Three Trillion Miles To Freedom

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

If you’ve read much of the automotive press or the mainstream media in the past twenty-four hours, you’ve no doubt heard the latest news: Americans drove more miles in January than they’ve driven in any single month since 1970, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Put aside for the fact that the “Federal Highway Association” shouldn’t be able to quote that number with even a modicum of statistical confidence, and indeed they have no real way to know how many miles are driven in this country. Nor should they be able to do so.

More fascinating than the factoid or the ostensible reasons behind it are the various spins put on it across the blogosphere. Autoblog notes that “nearly half of drivers are fifty years old or above”. Bloomberg turns it into a piece on the economy, touting the recovery while tactfully failing to mention the fact that a record-setting number of people in their prime earning years have given up on even looking for work. The Financial Post reprinted Bloomberg’s story verbatim but focused on the idea that “three is a magic number for the economy.”

Perhaps the most thoughtful analysis on the news, however, was performed by Matt Hardigree at Jalopnik. It’s a pleasure to read and Matt marshals his arguments in careful order towards an obvious conclusion. As fate would have it, however, I find myself forced to hoist the opposing standard.

You can check Matt’s piece out at the obvious place but I’ll summarize the relevant arguments here.

I know we’re an automotive site, but… more miles driven isn’t a good thing for most people.

First, the reason why we have so much cheap oil is largely a decision by OPEC (read: Saudi Arabia) to drive the prices down long enough to discourage U.S. domestic production of oil. Why do they want to do that? Because they want us dependent on them for a long, long time and have so much money they can take a three-year hit.

Second, even if that wasn’t the case, it’s not like the roads are filling up with vintage BRE Datsuns, it’s just commuters in beigemobiles and SUVs. Commuter Culture is antithetical to car culture.

People who would rather not drive to work shouldn’t have to drive to work. We should aim to build a society where there’s a reasonable alternative to driving for people who don’t want to drive. I love driving, I love cars, I love that by living in a city I don’t have to drive to work, I love that I can go drinking and not worry about having to get in a car.

This isn’t good news. Peak Car isn’t happening today, but it should happen.

This all seems eminently reasonable and I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read. Of course, let’s get the beigemobiles and SUVs off the road so I can unleash the barbaric yawp of my air-cooled 911 at an indicated 173mph along an empty freeway. I’d personally love to go drinking and not have to worry about getting in a car. Let’s make reasonable commuting options available for everyone, just like they are in New York, the place where I was born before moving to the sticks and where all the hipsters moved to escape their hick-ass realities and origins.

The problem with this line of thinking is that even I, an authentic Baron of Sealand (it’s true!), can’t quite muster the elitism necessary to make it my authentic and true belief. What Matt thinks of as “Car Culture”, and what I think of as “Car Culture”, is a minor outcropping on a remote peninsula of the American automotive experience. It’s a place where you’re expected to know what a “BRE Datsun” is. It’s a place where all automotive purchase decisions should terminate at either a used Miata or an E36 M3. It’s a place where you see a Corvette in the distance and you need to wait until you can ascertain body configuration, powertrain, and modifications before you can form a true opinion of the fellow driving it. It’s a place where people spend more money racing a Ford Focus than they’d have paid to lease a Murcielago or put a down payment on a multi-family rental dwelling. (Raises hand, sheepishly, thinking about the year 2007.) It’s not the place where most automobile owners live.

But that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of automobile owners live in a bad place, or that they don’t get as much out of car ownership as we do. Quite the contrary. Most of us are like Matt in that we might be willing to take the subway to work every day if we could drive a McLaren around Monticello on the weekends. I don’t particularly enjoying sitting in traffic every morning and every afternoon. Nor do I look forward to parking on the parkway every Labor Day or Memorial Day weekend.

For the average American, however, a car is just a way to get from Point A to Point B, as they desire. That last part is important. A car represents choice. I don’t go to the grocery store or my son’s school or Indianapolis on a schedule set by the government or a public/private partnership or a too-big-to-fail transportation provider. I go when I want to go, stay exactly as long as I want to stay. I don’t run for a train or miss a subway. If I need to transport an item with me, or if I need to bring something back, I’m not limited by my ability to carry that item, and I’m not limited by my ability to protect that item from theft or damage on public transportation.

I’m safe in my car. Maybe not safe from a crash, but reasonably safe from being assaulted or raped — and remember, not everybody in the world shares my height, size, and unpleasant disposition. I can leave an item in my car and have a good chance of returning to find it there. If I need to travel through an area that is unsafe, a car beats walking by a long shot. I can transport my child in my car. I can transport the elderly in my car.

The privately owned automobile, like the privately owned computer or the privately owned firearm, is a great equalizer. It offers the man or woman in the street a small taste of the freedom and capability that the rich take for granted and will never surrender even as their mouthpieces in the media eagerly advocate the capitulation of the public to the common good. It means that I don’t need to be a perfectly healthy and fit twenty-five-year-old man who bench-presses more than my weight to safely conduct my public life. It means that I have options and choices, that I am not seeking permission from a schedule or a committee.

Unlike virtually all of today’s New-York-centric autowriters, I lived in a pre-Giuliani city where crime and violence ran wild. In those days, nobody talked about the freedom of public transportation, because there wasn’t any. Women understood that you didn’t ride the subway at night, that you didn’t walk alone at night. My mother was a captain in the Army and she always traveled with a 215-pound Hispanic master sergeant for protection. Twice the poor guy had to literally shield her with his own body from random gunfire in the streets. Everybody had a mugging story and most people had more than one. The buses were a good place to be fingered or pickpocketed, depending on the valuables you had on your person. You continually heard about “shut-ins” dying: people who no longer had the strength and vitality to run the gauntlet of public transportation and therefore just locked themselves in their rabbit warrens waiting for the end. If you carried a child, you were a target, even if you were the size of Lou Ferrigno.

The fact that twenty years of sustained “police brutality” has turned Times Square into Disney World in no way suggests that such will be the case twenty years from now, particularly if citizens demand that the police start treating hardened criminals with loving tender care. Nor is it the case elsewhere. Are you interested in taking public transportation in Chicago? Baltimore? Do you want to trust your life to crumbling transportation infrastructures? It’s bad enough that we have to drive our cars over the nation’s failing bridge network. In a world where public transportation is the default choice for everyone, we’re all on crumbling bridges, all the time.

Like it or not, there is no future for public transportation across this country as long as it refuses to evolve past the outmoded subway-and-train-and-bus model. That delights urban planners whose opinion of humanity is fundamentally herd/socialist and works fine for the one-third or so of Americans who voluntarily confine themselves in major metropolises but it is anathema to those of us who want to live our lives by something other than the chime of a subway bell. What’s going to be required is transportation that is energy-efficient but responsive to individual needs. After all, this is still a nation that contains many individuals.

When Mr. Obama derisively spoke of Americans who “cling to guns or religion”, he tactfully failed to mention the fact that more Americans continue to cling to cars than to either of the former items — and we are clinging much harder to cars than nearly anybody in the Western Hemisphere clings to any religion. You won’t get us out of our cars without offering a reasonable alternative. That alternative might not be gasoline-powered, it might not be Camry-shaped, but it had better offer us the power to shape our own destinies. Literally. ‘Cause if it doesn’t, three trillion miles in privately-owned, petroleum-powered cars won’t be a peak. It will be just a step.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Mar 26, 2015

    Left unmentioned is the land lock aspect of this. Living 40 miles north of NYC, most of my driving for work is on fairly open roads. Stores, workplaces, etc, are normally fairly easy, roads well maintained. The system works well-for private cars. We have a train for the center too works well, A-B, for those who have to schlep to "d City" for the day. It all falls apart with density; the problem is nothing is fixed. Go downstate, closer to, and in "the city", you hit gridlock quickly. The same roads built for my grandfather by Robert Moses are still there. They are the same as 1940..not improved, widened, or otherwise adapted for the much greater populations that have sprung up. Potholes are a huge issue. The CUV is the best city car for this reason alone. After long stretches of potholes, the most common cars waiting for the tow truck are the enthusiast toys, whose low profiles don't play well in adverse conditions, and appliance users, who don't "get" tire pressure. The Subways, etc have not been significantly upgraded since they were separate companies. What has happened is that there is a huge cross subsidy between the car driver, who is robbed in the name of public good, to pay the subways. So, if I go to Long Island for work, I pay $15 in toll, $14 of which is flushed to the Subway system. I get massive potholes and on ramps designed for a 52 Plymouth for that money. The straphanger gets a 50% subsidy, courtesy me, but still on an old system that is a joke to most of the first world. After Sandy, one of the issues was a 25 volt signal system that was original to the system...We rob Peter to pay Paul but no one is getting anything for it. The transportation planners want to toll the few remaining free crossings to NYC. In short, the car is "bad", and "must pay". Upstate, none of this exists, and we are grateful for it. The bottom line is that neither the Subways or the Highways are fixed in the city, but that the costs for the driver go up and up...and if anyone wants to see the greatest pothole collection ever, take the Grand Central past LaGuardia Airport. Yet they bang the driver for $15 to cross the bridge.....some every day. Add to this most "Transportation Alternative" experts, who gentrified some area after growing up in-and-rejecting their parent's suburbia and think the bicycle is a reasonable way for a family of four to get around.....and they have the mayor's ear....and there you go.

    • Chan Chan on Mar 26, 2015

      New York is a textbook example of an American city that ought to be well-served by public transportation but suffers from aging infrastructure and insufficient carrying capacity to manage the past decades of population growth.

  • LuciferV8 LuciferV8 on Mar 26, 2015

    Over the years, I realized I have become considerably more conservative. What won me over was not knee-jerk Fox News sound bites, but well-reasoned arguments that were backed with enough solid evidence to deflate much of the liberal dogma I had embraced in my youth. Don't get me wrong, I still give neocons hell, but I can honestly identify as a right winger at this point. Is it just me reading the evolution of your writing over the years wrong, or do you feel that you've had a similar shift, Jack?

  • Bob65688581 We bought zillions of German cars, despite knowing about WWII slave labor. Refusing to buy something for ideological reasons is foolish.Both the US and the EU have imposed tariffs, so the playing field is level. I'll buy the best price/quality, regardless of nationality.Another interesting question would be "Would you buy one of the many new European moderate-price EVs?" but of course they aren't sold here.Third interesting question: "Why won't Stellantis sell its best products in America?"
  • Freshblather No. Worried there will be malicious executable code built into the cars motherboard that could disable the Chinese cars in the event of hostilities between the west and China.
  • Bd2 Absolutely not - do not want to support a fascist, totalitarian regime.
  • SCE to AUX The original Capri was beautiful. The abomination from the 90s was no Capri, and neither is this.It looks good, but too similar to a Polestar. And what's with the whacked price?
  • Rover Sig Absolutely not. Ever.