The Auto and its Enemies

Published September 1, 1999

Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies and the Politics of Mobility James A. Dunn Jr. Brooking Institution Press, 1998 250 pages; paper $18.95, cloth $44.95

By all accounts, the automobile is the nearest thing we have to an ideal transportation system. No transport technology offers people more convenience, comfort, security, and privacy. The auto serves its users on demand, from door to door, with no transfers, no waiting, and at an acceptable price. Widespread car ownership has given millions of people a wider range of options of where to live and work, and it has opened up access to greater social and economic opportunity.

So, why do a number of vocal critics see the auto not as a solution, but as a problem? Why do they view existing auto and highway policies not as a success, but as a failure?

In an insightful and widely noticed book, James A. Dunn examines the gulf in perceptions that separates the auto’s critics from the millions of ordinary citizens who treasure the auto as a symbol of personal freedom.

Behind the current anti-highway rhetoric, Dunn, professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, sees a loosely organized band of crusaders who harbor visceral hostility toward the auto and its culture. This “anti-auto vanguard,” as Dunn calls them, view the automobile “not as a proud achievement of American industry but as a relentless oppressor and a menace to civilization.” The fact that cars are less polluting, safer, and more energy-efficient today than they were 25 years ago is no consolation.

The car critics are not interested in solving problems, writes Dunn. “It is the whole gestalt of the auto as the central socio-cultural icon of our society that they want to eliminate.”

According to Dunn, the vanguard’s immediate goal is not a total abolition of the car, just a dramatic decline in its importance in the transportation system. But the anti-auto activists go beyond seeking more balance in transportation by improving public transit and providing incentives for its use. They want to make auto travel more expensive and less convenient–if necessary, by resorting to legislative mandates and regulatory measures.

The ultimate goal of the vanguard is to bring about a massive change in our travel habits. Dunn finds this highly ironic. In the past, he observes, progress meant replacing an older transportation technology with a newer one that offered greater mobility. The vanguard’s goal of replacing the auto with “alternative transportation,”–transit, walking, and bicycles–would be the first modal shift in transportation history that would reverse this historic process by restricting rather than expanding mobility. The vanguard’s objective, far from being progressive, is profoundly reactionary.

The Vanguard’s Impact

How successful has the anti-auto movement been, and how is it likely to fare in the future? Dunn traces the rise of anti-car sensibilities to the “green tradition” in American thought and literature of the 19th century, exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. In the 20th century, social critics and urbanists like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs drew on those values to focus on the negative effects of the automobile on America’s cities. The 1970s saw an outpouring of books, articles, and reports highly critical in their assessment of the car’s impact.

“Within a few years the private car and the whole industrial and social apparatus that supported it were redefined by its critics in very negative terms,” writes Dunn. The car was demonized as a voracious consumer of irreplaceable energy resources, a major source of greenhouse gases, a killer of tens of thousands of accident victims, a destroyer of cohesive communities, and a despoiler of the landscape.

But early critics’ predictions of the “death knells of the automobile culture” did not materialize. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the automobile kept gaining ground, not just in America but in the rest of the world as well. The critics vastly overestimated the public’s willingness to give up personal mobility, and underestimated the extent to which autos and highways fit the values of the American political and social culture.

What does the current generation of critics make of the auto’s continued dominance? Do they still expect the end of automobility? Or have they changed their views? “The visceral hostility to the auto and its culture is clearly still present” writes Dunn. The most committed members of the anti-car movement resist arguments that their basic goals may be unattainable. Contemporary critics, such as James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere, 1993) and Jane Holtz Kay (Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America, 1997) still believe, in Kunstler’s words, that “the Auto Age as we have known it, will shortly come to an end.”

The mainstream environmental movement, although less apocalyptic in its predictions and more restrained in its rhetoric, is no less convinced of the need for fundamental change. Groups such as the Worldwatch Institute, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense Fund, and Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) build their policy recommendations on the basic proposition that the current dominance of the automobile is unsustainable in the long run.

There are three key elements in the vanguard’s long-term strategy, observes Dunn. First, there must be continuous consciousness-raising among policy-makers and the general public. The auto must be made to pay its “true social costs.” Once people are confronted with paying the full costs of auto travel, the argument goes, they will be much more willing to consider other transportation alternatives.

Second, auto critics must engage in effective lobbying of the legislature. The most notable success in this regard, notes Dunn, has been the efforts of the STPP to introduce more funding flexibility into the federal-aid highway program and to earmark funds for environmentally friendly transportation initiatives.

The third element of the vanguard’s strategy is to build bureaucratic momentum, writes Dunn. To that end, the vanguard has become an active part of the policy-making process and seeks a voice in numerous forums to influence the course of debate on auto-related environmental issues, such as global warming, “sustainability,” “smart growth,” and “livable communities.”

Will the vanguard succeed in its campaign to drastically reduce society’s dependence on the automobile and bring about a massive modal shift? Dunn doubts it. The main strength of the anti-car lobby lies in its sense of outrage and missionary zeal. Its weakness–which, Dunn thinks, will doom its efforts in the end–is that it is disconnected from mainstream America. Its goals are not shared by the vast majority of people and run counter to the deeply entrenched preferences of most Americans.

The vanguard’s vision of a largely carless world in which residents mostly rely on bicycles and public transportation lacks political realism and seems beyond the bounds of public acceptability. “They [the anti-auto vanguard] threaten to take away the individuals’ tangible embodiment of their personal freedom, their car, without offering a superior substitute,” Dunn notes.

The Future of Mobility

Dunn offers an alternative policy future. The most effective policy response to any pressing auto-related problems, he writes, is not to discourage people from using cars, but to encourage improvement in the technology of the auto itself. Such an approach would welcome the advent of less polluting, more efficient cars. It would allow individuals and communities to choose freely from an expanded range of choices, rather than seek to impose bureaucratic “command-and-control” patterns of travel behavior. It would try to preserve rather than denigrate the immense and undeniable benefits of car ownership.

Above all, Dunn believes that “a successful politics of mobility must have common-sense appeal to citizens.” People must see it as a means to help them meet their specific personal needs, not as a crusade to save the planet or to reshape the living environment in the elitist image of the anti-car vanguard.

The anti-auto forces will not like Dunn’s book much. But the broad public, having been exposed for years to strident anti-automobile rhetoric, deserves a better understanding of the mentality behind the anti-car ideology. James Dunn has performed a valuable public service in better illuminating the anti-auto movement’s agenda, motivation, and philosophy.

Ken Orski is editor of Innovation Briefs.