When I tell people I have a 13-year-old son, a common reaction is, “well, he’ll be getting a car soon.” This always gets said with kind of a knowing leer, as though the speaker, usually a man, is saying “he’ll be having sex soon” or “he’ll get drunk on his 14th birthday.” I’m never sure exactly how to respond, because Elijah actually won’t be getting a car. He doesn’t want one. I don’t want him to have one, and neither does my wife. No one around here has any interest in seeing another vehicle in the driveway.
For decades, the first car, whether a jalopy for Junior, a rad convertible for a Valley Girl, or a beater for crossing the Florida-Georgia Line, has been marketed as an American rite of passage, a symbolic portal to the magical freedoms of adulthood. Maybe in some cases, that’s still true. But cars, particularly used ones, are also an expensive, unnecessary and dangerous hassle.
If kids live in a rural area where they have to drive 15 miles to football or softball or debate practice, or if they really love cars, it makes sense for them to own one. But my son doesn’t love cars, and we live in a crowded city. I don’t want to throw him into a deep end populated by a million 5,000-pound mechanical sharks powered by exhausted and distracted people, his surroundings entrusted to the Texas Department Of Transportation. I’ve seen what’s out there: The roads are constantly clogged with people doing dangerous and stupid things. Traffic fatalities have risen dramatically (as they have over most of the country) so much that the Austin police can’t figure out the cause. We have a problem where people are throwing rocks off the overpasses on the Interstate. Accidents are more than common in this hell. They’re expected.
There are also cost factors to go with the fear factor. Though a gallon of gas retails for less than a candy bar, cars are still expensive enough. You have to pay for insurance and registration, maintenance and repairs. Sometimes when you get in an accident—which you probably will—you have to pay for other people’s maintenance and repairs if you haven’t met your deductible. Then you have the questionable sunk cost of owning the car itself.
If I have to get my teenager a car, I want it to be a decent one. I’ve driven out into the Texas sun in a $2,000 car, and I know for a fact that it’s not safe, not given the congestion in Austin, where is considered a documentary. Used, you’re looking at least a $5,000 vehicle, if not at $7,500 or $10,000 one. Some people may have the cash to pay for that outright, but I generally don’t. And if you get a new car, forget it. You’re almost definitely looking at a triple-digit monthly payment.
My son doesn’t need the security risk and cost headache associated with car ownership. He’s a teenager. He needs the ability to go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, without his parents. But he can have that without owning a car.
My radical proposition is this: I’m going to calculate how much money it would cost the family for Elijah to own a car every month. And then I’m going to dump half that amount, which should still be at least $100, into various car-sharing app accounts. If Elijah wants more than that, he can supplement it with money he earns himself. Then, he’ll have access to the apps, and can call a car whenever he wants one, within reason and curfew.
Five to ten minutes after he summons one, a Uber will appear to take him to the mall. A Lyft can take him to the movies. Our local socialist car-sharing collective can give him a pool ride downtown to see a hip-hop show at Stubbs’ downtown. He can take the bus to and from school. And if he’s running late, he can just call a car. That will cover 90 percent of all scenarios. He’ll be able to travel more safely, in relative comfort, and he’ll be able to relax.
I realize that parents of teenage girls will balk at constantly putting their daughters into cabs driven by strange men. But the girls could go with friends. Maybe the apps can set it up so you can request a female driver, or, even better, offer some sort of all-female-driving service. Then, sometime in the inevitably near future, the car shares will all be driverless, and such worries will be moot. Whether male or female or ambiguously gendered, I would gladly send my teenager child off to Panda Express in a sentient robot-car. Autonomy for all.
However, my son will learn how to drive. Not only is a driver’s license the best form of identification and an easy way to register to vote, it’s also an incredibly important life skill. If Elijah finds himself stuck in a bad situation with a drunk friend or caught up some other calamity, he needs to be capable. I’ll make sure he is far readier than I was at his age.
My own driver’s education was limited to a few sessions with my well meaning but nervous mom, and a safety class at school. Hence, I crashed the family car the first time I got behind the wheel, got a speeding ticket a week after getting my license, and didn’t really even begin to approach competency until my mid-30s. I wish I’d gotten here sooner.
I’m going to invest some of my not-car-buying savings I’ll earn into the best and most comprehensive driving education possible. I’ll even spring for a private instructor, cost depending. After Elijah passes the license test, I’ll pay for him to get a lesson or two on a racetrack, as well as an off-road course. He will know how to change a tire and change oil, fill up a tank and operate an electric charger, and he will know how to drive a stick shift. If he gets cast on The Amazing Race or caught up in a zombie apocalypse, two things that he fantasizes about often, he’s going to be a man, dammit. He may never own a car, but he’ll be a better driver than I ever was.
And he’ll have fun, fun, fun, till his daddy takes his Uber away.