Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Car Crazy: We Can No Longer Afford a Car-Dominated World

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Car Crazy: We Can No Longer Afford a Car-Dominated World

Article excerpt

We characterize the period in which we live as the Auto Age, not just because driving machines came into existence, but because some quirks of history and economics made the mass ownership of cars temporarily feasible in America and, in so doing, imposed an unprecedented, technologically tyrannical regime on every particular of our daily lives.

By the mid-20th century, owning a car had become a prerequisite for first-class citizenship in the United States. The everyday environment that America constructed after World War II to accommodate this regime was a radical departure from the traditions of civic design, with all it implies about the painful trial-and-error process of what works and what doesn't over eons of history, which we call acquired culture. That was all thrown in the garbage.

The new environment was designed primarily for the convenience of motorists, secondarily to assist corporations in moving vast volumes of merchandise via cars, tertiarily for ease of maintenance, quatrarily for protection against lawsuits, and leastly, for the spiritual fulfillment of people. The news is that we can no longer afford that living arrangement. The car-centered, car-dominated human habitat can now be viewed - like Leninist economics - as an experiment that has failed.

The car itself should not be viewed as a failure, only the use we made of it in the first century of its existence. Henry Ford's great accomplishment was not "inventing" the car - other men experimenting in oily workshops developed similar machines about the same time - but in rationalizing the mass production of cars so that any gainfully employed American could own one. In the minds of his countrymen, Ford made the car an instrument of democracy and hence of human progress.

But what goes on in the collective consciousness of a nation is not always consistent with the way things really work. For instance, we are keen on the pleasurable psychology of the car and rather blind to its baneful effects on society.

Before Cars - and After

Historically, the sheer vastness of this nation underlies our fascination with innovative transport per se. Prior to the invention of railroads and the enormous task of building rail lines, the frontier was barely habitable. Anyone living some distance from a navigable waterway might as well have settled on another planet. On the western side of the Appalachians, even good waterways presented problems. Farmers of the Ohio River Valley in the early 1800s could ship grain in only one direction: downstream to the Mississippi, and ultimately to New Orleans. It was a very long trip, so these settlers of what was then the frontier were inclined to convert their grain into whiskey, a value-added product in our parlance, which could be shipped and stored indefinitely without spoilage problems (unlike raw wheat, whiskey improved with age). Yet, this rational practice infected their culture to the extent that drunkenness became endemic and public violence commonplace. The court annals of early Louisville and Cincinnati read like bulletins from a poorly run detox center.

The railroad made civilization possible on the American frontier, speedily transforming it into something other than a frontier in the process. Railroads by nature had strong centralizing tendencies. They promoted compact urban development for the obvious reason that they couldn't go absolutely everywhere. They relied on central terminals for passengers and freight. In the days when all railroads were privately owned, many cities had more than one large terminal serving different lines. Boston had North and South Stations, New York had Penn and Grand Central, and so on. Nineteenth century businessmen and manufacturers wanted to be as close to the center as possible.

Where previously undeveloped land was concerned, railroads tended to produce nodes of settlement at regular intervals along a linear path. …

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