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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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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: