An important article from 1973, that resonates very loudly in 2019, starts with comparing the car with a luxury villa on a private beach. The value of that villa is directly proportional to its rarity. If everyone owned a house and a private strip of beach, every one of those beach-front properties would be tiny and not really private at all because there simply isn’t enough beachfront in the country (or the world) to accommodate everyone’s claim to a private slice of it.
Sort of like roads, come to think of it. They already occupy roughly 80 per cent of the public space in North American cities. That’s a lot of acreage. Yet most of the time they feel crowded and unpleasant. Why? Because we have spent decades telling ourselves that it was our right, our absolute prerogative to drive around on them at our leisure, from the comfort and convenience of our private vehicles.
Road space and mobility are only worth something when most people can’t afford them. It’s just that unlike luxury villas on private beaches, road space and mobility should be available to all regardless of means. A beach house won’t get you to work on time. That’s the job of the transportation system. And if the latter only caters to those who have enough means to bypass congestion (hi, UberCopter), then what you have is a society where only the very rich benefit while the rest of us waste time getting stressed out going nowhere slowly.
But what about freedom, you ask? Well, OK. Maybe you, personally, aren’t asking. But someone, somewhere, is. The car represents freedom, someone always says (and for the record, that someone used to be me), and nobody should deprive us of that.
Yes, there is a certain element of freedom in having the means to carry yourself, your kids, your tennis racket and groceries in a private form of conveyance that you don’t need to plan on taking. It’s right there, sitting in the driveway, ready to go whenever you are.
Except for this:
Here is the paradox of the automobile: it appears to confer on its owners limitless freedom, allowing them to travel when and where they choose at a speed equal to or greater than that of the train. But actually, this seeming independence has for its underside a radical dependency. Unlike the horse rider, the wagon driver, or the cyclist, the motorist was going to depend for the fuel supply, as well as for the smallest kind of repair, on dealers and specialists in engines, lubrication, and ignition, and on the interchangeability of parts. Unlike all previous owners of a means of locomotion, the motorist’s relationship to his or her vehicle was to be that of user and consumer-and not owner and master. This vehicle, in other words, would oblige the owner to consume and use a host of commercial services and industrial products that could only be provided by some third party. The apparent independence of the automobile owner was only concealing the actual radical dependency.
The oil magnates were the first to perceive the prize that could be extracted from the wide distribution of the motorcar. If people could be induced to travel in cars, they could be sold the fuel necessary to move them. For the first time in history, people would become dependent for their locomotion on a commercial source of energy. There would be as many customers for the oil industry as there were motorists – and since there would be as many motorists as there were families, the entire population would become the oil merchants’ customers. The dream of every capitalist was about to come true. Everyone was going to depend for their daily needs on a commodity that a single industry held as a monopoly.
All that was left was to get the population to drive cars. Little persuasion would be needed. It would be enough to get the price of a car down by using mass production and the assembly line. People would fall all over themselves to buy it. They fell over themselves all right, without noticing they were being led by the nose. What, in fact, did the automobile industry offer them? Just this: “From now on, like the nobility and the bourgeoisie, you too will have the privilege of driving faster than everybody else. In a motorcar society the privilege of the elite is made available to you.”
Yes, it’s slightly hyperbolic and more than a little bit paranoid. Besides, not everyone who works in car-centric businesses is a magnate. There are mechanics, factory workers, small gas station owners, salespersons, who all depend on this industry to provide middle-class living conditions for their families. They don’t all smoke cigars in private clubs. They just want to be able to afford braces for the kids.
A very costly dependence
But conspiracy or not, it’s hard to deny that we’ve become incredibly dependent on those private cars, and that car-ownership expenses keep us longer on that work-work-work treadmill than we really want to. Freedom, it turns out, has a big fat price tag.
I say all this even though I own and use a private car. I try not to use it often, but there it is, eating resources in its (paid) parking space and contributing to making the roads this much more congested every time I use it. That’s because sometimes I feel I have no choice. I’m sure you do, too. It’s not our fault, really. We just have to get places and our options are often limited.
So, the jig is up? No, but the alternative to the car will have to be comprehensive. For in order for people to be able to give up their cars, it won’t be enough to offer them more comfortable mass transportation. They will have to be able to do without transportation altogether because they’ll feel at home in their neighborhoods, their community, their human-sized cities, and they will take pleasure in walking from work to home-on foot, or if need be by bicycle. No means of fast transportation and escape will ever compensate for the vexation of living in an uninhabitable city in which no one feels at home or the irritation of only going into the city to work or, on the other hand, to be alone and sleep.
The way forward is happy
Working towards making cities or neighbourhoods complete, so that people can live where they work, go to school, shop, and socialize. In his fantastic essay from nearly 20 years ago, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam talks about the triangle of your life, whose three points are where you sleep, where you work, and where you play. The farther apart those points are from each other, the bigger your triangle. The bigger your triangle, the unhappier your life. That’s what he found in his research, and if you think about it for a minute you can see why.
To get to a happy place where very few of us are stuck in stress-inducing traffic, we don’t need to force people out of their cars. We need to reimagine and tweak our cities, towns and neighbourhoods so that cars become not just superfluous, but an expensive and very unnecessary luxury. Sort of like a beachfront villa.