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Hit the Road

The fallacy of anti-car environmentalism.

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 2006 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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IN 1999, Henry Ford bested Bill Gates as Fortune magazine's "Businessman of the Century." Ford didn't invent the car, but he revolutionized the mass production process that made cars affordable for everyone.

When Ford began selling his Model T in 1908 at $850 a piece, only the rich had the kind of discretionary cash available to buy the new machine. Just 1 in 100 households owned one of Ford's cars or an even pricier Cadillac, Packard, or Pierce-Arrow. Six years later, the assembly line allowed him to drop the price to the mid-$400s. And by 1925, with factories churning out cars and Ford's well-paid workers guaranteeing maximum quality, the price dipped to a low $260. At that point more than half of all households could boast that they owned a car.

As car designs continue to evolve, manufacturers offer an endless range of options and models--from basic hatchbacks to fully loaded luxury SUVs. And with lower priced brands such as Kia and Hyundai on the market, almost anyone can finance a personal vehicle. Today, more than 9 out of 10 households own at least one car.

But none of this much impresses environmental groups or a certain set of policy wonks and politicians who would rather decry the car-ownership phenomenon Ford helped create.

The World Carfree Network promotes "Carfree Day" every September 22. In late November, during a U.N. conference on climate change, the WCN urged the United Nations to assign the blame for global warming to cars. "Viable alternatives to cars abound; bicycles, trains and even human feet can usually take their place," the group said in a statement.

They're perfectly in sync with former vice president Al Gore. In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Gore called the internal combustion engine "a mortal threat . . . more deadly than that of any military enemy."

Myriad books with titles such as The Death of the Automobile, Road to Ruin, Highways to Nowhere, Divorce Your Car!, and Asphalt Nation have been written over the last four decades, all complaining about car culture. Jane Kay Holtz, author of Asphalt Nation, describes America in the introduction to her book as "a nation in gridlock from its auto-bred lifestyle, an environment choking from its auto exhausts." To her, the anti-car movement is "a personal activism, an activism that shifts and focuses our own lives to favor the foot, the bike, the public vehicle."

Some schools devote whole lessons to teaching the evils cars have wrought. This author learned in sixth grade that a vicious animal, the "sacred rac," destroys cities and towns, ruins the countryside, depletes our resources, and has created a hole in the ozone layer that makes it harder for us to breathe. By the end of the lesson someone finally guessed that "rac" is "car" spelled backwards.

This anti-car agitprop reveals nothing so much as an ignorance of what cars mean to real people. Yes, cars do cause noise, pollution, and congestion. But picture, for a moment, what life would be like if the anti-car activists got their way: Politicians ban cars or tax them so heavily they become unaffordable to most; gas taxes increase several more dollars to discourage driving; and the construction of new highways, even in the busiest cities, is forbidden. (In some cities this last hypothetical is now a reality.)

For everyone not living in the core of a major city, a car-free America would be a nightmare. Like each new transportation invention before it--the railroad, the horse-drawn carriage, the subway, and the streetcar--the automobile created new levels of mobility. It is the most convenient mode of ground transportation in history. Traveling in a car, on average, takes half as long as a ride on mass transit. According to transportation expert Wendell Cox, the average American commute in a car is 30 miles per hour, while heavy and light rail are 25 and 15 miles per hour, respectively.

Automobile opponents look back fondly to the early 20th century when streetcars and rail systems served as the dominant modes of transportation. At the peak of rail travel in 1920, the average American traveled about 1,400 miles a year on urban transit and 440 miles a year on inter-city rail, transportation expert Randal O'Toole reports in his book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths. No one, except businessmen and the wealthy, ventured farther than a few miles from home. Today, the average American drives 14,000 miles a year and travels more than 10 times as much as his early 20th century counterpart.

The automobile has made life better for everyone. It has done so by creating not just mobility, but choice, wealth, freedom, and time.

The Car, the Common Man, and Work