Driving, Placemaking, and why every car advertisement is a lie

June 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Every advertisement for a car is a lie.

You'll only get this kind of unrestricted travel if you close down the bridge – which is exactly what Hyundai did to film this ad.

You’ll only get this kind of unrestricted travel if you close down the bridge – which is exactly what Hyundai did to film this ad.

They’re all designed to get you to buy something, which is the point of advertising, after all. Like bottled water and air freshener advertisements, they all oversell the experience you’ll end up buying. A bottle of Febreze has never really freshened up my apartment.

There’s something a little special about car advertisements, though, with the cars zooming around empty city streets and deserted freeways, never a dull moment in sight. Sometimes they’ll throw in pedestrians marveling at the car or a guy riding a bike.

This Lexus ad shows a cyclist for a brief second – and he's riding on the sidewalk.

This Lexus ad shows a cyclist for a brief second – and he’s riding on the sidewalk. To avoid the out-of-control Lexus, perhaps.

For as many car advertisements as there are, they don’t really bother me. Partly because I don’t really watch TV, and mostly because I know, for the low price of $0 and the low introductory APR of 0.00% on a $0 loan, I don’t have to worry about any of this. I live in a walkable neighborhood in a walkable part of Chicago.

What’s funny about the car advertisements is that they show scenes where people don’t want to be – empty city centers. There’s no sense of place, which is kind of funny, since the advertisements are showing us exactly what their product has been doing to public spaces over the past 60 years. They’ve destroyed tons of them.

There are a few left, and some that have popped up in spite of the auto industry’s push to pave over every public space we have. The great part for them is that, in many instances, the auto industry just had to give it a little push, and the public now willingly defends destroying their own public spaces or maintaining the status quo for the convenience of their automobile.

Lincoln Square, Chicago.

Lincoln Square, Chicago.

The auto industry will continue to push the car down our throats for as long as it can. Luckily for them, the side effects of auto dependence go widely unknown by the public, unlike other commodities such as cigarettes, heavy drinking, and fast food. We’re aware these things are bad for us, and they have therefore been marginalized by society as unhealthy or to be consumed in moderation due to their unfortunate side effects. Not so with the automobile, which to many is a necessity whose prevalence cannot be abated.

Therefore, the auto industry isn’t forced to advertise itself defensively, like McDonald’s does in many ways (with “healthy salads” and yogurt parfaits), and continues to deceive, unchecked by the general public. They will continue to promote the newest “innovations” – updating Facebook, making dinner reservations, sending text messages, all without taking your hand off the wheel! – without acknowledging that taking one’s hands off the wheel isn’t what causes distracted driving.

Innovation in the car isn’t letting you do more – it should be having drivers do less.

The current push of the auto industry seems to be in-car entertainment as well as “greener” technology; the latter being a bit slow to catch on. The next “big” innovation in cars will likely be self-driving cars, which I’ve written a bit about before. The promise of increased fuel efficiency and safety are laudable and positive, but the least obvious and the least-discussed is…

The Effect of Driving on Placemaking

Self-driving cars don’t promise to make the public realm any better for people that still wish to experience it. The invasion of cars in cities over the past 60 years has had an extremely detrimental effect on our built environment, and cars that drive themselves will not do anything to better this. Part of an organic (unforced) economy that promotes human interaction can be found only without heavy presence of cars. Think about it – even suburban shopping malls face inward, away from the cars that took their visitors there.

The only serious discourse about self-driving cars is that they will use less energy and make streets safer, but nothing about placemaking or other effects of driving. This isn’t surprising, since most people don’t make the connection between their car and the quality of the places they like visiting. For lengthy journeys or those that require hauling large objects (overwhelmingly freight), the car may still be necessary. But it is not necessary in most scenarios, and self-driving cars will not be either. Slower movement is key – it costs nothing or next-to-nothing, it promotes economic and personal vitality, and strengthens the quality of interpersonal relationships and places.

The auto industry’s current and next biggest pushes are going to be “green” technology and, inevitably, self-driving cars. It’s time a more serious link between auto dependence and the quality of our lives and places is established – the kind of link that hasn’t yet been acknowledged by the general public. The rapid rise of the automobile as technology and utility in the mid-20th century has left us with unusable landscapes unsuitable for human-scale cities, and a similar rise of self-driving technology could also leave us there.