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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

Let's begin with the working poor. In many ways, they have benefited most from the rise of car. As car enthusiasts often point out--most recently Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal--the car dramatically changed the quality-of-living gap between rich and poor, probably more than any other invention of the 20th century. Before mass car ownership, mobility was the exclusive privilege of the most affluent members of society, who went anywhere they wanted in carriages. Everyone else had to walk, or, if they lived in the city at the start of the 20th century, ride a streetcar.

A working-class woman without an automobile might have to pass the time at an unglamorous job most of her life. But if she has a car--as more than 90 percent of Americans do--she doesn't have to narrow the scope of job possibilities to places near home or the mass transit stop. She can work late hours if she needs to, or overtime for extra money, without worrying about personal safety after dark or a transit schedule.

Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton acknowledged that, "twice as many welfare recipients with cars were working than those without cars." Studies by Evelyn Blumenberg and Margy Waller at the Brookings Institution have revealed a correlation between car ownership and employment. In Illinois, 25 percent of former welfare recipients in a sample interview said transportation makes it hard to get to work. In Iowa, one of the more rural states, 61 percent of long-term welfare recipients reported that getting to work is a problem.

THE RISE OF THE CAR also means that people living in isolated areas can escape their surroundings. Without cars, some neighborhoods, both those that are too far out and those that aren't situated near transit stops, would be off limits to non-residents. Medical care, too, is easily accessible for everyone who owns a car. "Discouraging autos for the poor essentially means they have to go through life with one more disadvantage," notes Ronald Utt, a transportation scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

Of course, the poor still have transportation problems. Many struggle to pay high insurance rates and own older cars that require repairs and maintenance. The government gets in the way, too: States such as Virginia impose car-ownership obstacles by taxing cars as personal property. Other places, such as the District of Columbia, create high vehicle registration fees and expensive emissions tests on even the newest, most environmentally friendly cars in order to generate revenue.

There's no single solution to these problems. The poor live in various geographic regions--not just within the city boundaries--and don't all have access to the same resources. And most jobs aren't easily accessible by transit. Since the 1950s, metropolitan areas--and the jobs that lay within them--have changed so much that only about 10 percent of the nation's employment is in the downtown cores where mass transit goes, and only 22 percent of people work within three miles of the city center. According to Blumenberg and Waller's study, more than 35 percent of people work at least 10 miles from the city core. In less dense cities like Los Angeles, Tampa, Chicago, and Detroit, the latter number hovers around 60 percent.

Families, Women, and the Car

Families rely on cars for many of the same reasons working class people do. Families have dozens of short errands that require a "trip-chain": that is, a trip to drop off the kids at daycare might also include a trip to the drycleaners, a trip to the bank, and a trip to the grocery store. No transit schedule can accommodate these needs. Nor can carpooling.

A common complaint of the anti-car crowd is that cars trap women in traffic hell. Holtz writes that women "spend more time behind the wheel than Russian women spend in food lines." But don't cars give women, like everyone else, a choice? Cultural elites and central planners aren't interested in arguments about these types of choices because they think that, given the choice, ordinary citizens will usually make the wrong one. Sandra Rosenbloom of the University of Arizona, who studies the relationship between women and cars, has shown that anti-auto efforts hurt women more than men. While men tend to drive straight home from work, women are tasked with errands like picking up the kids, doing the shopping, and making sure there's something for dinner.

Natural disasters

In an item called "Mobility Injustice in New Orleans," the editors of the Czech magazine Carbusters lamented that residents of the Big Easy didn't have enough mass transit options during Hurricane Katrina:

The highways were effective in evacuating those who had wheels. Sixty thousand residents, according to the Economist, did not own cars. However, as Hurricane Rita approached, hundreds of thousands of motorized would-be Houston evacuees sat in snail-like highway conditions in the mid-day heat, often running out of gasoline or heading back home in desperation . . . Can't planners learn from New Orleans and recognize the benefit of alternative transportation, both for the everyday, and in cases of evacuation?

New Orleans had mass transportation--lots of it, including the famous St. Charles streetcar. But as Katrina approached the city, the streetcar shut down. Amtrak cancelled all service in and out of the city. And when Mayor C. Ray Nagin went on Meet the Press afterward, he claimed couldn't find anyone to drive buses out of New Orleans. Indeed, dozens of yellow school buses sat in parking lots across the city hours before the hurricane bore down. People without rides were trapped.

But what if no one had had a car and everyone instead had had to rely on city officials to keep transit running to get him or her out? Many more than 1,000 people would have died waiting to be rescued. It has been determined, Moore reports, that during the rescue and recovery phase the SUV saved more lives than the sum total efforts of local police and fire departments, FEMA, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross.

Americans who live many latitudinal degrees above New Orleans, in places like New England and the Midwest, have a different weather problem: They live under a blanket of snow all winter long. What would they do without cars and SUVs? They'd literally spend hours of their days walking or waiting for transportation, or else go back to living like early American settlers with a few modern conveniences.

Freedom

History abounds with examples of the car becoming synonymous with freedom. Waldemar Hanasz describes in his essay "Engines of Liberty: Cars and the Collapse of Communism" that during the Cold War, when Communists in Poland got their hands on the movie The Grapes of Wrath, they decided it would serve as a good warning about the evils of capitalism. Yet, rather than being horrified by images of the Great Depression, audiences were stunned that in America even the poorest farmers who owned their own cars and trucks could drive wherever they wanted.

Car boosters often point out that the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott--the one Rosa Parks inspired--worked precisely because many blacks owned cars and could carpool around the city. Indeed, many civil rights protests would have been impossible to organize without private transportation.

Some countries have banned cars. North Korea, one of the world's most brutal dictatorships, forbade the use of private cars until last year. When Communist Albania abolished the car, its economy disappeared with it. The absence of cars and highways is consistent in the poorest, most oppressed countries in the world.

Do Taxpayers Subsidize Drivers?

Anti-car activists often contend that the government spends more money building roads than expanding mass transit. One such proof involves tabulating all the costs associated with the car in one column and all costs associated with transit in another. This is misleading. Even if everyone in America rode transit, the government would still have to spend a lot of money building and maintaining highways for police, firemen, delivery trucks, and the like.

What's more, most of the money used to build highways comes out of drivers' own pockets, through user fees like road tolls and taxes at the gas pump. In an article for the New York Times Magazine, John Tierney researched how the drivers fund highways: If you calculate the costs of driving like the car owners' personal expenditures, the cost of building and maintaining highways, and the salaries of policemen to patrol the streets--it comes out close to 20 cents a mile. Drivers fork over about 19 cents in tolls and gasoline taxes to cover those costs. Some anti-car activists, such as the authors of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, argue that increased mass transit spending creates more new jobs than increased highway spending. But it's not the responsibility of the government or the taxpayers to create and fund jobs, especially ones that serve little or no public purpose.

Strikes

Most transit workers join unions, which means sometimes they strike if they don't get the employment terms they want. In mid December 2005, for example, though state law forbids it, New York City's 33,700 transit union members threatened to walk out on the job one minute after their three-year contracts expired. New York is one of a few cities in the world that relies heavily on mass transit. Yet the transit workers had no compunction about the fact that millions of New Yorkers--the ones who pay their salaries and benefits--would be stranded. Their union said that workers would stay if salaries increased 8 percent each year for the next 3 years and the retirement age changed from 55 after 25 years of service to 50 after 20 years of service, with pensions equal to half of their average $55,000 a year pay. Leave aside the fact that no private worker could demand perks like these. Leave aside the fact that many people in lower-income brackets subsidize these salaries.

With ice and snow falling nine days before Christmas, New York's transit union called a "selective strike," which affected about 50,000 commuters. Four days later all of the transit workers walked out. Eight million commuters had to rely on their feet, private bus services, and taxis for several days until transit workers came back, without resolving a thing. In the meantime, they aren't likely to be singing the praises of mass transportation, and hopefully will realize that cars and interstates never go on strike.

Pollution and Safety

Carmakers have seen tremendous success making new cars as fuel efficient as possible. Most new cars create no more pollution per passenger mile than a bus. What if we reverted back to the beginning of the century, when 1 out of every 100 Americans kept a horse or two for transportation? The pollution and environmental effects are unthinkable. Horses drop over 40 pounds of waste a day. "Imagine what a city like St. Louis smelled like on a steamy summer afternoon when the streets were congested and piled with manure," Moore writes in the Journal.

Congestion

Much has been made of the "If you build it, they will come" argument against building new roads to accommodate increased traffic and alleviate congestion. The argument contends that the new roads will soon become just as crowded as the old ones, and therefore won't solve a thing. But what it really means when a new road fills up with cars is that planners have done their job evaluating potential road space.

Common sense tells us that higher densities and fewer roads can only lead to more congestion. Traffic congestion tends to be the worst in cities such as Los Angeles, Portland, and Washington, D.C., which have refused to accommodate more cars. Because of efforts by politicians such as former California governor Gray Davis, planners in Los Angeles only built half of the roads originally planned. Instead, the city government spent $8 billion to build 450 miles of rail. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has fewer miles of highway per capita than any other big city. Cars remain the preferred mode of transport--the result is that Los Angeles has the worst traffic jams in the country. After Tom Cruise's movie Collateral came out in 2004, one reviewer noted that the movie's final scenes on the L.A. subway might surprise some viewers, since it's an obscure fact that Los Angeles even has a subway. You might notice it if you drive south on I-5 towards Orange County. You'll find the highway packed with cars. At some point you'll probably be sitting still, so you can catch a glimpse of a little trolley teetering around the basin below. Riding it will be about 15 or 20 passengers.

Finally, there's the argument that if only America embraced European attitudes toward the car we'd all be better off. That is, we should build many more miles of transit, double the gas tax, raise the car tax, and refuse to build more roads. As it happens, many European countries have tried this experiment with little success. In Europe, the car remains the most popular way to get around, while roads are more congested than ever, as anyone who has ever driven in Paris or London during rush hour can attest. Despite European governments' efforts to make driving less desirable, Europeans seem to like their cars as much as Americans do.

In fact, travel times in Paris are comparable to commutes in the highest density cities in the United States: The average commute on mass transit in Paris takes 53 minutes, while a commute in a car takes 27 minutes. In the greater Paris area, one of the densest regions in Europe, transit only accounts for 30 percent of vehicular travel, and this number declines every year, according to Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History.

Still, some politicians and policy wonks hope that Americans will give up their cars, or at least leave them at home, in favor of centrally planned transportation. The numbers show that so far it hasn't happened and things aren't trending that way any time soon. Between 1960 and 2000, 71 million more commuters drove to work and 1.7 million fewer rode mass transit, according to Census Bureau statistics. Car use has been steadily increasing every year while transit use is flat or declining everywhere. "What critics call our love affair with the automobile has actually been a marriage of convenience," O'Toole writes.

It's no coincidence that as soon as the automobile became affordable to the masses and ceased being a luxury good for the wealthy, the anti-car crowd swung into high gear. To them, the car is a symptom of an entire lifestyle they find objectionable: that is, mobility and choice for all. And, not surprisingly, the people they criticize tend to be people they have little in common with, who have no chance of becoming part of their social circles. One only has to conjure the names of environmental activists in Hollywood, such as Cameron Diaz or Laurie David--the wife of comedian and Seinfeld creator Larry David--to prove this point. To illustrate the snobbery of anti-car elitists, car enthusiasts like to quote the Duke of Wellington, who at the advent of the railroad proclaimed the new technology would "only encourage the common people to move about needlessly."

Rachel DiCarlo is a Phillips Foundation fellow.