Hitting the open road for vacation or other sport is one of the great pastimes, and has been for generations. More Americans are driving more cars and more miles daily, undermining the claim Americans have reached peak demand for driving and associated infrastructure.
“The personal and professional mobility conferred by cars has been among the most powerful social forces of the twentieth-century Western world,” wrote Vaclav Smil, Ph.D., distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba, in his 1999 book Energies.
“The rise of the automobile industry and the socioeconomic impact of the road and the car are central to the history of the advanced capitalist countries in the twentieth century, and explain an especially large part of the history of the American people,” wrote the University of California at Irvine’s James Flink in his book The Automobile Age (1993).
Virtues of Automobility
Academics and other intellectuals easily explain why Americans like automobility.
“Cars and trucks are generally faster than alternatives because they can be parked close to where we live, work, shop, or worship; make stops along a route only when and where we want to; and take us right to the doorsteps of our destinations,” write Joseph Bast, then-president of The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, and Jay Lehr, Ph.D., then Heartland’s science director, in their study of The Increasing Sustainability of Cars, Trucks, and the Internal Combustion Engine (2000). “Cars and trucks are generally more flexible than alternatives because we can decide at almost any time to change travel plans to pick up groceries, visit a friend, decide to arrive earlier than planned or leave later than planned, and so on” (emphasis in original).
“Cars and trucks provide more privacy than alternatives, which are apt to require waiting in lines and sitting with strangers whose values may be unknown and whose conversations and activities can be disturbing,” Bast and Lehr write.
And when it comes to efficiency, cost, and emissions of criteria pollutants, the attractiveness and superiority of cars and trucks for travel and transport become even more apparent, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.
Foes of the Automobile
What is peculiar is the Malthusian and authoritarian pushback against the necessity and joys of driving.
In The Population Bomb (1968) and elsewhere, Paul Ehrlich, Ph.D. predicted a government-imposed “auto-control program” that, among other things, would require smaller, slower cars and ban motorized camping on public land (except “for those physically unable to back-pack”).
Speed limits would be lowered, Ehrlich predicted. Auto vacations would be discouraged, along with three-day weekends that cause “enormous jams on highways.” Under Ehrlich’s plan, gasoline taxes would be raised monthly until they reached European levels. As a result, “the large automobile should disappear entirely, except for some taxis,” Ehrlich wrote.
In their book How to Be a Survivor, Ehrlich and coauthor Richard Harriman challenge automobility using some dubious psychology.
“Cars are for transportation, and proper use of the media could once again persuade American men to get their sexual kicks out of sex (not reproduction) instead of a series of automotive sexual surrogates,” Ehrlich and Harriman write. “Restriction of families to ownership of single small cars also would put some pressure against over-reproducers.
“Our stress on the world’s supply of nonrenewable resources would be greatly alleviated by limiting the fuel consumption of the cars and by designing them for recycling,” Ehrlich and Harriman write.
Former Vice President Al Gore, another foe of automobility—for others, not his personal drivers—says driving cars and trucks threatens every country’s security and therefore must end.
“We now know that [the automobile’s] cumulative impact on the global environment is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront,” Gore wrote in Earth in the Balance. His solution is “a coordinated global program … completely eliminating the internal combustion engine, over, say, a twenty-five-year period [by 2017].”
Responding to Gore’s extremely misguided proposal, Bast and Lehr write, “Gore is wrong to call for the elimination of the internal combustion engine, and wrong again to call ‘absurd’ our current reliance on cars and trucks.
“Mobility is an essential and inseparable part of almost all that we value—from close-knit families to rewarding careers, quality educations, and fulfilling recreation,” the authors write. “Mobility truly is what makes our autonomy possible. And cars, trucks, and the internal combustion engine are worth keeping because they make automobility itself increasingly sustainable.”
Not Going Quietly
Beware of the foes of modernity and would-be restrictors of movement. Worry not about getting your kicks on Route 66 or wherever the open road leads.
Automobility is the natural state of affairs and will overwhelm the fringe authoritarians, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin noted in his 1990 book The Prize:
“Hydrocarbon Man shows little inclination to give up his cars, his suburban home, and what he takes to be not only the conveniences but the essentials of his way of life. The peoples of the developing world give no indication that they want to deny themselves the benefits of an oil-powered economy, whatever the environmental questions. Any notion of scaling back the world’s consumption of oil will be influenced by the extraordinary population growth ahead.”
What was true then is truer today.