The War on Cars

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 15 1998 3:30 AM

The War on Cars


Dear James Kunstler:

       The war against automobiles is never-ending. For decades, various groups have decided that cars are bad for those who drive them, for the routes on which they drive, and for the places where the drivers live. These arguments must confront one major difficulty: If you assume, as I do, that people are the best judges of what is good for them, why has auto ownership and auto use shot up dramatically and public transport declined sharply?
       A convenient answer is that Americans were bribed to overuse the car. Auto use--roads, highways, parking facilities--were heavily subsidized. This has prevented mass public transit from competing with cars.
       There are at least two problems with this answer. First, the car is less subsidized and more heavily taxed in Europe than in America, and mass transit there has received massive subsidies. Despite this, auto use in western Europe grew three times faster than in the United States between 1965 and 1987. Europeans now drive their cars about two-thirds as many miles per year as do Americans, and the fraction is rising. Second, mass transit in this country has been heavily subsidized--railroads once extracted massive land and financial grants from the government, and almost every rail service in this country operates at a huge tax-subsidized loss--and yet we have relentlessly moved into cars.
       The real issue, of course, is not what people want, but what other people--some planners, city lovers, and architecture critics--say people ought to want. We ought to live in big cities, not small suburbs, because "real" life is only possible in cities. We ought to live in big cities, because unless we are induced (compelled?) to do so, these places will become empty shells. We ought to live in big cities and walk to work or to the store because highway commuting is boring, aggravating, even subhuman. We ought to live in big cities because pedestrians enjoy life there, whereas cars impose squalor and disorder. We ought to live in big cities because suburban life is spiritually destructive.
       I wish somewhere one of these critics would try to prove even one of these assertions. Cities are useful to many people and very attractive to some, who insist on living there. But suburbs and small towns, reachable only by car, are very attractive to many people and most want to live there. The massive popular vote for cars--despite government-subsidized railroads, subways, and bike paths--is a vote for freedom, mobility, privacy, convenience, and for the scale of life--distinctive neighborhoods isolated from urban turmoil--that cannot be linked by mass transit at any price government is inclined to pay.
       If the use to which we put cars is "catastrophic," what does that say about human freedom? And what alternative to that freedom do the catastrophe-mongers wish to impose?

James Q. Wilson

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