Cars Aren’t Environmental Bad Guys, Urban Expert Says

Published October 1, 1997

In an article published in the July issue of Commentary magazine, the status of the family car as the all-purpose environmental scapegoat was vigorously challenged by James Q. Wilson.

If today’s activists and regulators had been around at the turn of the century, Wilson observes, the horseless carriage might never have seen production. Environmentalists, energy conservation advocates, big-city lobbies, social critics, and safety experts would have aborted it, he contends.

And that, he suggests in “Cars and Their Enemies,” would have been tragic: not only because we would have forfeited the benefits cars and trucks have brought to our families and economy, but also because the case against the automobile is seriously flawed.

The benefits of cars, says Wilson, makes them popular even when environmental laws discourage their use. The growth in the number of cars per-capita in Western Europe, he notes, has been three times as fast as in the U.S. despite high gas prices and parking restrictions.

Activists and government planners favor transit as an alternative to cars. But, according to Wilson, the public does not. After ten years, the number of miles served by rail transit in the nation’s capital more than doubled and more than thirty stations were added . . . but proportionately fewer people use the system to get to work. And, he says, ridership forecasts used to justify new lines are routinely about three times higher than the actual number of riders they end up attracting.

While critics lambast “auto-centered” regions like California, Wilson points out that the worst highway congestion is found in cities with the best transit systems. The high densities in historically transit-dependent cities like New York and Chicago create massive tie-ups because people still prefer the convenience of cars even when good public transportation is available.

Efforts to get people out of their cars haven’t done much to curb air pollution, according to an EPA report Wilson cites. And as a means for appreciating our environment, he adds, you can’t beat the family car. It’s difficult to enjoy the mountains, beaches, deserts, woods, or picturesque farmland, he reminds us, if you have no way of getting to them.

Wilson concedes that the popularity of the automobile has some social cost. He recommends higher tolls to discourage people from driving downtown, especially during peak hours. Gasoline taxes might be raised, he says, and residential streets can be configured to deter through traffic.

But growth controls as a solution, he adds, may create more problems then they solve. The highly touted Urban Growth Boundary that restricts suburban growth in Portland, Oregon, has shrunk average house lot sizes, he says, while boosting home prices.

Ultimately, Wilson concludes, both cars and anti-car movements are about values. The privacy, autonomy, and speed offered by the private automobile are sought by the masses, he says. But these values are downplayed by an intellectual elite that has a disproportionate influence on public policy.

John L. Gann Jr., president of Gann Associates, consults in the area of land use regulation.

PF: For more information on the benefits of automobility, call PolicyFax at 847/202-4888 and request document #8100302 “Defending Automobility: A Critical Examination of the Environmental and Social Costs of Auto Use,” a three-page executive summary of a 1995 Reason Foundation report by Kenneth Green. Also available through PolicyFax is Loren E. Lomasky’s “Autonomy and Automobility,” a 1995 report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, available in three parts. Request documents #8100404 (part 1, 11 pages); #81004 06 (part 2, 11 pages); and #8100407 (part 3, 9 pages).