit that something so expensive was a waste. But at least their bodies aren’t chemically dependent. It’s worth a shot.