[Editor’s Note: The following was originally printed 13 years ago in the Corvallis Gazette-Times. It was written by Alexander “Sasha” Volokh of the highly excellent Volokh Conspiracy blog. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.]
The private car is unpopular these days. When it isn’t blamed for congestion, it’s blamed for pollution. And, invariably, the proposed solutions are restrictions on driving, increased taxes for public transit and other punitive programs or regulations.
But the trouble with seeing driving as the enemy is that it’s too easy to lose sight of its benefits.
Driving is a liberating technology, and we ought to recognize this, especially as we approach Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
Let’s think back to 1955, when African Americans stayed off segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala. During the year-long boycott, 325 private cars, some owned by African Americans, some by whites, some by churches, picked up people at 42 sites around the town.
Police harassed the drivers — Martin Luther King Jr. was stopped for speeding (30 in a 25-mph zone) about 30 times — but oppressing people in private cars is harder than oppressing them in public buses.
The boycott was successful, in part because of King’s fiery rhetoric, but also because of car ownership.
How would the problem of bus segregation have been resolved in the idyllic world of public transport? Obviously, the private car solution would be out.
Couldn’t blacks have set up a competing, unsegregated bus company, unfettered by oppressive regulation?
Well, they tried in Montgomery, but that required a permit. And relying on the government that oppresses you to help you become self-reliant is an iffy proposition.
Said Mayor Gayle, as he turned down their application in 1956: “If the Negroes want to ride a public vehicle, they can ride the city buses. There is an abundance of public transportation in Montgomery for those who want to use it. If there is a group of people who don’t want to use this public transportation, that’s their fault.”
Through automobility, blacks were sharing in a liberation women had already started to experience earlier in the century.
During the years after 1910, women’s suffrage activists used cars in political rallies to project an image of responsibility and liberation.
As Geraldine Sartain noted in a 1939 article for Independent Woman, it wasn’t just that the automobile provided transportation, recreation, and convenience — it was the possibility to participate in a richer, fuller life.
Since this threatened current social values associated with motherhood and family, women’s mobility was feared and resisted for a long time.
“Spark, throttle, cylinders, gear, magneto and steering wheel have yielded their secrets to me . . . learning to handle the car has wrought my emancipation, my freedom,” exulted a turn-of-the-century suburban housewife.
We’re not in danger of going back to the days before integrated buses or women’s liberation. But the automobile is a liberating influence even today. Over three-fourths of elderly people, for example, live in low-density areas where the car is a practical necessity.
As transportation expert Sandra Rosenbloom points out, to limit auto use is to ignore the basic needs of American families. In a chapter contributed to The Car And The City (University of Michigan Press), she writes:
“It is naive to expect a total reversal in suburban employment and housing patterns . . . and it seems wishful to hope that cities could be really safe places in which young children could travel alone. Failing that metamorphosis of the city, we must accept that the American `love affair’ with the auto is a well-established marriage.”
If America were to spurn the automobile and give its heart to public transit instead, one effect is obvious: Mass transit would become more politically controlled.
Inner-city residents, whose political power isn’t great, would suffer. A case in point is Washington, D.C., where impoverished African American neighborhoods were the last to get Metro service.
While the automobile contributes to gridlock and air pollution, the extent of these problems is often overstated.
As transportation analyst Kenneth Green points out in Defending Automobility, a recent Reason Foundation study, most estimates of the social cost of driving “cast an extremely broad and unselective net” when determining the disadvantages of driving. Yet, he points out, “they virtually ignore any benefits from automobility.”
“Global warming,” he writes, “though not yet demonstrated to have any observable effect in real-world measurement, is counted as a cost, while the demonstrably increased personal mobility and corresponding personal autonomy derived from auto-use is ignored as a benefit.”
We should deal with the problems we have, but keep in mind the central virtue of the automobile. It’s the most effective transport system in history, and it offers personal freedom on an unprecedented scale.
It has increased the freedom of women and minorities in the past, and continues to enhance people’s freedom today.