Cars symbolize freedom for most Americans, and that's no accident. The ubiquity of automobiles is the result of a century-old campaign to make them more-or-less the only way to get around, at the cost of public health, social justice, and taxpayer dollars. It’s time that Americans demanded an end to public subsidies for this failing technology. Let’s invest our resources in alternative, sane forms of mass transit.
How did we get here? In the early decades of the 20th century, automakers ran concerted campaigns to normalize cars, and discourage alternative forms of transportation. Automakers invented the concept of jaywalking, giving cars the right of way on roads and shifting blame for accidents onto pedestrians. They also co-opted paved roads that had been built for bicyclists, and decimated the American trolley system. As historian Brad Snell points out in the PBS documentary Taken for a Ride, auto manufacturers’ thought, "We’ve got 90% percent of the market out there that we can … turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars." (It seems Judge Doom wasn't entirely fictional.)
The industry’s production capacity expanded under the War Production Authority during World War II, and in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, advertisers convinced Americans that owning an automobile was the apotheosis of personal success and freedom. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense and former General Motors Vice President Charles E. Wilson supervised the construction of the interstate highway system, making automobiles the main form of long-distance transportation. Auto sales continuously increased, and ultimately monopolized transportation in the United States. In the century since its inception, the auto industry has deftly manipulated public laws, government funding, and consumer sentiment to make their product all but mandatory.
Why is that a problem? For one thing, it's resulted in astronomical petroleum consumption. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, in the United States, “the transportation sector consumes more oil than all other sectors combined,” even though oil extraction is increasingly expensive. In addition to fueling conflicts, U.S. oil consumption is responsible for massive air pollution. In most American cities, at least half the ozone pollution is caused by motor vehicles. Two-thirds of our nation's carbon monoxide emissions come from transportation, and motor vehicles are the source of one-third of U.S. air pollution. That air pollution has consequences. In New York City alone, it causes 6,000 emergency room visits and well over 3,000 deaths annually, and environmental effects range from acid rain to global warming. (Automakers, by the way, have consistently fought against pollution-reducing fuel-efficiency standards.)
A national transportation structure that requires car ownership also hurts the poor. Accounting for things like fuel and upkeep, the real median annual cost of a car is over $9,000. To put this in context, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a family of four living at the federal poverty line would have to spend a third of their income on their car. Since poorer Americans spend a higher proportion of their incomes on automobile ownership, an infrastructure that requires automobiles acts as a regressive tax that punishes the poor, and excludes the very poor from public spaces, like public representatives’ offices, and basic services, like grocery stores.
Cars cost taxpayers as well as consumers. Nationwide, nearly half of the $155 billion cost of road maintenance comes out of general taxes. Since cars need roads like bowling balls need lanes, this public subsidy for roads effectively uses tax dollars to prop up the auto industry. The massive expenditure of public money to support this private market dwarfs the controversial $17 billion bailout of automakers in 2008, though both are instances of privatized profit and socialized cost.
The monopolization of American transportation by automobiles is not inevitable, and can be changed. Smart planning can change the layout of our communities, to make homes, workplaces, and leisure locations accessible without use of a car, and promote the use of bicycles and mass transit. Europe already boasts car-free cities, and the European Union is planning to ban cars from all major cities by 2050. The rising cost and declining availability of oil will eventually force Americans to do the same. Why not start now?
While automakers may want to promote cars as liberating agents of consumer freedom, the reality is that automobiles poison our lungs and environment, exclude the poor from public spaces, and extract enormous hidden costs from consumers and taxpayers alike. Rather than supporting the auto industry, Americans deserve to have our public dollars spent on safe, clean, and affordable alternatives. Public transportation should benefit the public, not car companies.