Getting a Ride: Transportation and Identity
A few months ago while on jury duty, I observed the jury duty selection process for a vehicular manslaughter/hit and run case. I was never called into the jury box, but watched as others answered basic questions from both the prosecutor and defense attorney as they determined who would be part of the jury.
One prospective juror mentioned in the course of questioning that she didn’t have a driver’s license. She looked young—I would guess that she was in her very early twenties—and perhaps she was a student, judging by her clothing and backpack. The prosecutor seemed concerned that she didn’t have a license and asked her several questions about this.
“How did you get here? How do you get around town?” she asked the young woman, who responded that she took the bus.
“Why don’t you have a license? Are you scared of driving?” the prosecutor asked the embarrassed potential juror, who said she couldn’t afford a car and thus did not take the time to get a driver’s license. She was soon dismissed from the jury.
Young people are increasingly living in cities, more densely populated spaces with greater public transportation options, and in turn they are driving less on average. This isn’t purely about personal choice. As the Millennials in Motion report notes, some of these decisions are spurred by financial realities. Those with limited incomes may find the cost of a car, its operation and maintenance (gas, parking fees, insurance, oil changes, repairs) are out of their budgets. These same reasons can spur the delay of marriage, children, and home purchases in suburbs that make people more car-dependent.
But the decision to forgo car ownership and driving isn’t limited to those with financial restrictions. It is also a lifestyle that some choose, even those who can easily afford a car in a traditionally car-oriented region, perhaps to reduce one’s carbon footprint or the hassles of car ownership.
For others, a car continues to symbolize status. As Jonathan Wynn recently blogged about, cultural preferences can be used to create a sense of self, and also to denote hierarchy. Cars remain a marker of wealth and may also be used to identify our tastes publicly.
The tinted windows on an SUV, the eco-friendly electric car, the raised wheels on a truck or the newest model of a high-performance German luxury automobile may all be used to construct a sense of self, even if we are not doing so consciously. Maybe you drive a convertible sports car because it was a gift that you would not have chosen, but others may think they know something about you based on your car. Taste is both personal and social, and especially in America cars have traditionally been a big part of this process.
Obviously, not everyone wants to be identified with the make and model of their car, or lack of car, or even the desire for a car. But then opting out of the car culture can be an identity marker too, whether related to our socio-economic status or other values.
Whether she was aware of it or not, the prosecutor questioning the potential juror about not having a driver’s license implied that it was odd and required an explanation. As demographic changes lead to greater urbanization, driving a car might not remain as much of a rite of passage as it is today, especially as technology allows more people to work from home. As people’s modes of transportation shift, we might rethink both the practicalities of how people get around but also the personal and social identities that accompany how we do so.