Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Were Americans forced to drive?

A recent article in The Atlantic rewrites history by claiming that the law forces Americans to drive automobiles. “Our laws essentially force driving on all of us,” asserts University of Iowa law professor Gregory Shill, “by subsidizing it, by punishing people who don’t do it, by building a physical landscape that requires it, and by insulating reckless drivers from the consequences of their actions.”

Shill is wrong on almost every point he makes. The reality is that Americans (and people in other countries) took to the automobile like ducks to water. If anything, the laws he claims forced Americans to drive were written as a result of the fact that driving had become the dominant mode of transportation.

Shill claims that the United States built “a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense.” In fact, that network was built almost entirely out of user fees, including tolls, gas taxes, and vehicle registration fees. Local streets were generally built by developers and turned over to city or county governments, which used property taxes to maintain them. But major arterials were paid for directly by auto users; in contrast, transit lines are almost entirely subsidized.

The interstates and most state highways were paid for out of user fees, not general funds; if users didn’t want them, they wouldn’t have paid for them...

Shill borrows Donald Shoup’s argument that minimum parking requirements forced developers to waste money on unnecessary parking. The reality is that developers build parking whether they are required to or not because they know that housing, retail, and commercial developments are almost impossible to sell or rent if there is no parking for residents, employees, and customers. Even if there were too much parking, it isn’t clear how that would force people to drive...

Even if Shill’s claims were valid, none of them truly force people to drive. Regardless of the validity of these specific arguments, any allegation that Americans have been forced to drive flies in the face of history. Auto opponents such as Shill and James Howard Kunstler not only imagine that driving was somehow forced on us, they fantasize that transportation before cars, such as intercity trains and streets, provided adequate and even an optimal amount of mobility for Americans.

In fact, it is likely that a majority of Americans in 1881, and even 1910, had never traveled more than 50 miles from where they were born. Some of the more adventurous might travel further when they left their parents’ homes but, once settled down, rarely traveled more than they could walk. 

Most Americans lived in rural areas until the 1910s, and people living on farms might go for months at a time without seeing anyone except their immediate families...

Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T changed all that. Suddenly, mobility was affordable to almost everyone, and auto ownership rates grew from less than 5 percent of households in 1913 to more than 50 percent a dozen years later. No one forced people to buy and drive cars; they did it because mobility was valuable to them and cars made it affordable...

Most Americans have always lived in single-family homes, and most of those who didn’t aspired to do so at some point in their lives. In the late nineteenth century, the factory system packed thousands of jobs into individual city blocks, and most of the workers couldn’t afford streetcars and so had to live within walking distance of their jobs. As a result, large apartment buildings were constructed in major cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and people were often packed into those buildings at the rate of one family per room, with up to eight families sharing a single bathroom.

The automobile freed those people, giving them access to low-cost land outside of the cities on which they could build their homes. Ford’s moving assembly lines also moved the factories to the suburbs, as assembly lines required a lot more land than could be found in city centers...

Driving is faster and safer than cycling or walking and faster and more convenient than scheduled transit services. But a major attraction is its low cost. Today, Americans spend an average of 25 cents a passenger mile driving (including highway subsidies) while the nation’s transit industry spends well over $1 a passenger mile on rail or bus transit.

Moreover, the cost of driving has declined relative to average incomes. The share of personal income Americans have spent buying, maintaining, operating, repairing, and insuring their cars has declined from 9.6 percent in 1950 to 6.8 percent in 2017 (based on tables 2.1 and 2.5.5 of the Bureau of Economic Analysis National Income and Product Accounts). Despite this declining cost, average auto travel has grown from about 2,400 vehicle miles per person in 1950 to nearly 9,000 in 2017. Of course, that’s partly due to increased incomes, but the increased incomes are partly due to the increased productivity provided by the automobile.

Automobiles admittedly have some social costs, also known as negative externalities, including pollution and accidents. But these costs have been dramatically reduced in recent decades.

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency embarked on a two-pronged approach to cleaning up automotive air pollution. First, it encouraged cities and states to attempt to get people to reduce their driving. That failed miserably and, considering that one way that cities tried to reduce driving was to allow congestion to increase, and cars pollute more in congested traffic, may have done more harm than good.

Second, the EPA ordered auto manufacturers to make increasingly cleaner cars. That has been an enormous success: motor vehicles today produce only about 4 percent as much pollution per mile, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons, as vehicles did in 1970, and total pollution has been reduced by 88.5 percent.

Fatalities due to auto travel have declined from nearly 450 people died per billion vehicle miles in 1920 to around 11 in 2010, where it has hovered ever since. Driving in urban areas is even safer, averaging just 8.5 per billion vehicle miles or (at 1.67 people per vehicle) about 5 per billion passenger miles. By comparison, light rail kills about 14 people and commuter trains kill about 9 people for every billion passenger miles they carry.

Americans will never give up the mobility and independence that automobiles provide. Rather than make up stories about how Americans were forced to drive, those who wish to reduce energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and pedestrian accidents should focus on making cars more energy efficient and roads safer.

See also Can't take the heat? Attack your opponents.

Labels: , , , , ,

Beast of Brexit

LRB Store
See also The Two Jacobs.

Labels: , , , ,