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Sunak, our car addiction and the mobility myth


Sunak, our car addiction and the mobility myth

Dr Susan Kenyon explains why the government’s association of freedom with car ownership is such a powerful vote winner. 

Anyone playing political lingo bingo this weekend would feel that they had struck gold. In a single paragraph, the Prime Minister mentioned three terms that are guaranteed to fire up voters in key seats at the next election: “hardworking families”, “forced on communities” and the biggest fire starter of them all, ending “the war on motorists”. 

It isn’t a surprise that the government is focusing on short-term, populist policies – woefully behind in the polls, at the start of the Party conference, with a general election likely within the year. What is surprising is that the mobility myth – that the car equals freedom, democracy, reward, success – persists. 

Why is this? 

In the early 20th Century, government and industry worked together to develop the car culture, or the ideology of automobility. Both saw the car as the mechanical embodiment of capitalism, which could assure their economic and political success, if they worked together. The creation of the mobility myth took time but, with the involvement of other industries that stood to benefit from the culture, including the engineering, planning, marketing and entertainment industries, the practical and psychological dominance in western society was assured. 

All around us, we can see evidence to challenge the mobility myth. We aren’t really free when we are in our cars: we are only free to travel where, when and as fast as the government and congestion allows.  Our freedom to choose the properties of our vehicle – fuel, safety, size – is highly regulated and constrained. Cars aren’t very democratic, either. They aren’t equally available and the positive/negative effects of car driving aren’t equally distributed. I can’t think of any other reward for hard work that requires you to work even harder to earn the money to maintain it; and there are surely more prominent symbols of success than something that we are rarely seen with, because our car-dominated streets are empty of those who might associate us with our car, because of pollution, noise and fear of accidents. 

But the car culture is so pervasive that we don’t see this evidence and the myth is assured. 

In a recent study, Fran Allen and I sought to understand more about how the mobility myth is reproduced in society today. We examined the top 10 most streamed songs on Spotify, to see if the car culture is as prominent in music today as it was in the 1980s. 

We found evidence of the car culture in every song, in both lyrics and video. The references are more subtle than in the 1980s – fewer fast cars, but more use of movement to indicate progress, freedom and transition. Harry Styles’ As It Was, Glass Animals’ Heatwave, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill – all feature constant movement. Power and powerlessness through movement / lack of movement were also a key themes, particularly in relation to relationships and male power over women. These subconscious messages reinforce the mobility myth and they are delivered directly to our ears, every day. 

Sunak’s appeal to the car culture may be cynical, but it is also highly successful. Our attachment to the car is psychological and social. Highlighting the contradictions in Sunak’s argument, or increasing (awareness of) the practical alternatives to the car can’t succeed. To challenge the mobility myth, we need also to challenge its dominance in popular culture, persuading our cultural icons to break free and entertain us in more creative, less compliant ways. 

Harry Styles, we’re waiting for your call… 

Dr Susan Kenyon is a Principal Lecturer in Politics.

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