Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Crazy Man and the Cars

"The Crazy Man and the Cars"

An Essay

(c) 2013 


Jordan S. Bassior

Once upon a time I knew a crazy man who wanted to abolish automobiles.

He wasn’t really crazy, of course, and he didn’t want to “abolish” automobiles in the sense of destroying every car in existence and forbidding their further manufacture.  He was an supporter of the “car-free” movement, which advocates a return to living in the urban cores, with most intercity passenger transportation being by bus and rail.  Another term for this is New Urbanism, and it arose in the early 1980’s.

His basic proposals for automobile abolition included increasing the user fees on cars and reducing the spending on inter-city road maintenance.  At the same time, cities would be redesigned to be composed of easily walkable neighborhoods, all within reach of rail and road mass transit allowing movement between neighborhoods, with some allowing movement between cities.

He pointed out, with some accuracy and justice, that this would merely be reversing the government policy of most of the 20th century from around 1920 through 1980, a period in which automobile and oil interests (and popular enthusiasm, though he tended not to want to accept just how popular that enthusiasm had been) deliberately encouraged road-building and maintenance and slighted mass transit.  In some cities, automobile companies actually purchased and then scrapped local mass transit systems.

The reasons why his proposals were, nevertheless, poorly conceived are interesting and involve basic principles of the evolution of transport systems as technologies develop, so I decided to give them a detailed discussion.

The Distant Past

The America of around 1920 -- almost a century ago -- while not automobile-free (not only had the rich owned cars for a quarter-century by then, but the Model T and its imitators had over the last decade extended automobile ownership to the ordinary middle classes), was hardly automobile-friendly.  Filling stations were few and far between -- one had to purchase large quantities of fuel and carry it as cargo to ensure that one could complete many trips.  Outside cities the roads were rarely paved, and were still no wider than required for horse-drawn vehicles (which in turn meant that motorcars had to be built narrow to fit these roads).  If one broke down -- a not-uncommon occurrence with primitive cars on bad roads -- good luck finding a garage, anywhere outside a major city.

Highways actually designed for automobiles were just starting to be constructed.  By this I mean two-way paved inter-city roads with relatively gradual curves.  These were generally only one or two lanes going in each direction, and they were not designed for high-speed travel -- the modern superhighway was not invented until Germany in the 1930's (in the form of the autobahn) and such roads were not constructed in America until the 1950's.

Consequently, cars were for cities and their vicinities -- driving between two cities was an adventure, and certainly not something one could do as a regular commute.  Most passenger commuting, as well as longer-distance passenger travel, was by rail or (sometimes) motor bus.  Inter-city motor buses were especially common in coastal New England, where towns were closely packed (yes, just as in A Shadow Over Innsmouth, though hopefully most of the busses were not quite so creepy).  Rural people often still relied on horse-drawn transportation, though the Model T was beginning to become popular among the better-off farm folk.

The Recent Past
As we all know, that changed over the quarter-century from 1920 to 1945.  Cars became better, cheaper and more reliable; roads were improved and filling stations and garages (often the same establishments) proliferated.  This accelerated after 1945, when a whole generation of veterans used to driving, maintaining and depending upon motor vehicles for their very lives came home.  At the same time, the immense industrial establishment that had become used to supplying motor vehicles to the whole Free World (and, thanks to Lend-Lease, some of the Communist World as well) was freed for civilian production.

The end of the Depression meant lots of money in the hands of those veterans to purchase new cars.  The older cars -- the "jalopies" -- became available for teenagers and other less-than-well-off folk to own and operate.  Almost everyone was driving, or being driven by male relatives (it was still seen by the older generation as just a bit daring for a woman to drive herself, though it was also seen as very fashionable).  All these drivers meant plenty of political support for Eisenhower's plan to build a strategic road network that would unite America (and possibly the hemisphere) for both military and commercial purposes.

The result was the Interstate Highway System, not really completed until the 1970's, which serves America much as the famous Roman roads served the Roman Empire.  This is the world we were all born to, in which automobile ownership and operation is seen as normal, and the lack of car or license is seen as an unfortunate handicap.

The Present
This has given us a tremendously wealthy and mobile civilization.  Our excellent roads allow all manner of goods to be transported to every corner of the country, even hundreds of miles from a major city, at very little added cost.  People are no longer trapped in the towns of their birth:  they can move to any place their talents will be be appreciated, or make daily commutes of 50 miles or more, resulting in a far more efficient deployment of human capital.  If we wish, purely for our own enjoyment, to travel a thousand or more miles, it's merely a matter of finding the time for a vacation.  Thanks to a system of State Highway Patrols, we need not fear attacks by brigands, or dying alone from thirst or starvation while awaiting rescue from a breakdown.

We take this all entirely for granted:  we fail to realize just how rare and wonderful this is in human history.  This is human nature.

But this does begin to outline the problem.  Any  car-free, new urbanist future would have to provide us with such benefits by some other means, or it would never become popular enough to be adopted and maintained as policy.

In fact, why would anyone want to get rid of automobiles?

The Problems With Cars

One would, because cars also impose costs on our society.  The most obvious cost is fuel expenditure:  travel by automobile is far less efficient, whether measured in terms of the use of fuel or the amount of energy, than is travel by train or even (in most cases) by motor bus.  This is because of diseconomies of small scale:  a motor bus bearing thirty passengers does not expend 20-10 times as much fuel as an automobile with 1-2 passengers:  its large engine is more efficient than the car’s smaller one, measured in costs per ton-mile.  Trains, when properly laden, are far more efficient than even trucks or motor-busses.

A related expense is air pollution.  This takes many forms, ranging from the local to the global, and includes smog, sulfuric acid vapor, and carbon dioxide.  Because cars burn more fuel per ton-mile than do busses, trucks and trains, they create more pollution for the same amount of transportation.

Last but not least, cars are hostile to human life.  They directly require large surfaces to be devoted to road networks, which may be crossed by humans only at some hazard.  Because the average level of competence of the typical automobile operator is far below that of the typical bus or truck driver, they produce large numbers of accidents:  in America, some tens of thousands of persons die in automobile accidents every year, and hundreds of thousands are seriously injured.

So what’s wrong with the crazy man’s solution?

The Problems With Getting Rid of Cars

Cars are far more convenient than mass transit, especially outside of densely-inhabited cities.  This is because they move at the whim of their operators, not the whim of central planners who must plan for the average and overall convenience of the population, rather than what you want to do right now.

Most obviously, mass transit only runs where the planners want people to go, not where you want to go.  If your trip lies along the central axis of travel from a suburb into a city, it is easy to find a bus that goes there:  unless one lives in a very large city with a complex (grid-like) mass transit system, you will find it much more difficult to get from one suburb to another suburb at the same distance from the city core.  If the mass transit system doesn’t serve your neighborhood, you may have to walk a mile or more to catch any bus.

Also, mass transit only runs as frequently as required to fill its vehicles:  if a motor bus runs with just a few passengers, it is far less efficient than a car, because it still has to burn fuel to move its much greater weight down the road.  What this means is that if the central planner has decided that the peak demand hours are between 8-10 in the morning and 4-6 at night, busses may be few and far between if you happen to have an unusual schedule, or simply want to do something at an unusual time.

Additionally, it is far from easy to carry cargo on a mass transit vehicle, especially a crowded mass transit vehicle.  If you own a car, you also effectively have a small truck to carry cargo, such as purchased furniture or groceries for a large family.  Good luck getting this sort of stuff on a bus or train – it can be done, but it is hardly convenient.

Finally, people dependent on mass transit are vulnerable to the failure of the mass transit system, which is especially likely to happen in an emergency (bus and train crews want to save themselves  too, you know).  People who owned cars and heeded the warnings ahead of time were able to get out of New Orleans before Katrina hit; people who didn’t have cars and depended on mass transit were trapped:  in many cases they paid for their dependence on mass transit with their lives.  How would you like to try to get out of a city under attack, by means of mass transit?

The Economics of Substitition

What all this means is that people will still, very much, want to own cars, even if New Urbanists want to keep them from owning them.  They will pay the extra fees to keep at least one car in operation, as long as they can afford to do so (which gets into another point, namely that any such price mechanism will necessarily bite most deeply on the poor, who won’t be able to afford an automobile under such a system).

And if the roads are allowed to decline?  Surely, then, they won’t be able to drive, now will they?

Depends on what one means by “allowed to decline.”  If the roads were sown with dragons-teeth tank traps and bridges broken and maybe minefields laid, then it’s correct to say that they wouldn’t be able to drive.  Now, do you think that any even remotely sane state or municipality would do anything of that sort?

If all that happens is that Federal and perhaps many State authorities stop spending to MAINTAIN the roads, then what will happen is that potholes will accumulate, some bridges may be closed as unsafe, and so forth.  (Incidentally, permanently closing bridges would be very politically unpopular, and in many cases would also endanger rail connections, so I don’t think that this would happen all that much).

But certainly one couldn’t drive on bad roads, now could one?

Of course one can!  Remember the 1920’s?  Successful cars back then had large wheels, high suspensions and tough axles, precisely because they often had to drive on muddy dirty roads or pothole-marred paved ones.  The Jeeps and other trucks that the Greatest Generation grew used to driving overseas had to make their way over roads that had been shelled (and occasionally had been sown with mines and tank traps).

The common feature of rural Model T’s and Jeeps and such like is that they were more or less all terrain vehicles.  Like SUV’s, which are modeled after the Hummers which were the US Army’s replacement for the World War II Jeeps.

If the roads were allowed to decline, what would happen is that those who could afford it would simply purchase heavy-duty SUV’s and other ATV’s.  And keep on driving.

While the poor, who couldn’t afford it, would curse the policy of the New Urbanists.  And, most likely, vote them out of office.


The solutions, as always, to the problems caused by present-day automobile technology lies in technological progress, not regress.

Do cars waste energy, and fuel?  Then produce more energy, and fuel.  Build nuclear and solar power plants, and run cars off advanced fuel cells so that they do not deplete fossil fuels.  (This also, of course, would render them far less polluting).

Are cars dangerous to their occupants and pedestrians alike?  Build safer cars, with crash-resistant and energy-absorbent features to protect the occupants (this is, of course, exactly what actually happened from the 1980’s to 2000’s, to the point where modern cars would plow right through 1950’s cars in head-on collisions).  Improve their control systems, eventually to the point that computers rather than fallible humans do the actual driving (this has already been tested on a limited scale and is due to – literally – hit the roads in the next few years).

Do road systems use up too much ground space?  In the longer run – over decades – we will see the multiplication of personal air vehicles – “aircars” – so that the roads will once again belong mostly to cargo vehicles.  (If you look at light airplane and helicopter ownership from 1945 to the present, you’ll see that this has already started:  when the autopilots get good enough that an aircar operator need not be a trained pilot any more, you’ll see this spread just as auto ownership did in the 1910’s and 1920’s).


So we go forward rather than backward.  And bid adieu to the crazy man I knew, who will alas never see his dream triumph.


  1. Let us not forget a car is a tool for upper mobility for the poor. It allows access to better shopping and to commute to higher paying jobs that may not be in the neighborhood or not convenient schedule to use for mass transit.

  2. Yes, which may subconsciously be part of the reason why those who favor getting rid of cars and replacing them with mass transit tend to be second- or later-generation wealth. When the poor have cars they may show up anywhere, including in one's own exclusive neighborhood, competing for the better jobs.