A Car Nut Questions Car Culture

Luca Gattoni-Celli
14 min readMar 23, 2022


These views are all my own and do not represent the views of my employer. They do not use or reflect any proprietary information. I have no relationship with or financial interest in any specific company, including any car manufacturer.

Cars have probably always been my biggest passion. My father came to America from Italy so I grew up hearing about Ferrari and watching him survey Michael Schumacher’s dominance of Formula 1 in the Italian news online most Sundays. Enzo Ferrari always viewed his company as a racing team first which is why I wear a Ferrari ballcap. Dad probably also gets credit for giving me books with diagrams showing how internal combustion engines, differentials, and superchargers and turbochargers work. For most of my childhood I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I still like cars quite a bit, still geek out over turbochargers and suspension, and still research minivans for fun. But I am not sure I truly love cars anymore.

The trouble is I found a new, all-consuming passion. Long story short, I had been interested in the unaffordability of housing for a year or two and knew vaguely that single-family zoning was largely to blame. But over the summer of 2021 I came to realize that land use in the U.S. and most developed countries is incredibly restricted, down to the level of a nice, starchy couple in Old Town, Alexandria near DC having to politely beg the City Council to let them improve their property so that heavy rainstorms no longer flooded their basement with sewage. And down to the level that in many places in America, driving is literally the only safe way to get around. Much of our cities and towns lack sidewalks, much less protected bike lanes. That turns out to be a deliberate policy choice, not “the free market at work.” I realized that urbanism, which basically means how people in cities and towns interact with the built environment, dictates everything from economic mobility to how physically active people are to how many friends and kids they have.

Car culture is viewed as an expression of freedom — the quintessentially American desire to roam, ramble, and explore our vast continent — but in fact our freedom of movement is so restricted I have come to see that rebelliousness as a bit hollow, like Truman Burbank settling down with his scripted wife. It reminds me of a meme I shared on Facebook in my headier libertarian days, paraphrasing Easy Rider: “They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.” Pictured is a U.S. passport, a bunch of cash, and a Colt 1911 pistol. Have gun, will travel. Except as a friend pointed out, the U.S. government is responsible for everything in the photo. Just like the license plate on your car and the reams of regulations governing every inch of it.

The car we choose to drive can be an expression of individuality, but if we are forced to use it to travel even a short distance, it is almost a rolling prison cell.

My memes and statuses somehow converted that friend and a few others to libertarianism. I remain libertarian (granted, not a very good one). Yet urbanism has expanded and complicated my view of what freedom is and how humans actually experience it. That might be the simplest explanation for why my enthusiasm for cars has cooled, but it goes deeper in a couple of ways.

Cars Cannot Scale With Housing Supply

The high cost of housing in most of the developed world is fundamentally caused by a shortage. So we will need to build a lot more homes to make housing affordable to regular people. That will require loosening regulations on residential density, because land in most nonrural areas is scarce, but also because land near lots of other people is valuable. The value of land is a huge component of the cost of housing. In short, we need to give people the option of denser housing. And not everyone who lives in dense housing will be able to drive everywhere, or want to. Cars simply take up too much space.

To be absolutely clear, I do not support banning or meaningfully restricting cars. This shift would take place naturally as denser housing was developed to meet the existing demand for it, and denser living put more people walking distance from local businesses, and so on. Virtually all human settlement was walkable until the automotive age. But it is no exaggeration to say that making housing affordable will require Americans in particular to reevaluate their infatuation with the car. There is no shortcut or detour.

General Motors’ Futurama exhibit debuted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was seen by millions of people. It is widely credited with helping embed car culture in the American psyche.

I know that is a lot to take in if you are not familiar with things like zoning, but to put a fine point on it, the automotive dominance you see around you is not a market outcome. It is not something consumers or even voters freely chose. I unironically love what people call capitalism as the only institution that has made people, especially people without power over others, materially better off. So take it from me, black neighborhoods being razed to build highways through the middle of cities is not the market at work. Any more than a dizzying 40% of the U.S. corn crop feeding into the ethanol fuel blending scheme. The program consumes more fossil fuels than it saves to give us more expensive alcohol-laced gasoline that burns less efficiently and corrodes our cars’ engines. The whole automotive landscape is distorted.

If you love cars, I know how you feel when most people criticize car culture, because they do not understand cars at all. Many or most people have no idea that an engine is powered by little explosions. They just hear a noise.

Defining Automotive Freedom

I have loved cars all my life so I am not going to try to claim car culture is some kind of façade, even though our assumption that driving is the only way to get around feels like one Americans are born into. I do not think cars are evil, but they are complicated, given the costs they impose on others.

Americans celebrating or asserting their freedom usually mean negative liberty, or freedom from interference by other people. Cars impose significant costs on other people, starting with the roughly 40,000 Americans killed by cars each year, and nearly five million seriously injured. Some proportion of those people were killed by someone else driving. It is a well-worn factoid that driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis, raising the question of why its alternatives are so constrained. Cycling in the U.S. is a few times more dangerous than driving according to various estimates, but the biggest risk, at least from my experience, is being hit by a driver. In many U.S. towns and cities, the roads are extremely hostile to pedestrians too. From what I can gather, the absolute number of pedestrians killed by drivers is fairly low in absolute terms, but it is extremely dystopian that human beings cannot take their basic safety for granted if they walk outside in many places, not because of crime, but because of our dominant mode of transportation.

The 40,000 or so U.S. road fatalities exclude harm from air pollution. Scientists still have a surprisingly rudimentary understanding of how dirty air harms human health, or even how it gets dirty. Emerging evidence suggests much of the emissions from cars may not come from the tailpipe, but rather from tire wear, brake dust, and the kicking up of road particles. Some researchers attribute about ten million annual global deaths to air pollution. These are concentrated in the world’s most polluted cities in developing economies such as India and China, but air pollution death estimates for the U.S. range in the thousands. Studies also link air pollution to greater risk for childhood asthma and dementia. Individual studies vary in quality, but add up to a disturbing picture. I chose to live near a highway for a quick commute, but now I work from home and view it completely differently. The problem is not really cars per se, but rather a near total lack of alternatives offered to us.

How Much Power?

Our Forester, which we still have, and my Impreza before I sold it.

This feeds into basic questions of excess, specifically of power, size, and weight. We own a 2017 Subaru Forester. It has 170 horsepower and weighs about 3,500 pounds. My wife and I like Subarus a lot, specifically our Forester, enough that when we decided to sell one car we kept it instead of my beloved Impreza hatchback, which had newer tech and a better chassis. But the Forester is a compact crossover which might be the sweet spot of versatility for a small family, with lots of room for our two kids’ deceptively large car seats and lots of gear in a fairly small package that is still pretty fun to drive and does not bottom out on rough DC streets.

Most reviewers say our Forester is underpowered, partially blaming its continuously variable transmission — which enthusiasts love to hate — but the reviewers really just wish for more horses under the hood. I rode once in the back of a Mustang as a kid and recently rode shotgun in my buddy’s ND2 Miata, which was visceral enough that I no longer daydream about owning one. So my direct experience with fast cars is limited. But common sense tells me the Forester’s power is perfectly adequate. I can merge onto the highway without a problem and floor it when I need to pass a big rig doing 70. More power would get me up to highway speed faster and burn more gas.

My Impreza was truly underpowered, with 152 horsepower moving about 3,050 pounds. As a result it got the same fuel economy as our Forester, if not slightly worse. In Japan the base Impreza engine is a mere 1.6 liters, making only 112 horsepower. That little power seems unsafe. So there is a middle ground, but most U.S. cars are probably on the upper end of it.

With that in mind, here is internet car guru Matt Farah, who has driven all kinds of crazy and scary road and race cars, describing his first encounter with the all-new 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S. It is not an especially exotic car, but has a reputation for punching above its weight:

As I merged onto the freeway, bound for a remote canyon road sixty or so miles outside of L.A., I pointed the nose straight and matted the throttle for maybe four seconds, before coasting out of it and merging. In Porsche’s most powerful 911 Turbo ever, those four seconds, as it turns out, are enough to get you chased down, lit up, pulled over, screamed at, and written up for an alleged enormous number, but not before being threatened with arrest, forcible removal, and impound of my bright-red $223,000 demonstrator. I had traveled 5.2 miles. Even the cop, still seething a shade of Carmine Red more vibrant than my paint, laughed at that statistic. “We had just called in air support. We were sure you stole that car,” he quipped. Yikes.

He probably topped 100 miles per hour without realizing it. Farah admired the car’s everyday usability, despite cracking off a quarter-mile in just a shade over 10 seconds. Here was my takeaway from his experience:

Be careful tweeting at celebrities, kids…

And he agreed:

…though it can work out.

Fast cars have become mind-blowingly fast, almost democratizing speed that 15 years ago was limited to a handful of supercars (if not motorcycles). In that time, the number of affordable performance models has dwindled, but 500 horsepower has become almost normal for premium brands, not to mention EVs like the 1,020 horsepower Tesla Model S Plaid. You can now buy a Jeep Wrangler 392 with a 470-horsepower 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 and the prairie schooner suspension about 40% of Jeep owners never use off-road.

My wife wanted a picture. Buy at this link, apparently: https://www.hansenwheel.com/prairie-schooner-basic/

I am maybe the last person to call for regulating vehicle power, but as a car guy I am also for the first time grappling with the basic question of what this is all for. Professional car reviewers like Farah and BBC Top Gear host Chris Harris have articulated the most interesting version of the dilemma, as the experience of each new brutally fast but soulless engineering showcase bleeds together. Farah questions whether a normal driver’s license is enough for cars that, although street-legal, can only stretch their legs on a track. Harris wishes for a light, 500-horsepower Ferrari with a stick shift. Back in the day that would have been the ultimate car of any kind. Now it would be a throwback. It would almost be quaint. And it would almost be three times the power of our Forester while weighing at least 500 pounds less.

The feeling of acceleration is fun, the noise of a tuned engine is fun, the sensation of speed is fun, hard cornering is fun (though not recommended in any stock Jeep Wrangler). But urbanism probably helped me get back into cycling and even trade my Impreza for an e-bike. And on my Fuji Touring flatbar I found I had quite a bit of fun too. Not the same kind, but it filled the hole that made me yearn for a performance car. And the rush from physical activity is better, not to mention better for me. The e-bike gave me some of the experience, and danger, of a motorcycle too, complete with a high-side crash a few months into my ownership that left me sore for two months. I got back on the horse and still love it, but anyone who tells you they are just like regular bikes is out to lunch. Slow down for turns and wear a helmet.

For a couple of years I had obsessed over rumors about the 2022 Subaru WRX, basically a fast sedan version of the Impreza. Every other affordable, turbocharged performance four-door is front-wheel drive. It debuted with a much smaller power bump over the prior generation than enthusiasts expected, but I was not even that disappointed. The new WRX has 276 horsepower and it is hard for me to imagine justifying a car with more than 300. What would I do with that power? Merge a bit quicker? And then what? I like cornering better anyway. That is one reason I have a flatbar on my Fuji. And on our e-bike I beat city traffic off the line. It has a 500-watt motor with 750 watts of peak output. That works out to about one horsepower.

How Much Size?

American cars are famously large, but the dramatic increase in truck and SUV sales and corresponding decline of sedans and small cars is very clearly causing more pedestrian deaths. A taller hood makes a pedestrian standing in front of a vehicle harder to see from the driver’s seat and more likely to die in a collision. SUVs’ and trucks’ thicker A-pillars are more likely to obscure pedestrians from the view of a driver making a turn. These problems are worse for children. But also bad for a U.S. woman of average height:

A 5' 4" acquaintance standing in front of a pretty standard pickup truck. The plow attachment means it might be used for work, but F-150s and F-250s are pretty common daily drivers in most of America. [Source]

That looks like an F-250 or 350 to me, possibly with a lift and custom rims, so not a typical daily driver even in most of Texas (I think?). Plus it appears to have a plow attachment. Some people need a large vehicle to earn a living. Though it is well-established that most pickup trucks are used for hauling or towing only a few times per year, usually driving around with an empty bed.

Rather than calling for regulation of vehicle size, I just want to suggest that when deciding what car or truck to buy, we take a moment to consider the increased risk of killing someone that comes with driving a larger vehicle.

How Much Weight?

I start this discussion with a breakdown by my friendly acquaintance Byrne Hobart, who you may know as the top business writer on Substack:

One of the great illustrations of the sunk cost fallacy is the extreme frequent occurrence in which a one-pound burrito is delivered point-to-point by means of:

1. A 2,800-lb car [many weigh more these days], driven by

2. A person devoting 100% of their attention to delivering said burrito, while

3. Following a prescribed route consisting of a series of turns on a mostly-2D grid, while

4. Moving at a variable speed because of stop signs, stoplights, and other obstacles.

Of the ~2lbs of CO2 emitted in a three mile version of this little transaction, 99.6% are spent on moving a person and a vehicle, while the other 0.4% are devoted to moving the food. The cost breakdown is harder to estimate, but a big chunk of it is paying a person to maneuver a fairly large vehicle around other rather large vehicles, all to deliver something comparatively tiny.

There is, in other words, an inflated cost involved in using cars to deliver small packages.

This is a good time to mention that most car trips were less than six miles, as of 2017. Maybe the percentage has gone down, but probably not much. That is a lot of weight for a distance most people could comfortably walk or bike. Or at least e-bike. And sure, if it rains, you can drive. But there must be workarounds that do not involve accelerating and braking at least a ton and a half of metal powered by explosions, or at least two or three tons of metal powered by batteries that entail unbelievably toxic mining.

EVs are not some kind of environmental magic wand, and they can be used to rationalize a lot of environmental damage that misses the overall goal of not destroying the planet. I am not a climate or environmental doomer — quite the opposite — but let’s just be real. Consider the upcoming Hummer EV:


This monstrosity weighs 9,063 pounds and has a maximum rated gross weight of 10,550 pounds. It also has a 1,000 horsepower and GM brags it will hit 60 miles per hour in three seconds flat with “Watts To Freedom” mode engaged. I take pains to avoid profanity but WTF indeed. I and many other car enthusiasts cannot understand the rationale for making something that big and heavy accelerate that quickly. Forget about crushing other cars, in the wrong hands this thing will level houses. It almost seems inevitable. And the worst part is that in such a large EV, the weight of the battery becomes a self-perpetuating mill stone, largely existing to power itself down the road.

Cars will not disappear, certainly in America. And I do not want them to. I just booked the Airbnbs for a summer road trip that will take us more than 2,000 miles and hopefully supply a lifetime of memories. I will never forget flinging my Impreza down forested country roads in far southern Virginia during a 2019 birthday trip, with my wife gently begging me to slow down and my daughter napping in the back. I will always have a special place for cars in my heart. A couple of days ago I wore the red prancing horse hat to a meetup of a YIMBY (yes in my backyard) pro-housing group I founded, knowing Ferrari had likely won its first F1 race since 2019. And I waved it passionately as I addressed the 40 or so people who showed up, about our vision for making Northern Virginia, which we genuinely love to call home, an ever better places to live, build community connections, and raise a family. I knew the color would grab attention, and I felt proud to be my father’s son.



Luca Gattoni-Celli

Recovered federal tax reporter currently working as a management consultant. Catholic, husband, father, student of economics. SDG