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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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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.


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.


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.


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.