I've commented before about how image plays an important role in vehicle purchases.
Perhaps not so much for the driver of a Camry or a Taurus or Civic or some other commonplace sedan. But many Prius drivers are making a statement by their choice of vehicle. They care about the environment, and are happy that other folks see them doing something about it. How about the middle-age guy driving the red Corvette? How about the guy on the chromed-out, $30,000 bar-hopper Harley? And how about the driver of the huge pickup truck, covered with optional accessories, giant tires, aftermarket suspension, etc.? Do you think for a minute that such an ostentatious display isn't intended to get the attention of others?
I recently read a couple books, primarily about bicycling, but with commentary about society and transportation in general. Both authors comment about "vehicle image."
The first is Jeff Mapes, in his book Pedaling Revolution. Mapes is a political reporter for OregonLive.com, out of Portland. I decided to read his book after he came to Boise last September to talk about transportation cycling. (I didn't attend his thing, unfortunately, but I checked out the book at the library and read it mostly from cover to cover. Mr. Mapes knows the subject well, and I recommend the book.)
He says, "Let's not forget this, even though it usually goes unstated – we drive because our cars are so wrapped up in our personal identity. Most of us buy as much car as we can afford, and maybe even a little more, in part because it sends a message about our status to the rest of the world. Who isn't a little more muscular or beautiful or stylish behind the wheel of that curvaceous new vehicle?
"The advertising industry isn't selling cycling to Americans because it's just too economical. Cycling was a $6 billion industry in 2007... Automakers spend more than that just on advertising."
The second is David Byrne, in his book, Bicycle Diaries. If the name sounds familiar - he was the creative mind behind the band Talking Heads. It turns out he's been a transportation cyclist since before the Talking Heads days; the book is a collection of his philosophy about bicycles and various other topics, inspired by the cities he's visited and ridden in around the world. He's a deep thinker.
Here is his take on why people drive what they do, even if it isn't the most sensible choice: "Why do people do things that seem to be not in their own best interests? Well, for status, for starters. From a genetic point of view, a step up the status ladder is worth more than just about anything else. Think about the mantis who gets eaten immediately after depositing his sperm – genetically he's actually done okay. The male mantis, the delivery vehicle, is expendable from this point of view – at least if he has done his job. From this perspective, if owning a car improves your image and status, and therefore your mating chances, then the sacrifice – so our built-in instincts tell us – is absolutely worth it. Not really, not ultimately, but that might be what our compasses tell us. And, if an even bigger car proffers even greater status, then sure, get an SUV, or one of those new stretch armored tank-type things."
I s'pose "image" is a minor incentive for bike riding. At least on the really wet and/or cold days, I laugh to myself at the pseudo-macho-men driving their big pickup trucks. The real macho men and women are the ones out there dealing with the weather, even when it's the grim stuff.
I hope to post some other choice excerpts from those books in the near future. If you need something to read, I recommend either. (I'm mostly a non-fiction guy these days.)