A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”
I got my first car when I graduated from college — a basic Chevy model with a stick shift, but I remember driving it home to Boston from the Connecticut dealership like I was behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Where I come from, owning a car in high school or college was a luxury, unless it was a total junker.
For my parents, a purchase of a new car was akin to the excitement of bringing a new baby home, and they had eight of them — babies, not cars. I remember watching my mother pull the curtain back from the living-room window just to gaze in appreciation at their purchase.
Having a decent car meant something — not status, but freedom. To drive yourself to work. To the grocery store. To the local lake on a hot day. To the once-a-year vacation.
My second car, a four-door Mazda, was a step up from the first, the bigger monthly payment possible after working a few years. I found myself admiring it from the window of my apartment, an echo of learned appreciation for having the ability to buy a decent car.
I’ve had many since those first two. Cars with sunroofs and “sport” mode. Big SUVs that could fit car pools and skis. Smaller company-paid cars, which was a thrill — a decent car and no car payment!
Recently, an injury left me unable to drive for almost two months. I owe a big debt of gratitude to all who drove me where I needed or just wanted to go in that time period. Two months felt like two years (to them, too)!
Now that I’m driving myself again, I’m reflecting on the question of why it feels so fundamental to be able to drive yourself — not only practically, but emotionally. Why did I feel at such a loss when I couldn’t?
Much is made of the so-called American “car culture.” According to the most recent U.S. Census and other federal data, 92 percent of American households own at least one car. There are almost 275 million personal and commercially registered vehicles. And the average American drove almost 14,000 miles in 2022.
The Boston metro area has the fourth lowest rate of car ownership for an urban area but even so, at more than 82 percent, we far exceed the lowest, the New York metro area, which is at about 56 percent.
Commentary about this affinity for driving has a “tut-tut” tone to it these days. Bike lanes and mass transportation are the emphasis. I support sustainability initiatives, but I personally don’t think making owning and driving a car harder is the solution.
Cars, to me, unless you live in a city, are necessary tools and also something more. They get you where you need to go. They are fundamental to a sense of self-reliance. And having access to a car offers the possibility of adventure — or, sometimes, escape.
Could you look at yourself honestly when you had young kids — or were just having a really bad day — and not admit wondering how far you could get on a full tank of gas? Who hasn’t thought about driving from here to California, just because? Closer to home, who doesn’t love taking a “Neck run” or a drive around Nahant?
There’s a debate over whether our love of driving is borne of the independent American spirit or whether it has been inculcated by the car industry and popular culture. The lyrics to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” certainly pick some romantic chord in me — “Hey, what else can we do now? Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.” If I’ve been inculcated, may I say, “Thanks, Bruce!”
Do you have a favorite song about driving and the invitation offered by the open road? Play it on your next Neck run. I won’t tut-tut, but drive safe. I’ll be driving myself right behind you.