By on January 18, 2010


[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.

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24 Comments on “Martin Luther King, Freedom, And The Automobile...”

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Nice sentiment maybe on MLK Day, but the conflation of King’s epic strugle with the automobile is pretty forced, what with the strained logic and selective evidence.  This site always gets its toe stubbed when it wanders too far from its own  undeniable area of expertise. 

    • 0 avatar

                      “Freedom” in the abstract is not particularly meaningful, unless in involves the ability to procure and possess the material means to make use of it. The real world is a physical and material one, after all, regardless of how much more romantic high falutin idealism may seem, to those observing from the safety of the spectator box.  As the article points out, African Americans managed to get by with their daily lives while routing around the segregated buses their no doubt “democratically elected leaders” felt was all they ought to aspire to, in no small part due to the existence of privately owned and operated automobiles. In the Soviet Union, where Mr. Volokh’s parents hail from, the oppressed had no such option. If they needed , or wanted, to get from A to B, they simply had to use the means their oppressors felt were sufficient for them. Just like Mayor Gayle felt African Americans in Montgomery ought to be content with.

  • avatar

    Sure autos can be a liberating force- until everyone else has one too, at which point they become a tragedy of the commons.  Whatever your particular biases are wrt climate change, you can’t deny that the environmental impact of billions of people driving world-wide is going to be decidedly negative.

    • 0 avatar

      So, you want everyone but you on foot or on public transport? Your kind is the worst kind of hypocrite, pretending to be concerned about the commons but really you just want to keep the peasants in their place.

    • 0 avatar

      Of course not.  I’m just saying that your car-enabled, freedom-filled lifestyle has serious consequences when everyone else in the world aspires to the same thing.  Seeing only the hippies coming to grab your keys is seriously not seeing the forest through the trees.
      The car as a metaphor for freedom is laughable anymore.  I fail to see how being shackled to car payments, parking fees, licensing fees, repair bills, and fuel costs all while choking on dirty air, drinking dirty water, losing hours your life sitting in traffic, and playing the odds of dying in an accident twice a day counts as freedom.
      I realize there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance to it, but I still admire new cars and enjoy a good long drive on the weekends.

    • 0 avatar

      Cripes Mike.  Tilt at straw men much?

  • avatar

    Okay, I had two opposite thoughts upon reading this piece, and Jeff Waingrow expressed the second one. The first one was my head-nodding agreement with the thesis of the article.
    The article’s thesis is an important one, a point often forgotten to this day: the automobile is a tremendous social invention.  How it has transformed society for the better, the advancements and the freedoms it has allowed, the “richer life” it has provided need to be remembered in all discussion about our current transportation needs.
    That being said, this is where I also agree with Jeff: while the thesis is great, the article falls flat in its contrived and forced argumentation for it.

  • avatar

    There is no contrivance here. Prior to the invention of the automobile you either walked, rode a horse, or hopped aboard somebody else’s conveyance, be it a train, boat, or ship. It was not until we were liberated to go where we please, when we please, afforded to us by the private automobile did we really thrive as a society. Name any other invention that spans the entire socioeconomic spectrum that has advanced individual liberty as the automobile has!

    Seeing this as a “tragedy of the commons” is looking at a full glass and complaining that it isn’t a BigGulp™. The benefits of the automobile and its related infrastructure far outweigh any detriment it has brought to society. Most of us would not be able to do our jobs and live our lives without this amazing and wonderful invention!
    The article if anything doesn’t go far enough to praise the car as a liberator. If you see the automobile as a drain on society then you are both taking it for granted and have lost any true sense of perspective. Give it up for a year, along with all of the things it brings to you and those around you, and then we’ll talk.

    • 0 avatar

      “…Name any other invention that spans the entire socioeconomic spectrum that has advanced individual liberty as the automobile has!”

      The credit card! 

      I kid, I kid.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Chuck. I sold my 350Z in July so I have done 6 of your 12 months without a car and I have had a car at all times for the previous 10 years. So can we talk??!

      I am saving about $2000 a month by not having a car. I now catch the bus/train every morning and am doing an open university course during the 45 minute each way commute as well.
      I am also saving my brain. I did not realise how stressed out a 40 minute rush hour drive every morning and evening makes you….until I stopped doing it.

      That said, the car has indeed been a massive part of human development but saying “Most of us would not be able to do our jobs and live our lives without this amazing and wonderful invention” just shows what a narrow perspective you have… as what you and many others need to realise is that by not finding an alternative to a basically unimproved 100 year old technology is that you are polluting and bankrupting your country whilst sending millions of dollars a day to the A-rabs!

      Buy yourself an electric bike and and a train pass to show you are a true American supporting his country, then we’ll talk eh!!

    • 0 avatar

      “…45 minute each way commute as well.”
      Choosing a 20 to 30 minute commute by car over a 1-1/2 to 2 hour commute by bus has always been a no-brainer for me. Even loafing is a better use for the two or three hours I save every day.
      Then, there is the question of scheduling. To use the bus, I have to organize my life around the bus schedule. The car goes when I’m ready.

    • 0 avatar

      sutski, that bus you are riding is an automobile. As for sending dollars to Arabs you haven’t been paying attention to my case in particular as I home-brew most of the fuel I use..

  • avatar

    > The private car is unpopular these days.
    Oh, poppycock. this woe-is-us martyrdom rings as hollow as the opposition to “happy holidays”.
    The US has been in a love affair with the car – to the exclusion of all other rational alternatives – for the better part of a century. But one tough economic year in which car sales dip, and suddenly the hippies are taking over?
    US cars are commonly driven 4x around the globe in a decade, mostly wearing down the same routes between distant homes, work, and big box stores. Seems like a waste of potential.
    Instead of spending our lives driving to and from those three, trying to maintain and pay for our bigger-is-better lifestyles, we could read about or even share in the lives of people in far off lands. Imagine how liberating and broadening that could be.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Sounds very simplistic to me. So the car is a social liberator? Yeah sure, at least to some extent, but so is the washing machine, the television set, the public library, denim jeans… 
    You get my point. Plenty things are social liberators. But the negative externalities of washing machines are (mostly) paid for and if they weren’t and government planned to charge for polluting fresh water with detergents, I don’t think people would get all sentimental about it.
    There is no correlation between car ownership and freedom. Those societies that have high levels of car ownership are not those that have the highest level of freedom. In historical terms, freedom is something that the urban middle classes fight for, and they may or may not own cars. You could say, socialism didn’t have cars. And I would say, as I have before, that both Adolf and Musso were great fans and supporters of the automobile.

    • 0 avatar

      Most socialists wereare not opposed to vehicles. (In fact I’m sure they’d love to tax us to death to subsidize autos for everyone.) The real problem with socialists is their knack for trying to dictate WHAT kind of autos people own. Every freedom known to man has a consequence that can negatively affect someone else. Real patriots and leaders find ways to negate the consequences. Lazy minded people and cowards will just look to a dictator to take freedoms away under the pretense of ‘the common good’.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    See what I mean? Car as bane. Car as liberator. And so forth. None of it particularly enlightening, but some of it apparently enraging to those invested one way or the other. And yet, not a mention of Martin Luther King.  Appears the readers have gone for the fake and not kept their eye on the ball.

  • avatar

    Car as liberator?  Yeah, but it was far from the first liberating device.  Credit for that goes to the car’s predecessor – the bicycle.  In the 1880’s/1890’s.  Where somebody who could not afford the purchase and upkeep of a horse finally had individual, personal transportation.  Followed immediately by all the article-mentioned bewailing about individual morality, etc., especially when regarding women.
    And as long as we’re talking commutes of 10 miles one-way or less, the bicycle still makes more sense.  Some things never change, they’re just deliberately ignored.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m guessing that you live somewhere with a constant 70 degree temp and no rain with just little cloud cover so that the sun doesn’t get too bad. Plus you really don’t care much about your co-workers because you stink every morning from your ride to work. Go to a bike site and post, everyone will be happier.

  • avatar

    Somewhat off topic, but more fascinating to me, is the great means African Americans had to go to to travel. Most of us take for granted stopping when we are tired and renting a room for the night. This could not be done during those years. They had to plan every stop to ensure they had rooms, or family, in that town. Food was another frequent issue. If they didn’t bring their own, they had to know, and plan, where to eat.

  • avatar

    There was a great column a few years ago at the Car Connection website by Doug Flint that addressed this very thing. Here is the link:

    Excerpts from the article:
    “Of all societies on earth it is not an accident that ours is the least class conscience and the least stratified. And the fact that we are more or less a car-based society is largely responsible for it. ”

    “Car beats the Klan
    I listen to National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show on a regular basis. Diane was talking to the Washington Post’s terrific auto writer, Warren Brown, about his career and cars and his life in general.
    She tried to lead him into a condemnation of the evils of our car-dependent society. Instead he stated in no uncertain terms that as a black man growing up in the Deep South during the era of Jim Crow, the Klan, and a general ingrained racism, his car, more than anything else, served to keep him alive.
    A black man walking on the roadside was fair game for insults, hurled bottles, and marauding gangs. But in his car he had anonymity. Who notices a properly dressed man wearing a fine hat behind the wheel of a car? And if anyone did take notice, he was gone before they could react. “

    • 0 avatar
      bill h.

      IIRC, Mr. Brown has also written about the stereotypical prediliction of older African-Americans (especially the generation before his) for very large American cars.  Related to Wulfgar’s posting too, many folks who traveled by auto in the South (and elsewhere, lest we think other portions of the USA were prejudice-free) had to deal with the real possibility of spending the night sleeping in one’s car, since many hotels simply would not allow African-Americans to lodge there.  Even when those times went away, some folks kept their preference for big cars, perhaps as a psychological security backup. 

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    “Of all societies on earth it is not an accident that ours is the least class conscience and the least stratified. And the fact that we are more or less a car-based society is largely responsible for it. ”
    Sounds like history to me.

  • avatar

    In the province of Ontario, Canada, where I live, we have the same intense political debate regarding the private automobile. Just as in the USA, the Canadian “transportation establishment” seeks to force car drivers onto public transit. All the arguments of the anti-car / transit-only dogmatists, regarding environment, congestion, etc. are a smokescreen hiding the real agenda of these busybodies, which is: (1) to restrict our personal freedom, while (2) they build a huge taxpayer-subsidized “transit empire” of union jobs. It’s all about political power.

    The strongest argument against the private car is traffic congestion. Therefore since June 2002 I have been working full time to develop the practical cost-effective Expressway Traffic Optimization (ETO) technology concept, for preventing congestion on expressways (freeways, motorways), by operating traffic at maximum safe sustained flow efficiency.

    If you stand beside a busy freeway for one hour, counting the front bumpers passing you in one lane, your front bumper count is the average flow rate of that lane, in vehicles per hour.

    The designed safe traffic flow capacity of a freeway lane is 2000 vehicles per hour. During severe congestion, flow rates plunge to as low as 300 vehicles per hour per lane, or even lower. This huge waste of 85% of freeway traffic flow capacity, is entirely preventable by the drivers themselves. All they need to do is use appropriate headways.

    Vehicle headway is a combination of speed and spacing.

    Headway is the time in seconds a vehicle is taking, at its current speed, to travel the distance from its front bumper, to the next front bumper ahead. 1.8 seconds is the minimum safe vehicle headway. This gives drivers enough time to react safely to changing traffic conditions.

    Average vehicle headways determines average traffic flow rates. At 1.8 second average headways, traffic flows at 2000 vehicles per hour per lane (2000 vehicles per hour per lane = 3600 seconds per lane.hour / 1.8 seconds per vehicle).

    During severe congestion, average headways skyrocket to 12 seconds or higher, pushing average flow rates down to 300 vehicles per hour, or lower (300 vehicles per hour per lane = 3600 seconds per lane.hour / 12 seconds per vehicle).

    Especially during merging (e.g. on-ramps, route joins, lane changes), inadequate headways are a major cause of avoidable congestion. Traffic overload is the other major cause of traffic congestion.

    Traffic congestion is the combination of low flow rates with low speeds. Paradoxically, in heavy traffic, high speeds combined with low headways, quickly and inevitably produce the exact opposite, namely low speeds and high headways, which equals low speeds and low flows, which equals congestion.

    ETO prevents traffic congestion by ensuring adequate vehicle headways.

    ETO guides individual drivers in real time, to use optimum headways. Pavement-embedded signal lights spaced 10 metres (33 feet) apart along lane centerlines, emit ultra-simple driver-specfic “early / ok / late” public headway signals.

    In combination with ramp metering to regulate the amount of traffic entering the freeway network, ETO will enable freeway drivers to achieve almost unbelievably high freeway traffic flow performance.

    I believe that the vast majority of car drivers will happily accept the guidance of their ETO luminous headway signals, to obtain fast, non-braking, fuel-saving freeway trips. It will be a political decision, as to whether or not to impose legal requirements that drivers must obey their ETO luminous signals.

    Auto manufacturers will add value to the ETO “smart freeway” foundation technology, by offering ETO-enabled Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) options, that automatically maintain vehicle headway according to ETO luminous signals. ETO-ACC options will make headways lower than 1.8 seconds quite safe. Eventually, as more and more new cars equipped with ETO-ACC option enter the vehicle fleet, flow rates of 4000 vehicles per hour per lane, or higher, will become commonplace on the world’s ETO-enabled freeways. Effectively, the traffic capacity of the world’s freeways will double.

    Anti-car / transit-only ideologues have no valid arguments against ETO. Zero-congestion freeway traffic means huge reductions in fuel consumption and emissions. However, this has not prevented the enemies of automobile freedom in Canada, from mustering every dirty trick in the book to block ETO progress.

    An ETO technology revolution brought about by car driving voters, will mean a grass-roots triumph of freedom over busybody anti-car ideologues. By mustering their overwhelming political majority at the ballot box, car drivers can firmly guide politicians to discover the political will to overcome “transportation establishment” resistance to ETO, and usher in a new world of zero-congestion automobile freedom.

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