Academic journal article Independent Review

Autonomy and Automobility

Academic journal article Independent Review

Autonomy and Automobility

Article excerpt

Years before the automobile evolved into a transportation necessity, before multilaned asphalt replaced meandering muddy ruts, intrepidly pioneering motorists took to the roads for pleasure. Today tens of millions drive for pleasure, but increasingly it is a guilty pleasure. From a multitude of quarters, motorists are indicted for the harms they leave in their wake. Drivers generate suburban sprawl, exacerbate the trade deficit while imperiling national security, foul lungs and warm the atmosphere with their noxious emissions, give up the ghosts of their vehicles to unsightly graveyards of rubber and steel, leave human roadkill behind them, trap each other in ever vaster mazes of gridlock and, adding insult to injury, commandeer a comfy subsidy from the general public. Only the presence of unconverted cigarette smokers deprives them of the title Public Nuisance Number One.(1)

Barring a radical reengineering of America, we will not soon toss away our car keys. As the primary vehicles for commuting, hauling freight, and general touring, cars (and trucks) are here to stay. But as the automobile enters its second century of transporting Americans from here to there, it is increasingly dubbed a public malefactor, and momentum grows for curbing its depredations. Construction of significant additions to the interstate highway system has ground to a halt. Designated lanes on urban roads are declared off-limits to solo motorists. Federal Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency CAFE) standards require automakers to eschew selling vehicles as capacious as motorists may wish to buy and instead to alter their mix of products to emphasize lighter, less gasoline-hungry cars. Taxes on fuel have been increased only modestly, but if critics of the hegemony of the automobile have their way, America will emulate Europe, pushing the tax up by a dollar or more per gallon. Funds thereby generated will not be designated for motorist services -- such earmarking is precisely what has exacerbated the current plague of overautomobilization -- but will instead be directed toward more mass transit, pollution relief, and research on alternate modes of transportation.(2) Some argue that employer-provided parking should be taxed as income to the employee or disallowed as a business expense to the provider. Others advocate following Amsterdam's lead, barring nearly all automobiles from entry into the center city. Moral suasion supplements policy proposals. In the name of social responsibility, individuals are urged to carpool or avail themselves of public transportation, scrap their older, fuel-intensive vehicles, and eschew unnecessary automobile trips.

Why this assault on the automobile? I have no wish to deny that it occurs at least in part because some of the critics' charges are true. Automobile carnage is indeed dreadful. The number of people killed each year on our roadways far exceeds the total who succumb to AIDS. Automobiles do pollute, all to some extent, some much worse than others. The cost of petroleum imports into this country exceeds the amount of the entire national trade deficit. And anyone who has ever been trapped in rush-hour gridlock, fuming inside at the delay while being engulfed by the fumes outside spewing from ten thousand tailpipes, knows that the simple job of getting from here to there in one's automobile can be the most stressful part of the day. Cars are not always "user-friendly."

But all these criticisms seem insufficient for explaining the intensity of opposition directed toward the automobile. Any large-scale enterprise entails costs, and so a critique that merely reminds us of the nature and extent of these costs is only half useful. Also required, of course, is a statement of the benefits derived from the enterprise, and a plausible accounting of whether the benefits exceed the costs. Identifying and measuring the costs and benefits of automobile usage pose very difficult methodological problems that I shall not consider here. …

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