Martin Luther King, Freedom, And The Automobile

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[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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  • Martin Schwoerer Martin Schwoerer on Jan 19, 2010

    "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.

  • Steve Petrie Steve Petrie on Jan 24, 2010

    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. www.gettorontomoving.ca/ITS-ETO.htm

  • Lou_BC Was he at GM for 47 years or an engineer for 47 years?
  • Ajla The VW vote that was held today heavily favored unionization (75/25). That's a very large victory for the UAW considering such a vote has failed two other times this decade at that plant.
  • The Oracle Just advertise ICE vehicles by range instead of MPG and let the market decide.
  • Lou_BC Collective bargaining provides workers with the ability to counter a rather one-sided relationship. Let them exercise their democratic right to vote. I found it interesting that Conservative leaders were against unionization. The fear there stems from unions preferring left leaning political parties. Wouldn't a "populist" party favour unionization?
  • Jrhurren I enjoyed this
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