Newspapers, libertarians and automobiles

The other day, The Globe’s Tom Keane threw sense to the wind and declared automobiles to be “the best and most convenient form of transportation ever invented” and then compunds error and ignorance to say that “It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the animus toward the automobile is rooted in a left-wing preoccupation with the collective and the community, just as right-wing rhapsodies over the open road have a libertarian bent”; and “But the purpose of subways and buses is to reduce congestion on crowded city streets. If we want to solve the energy issues posed by cars, we won’t get there by berating people for getting behind the wheel. Rather, we need to make it easier and greener to drive . . . Crowded roads should be widened and on- and off-ramps improved. Clogged highways with stopped cars just waste energy.”

Keane also seems to believe there are a lot of anti-car people, like the hysterical AAA lobbyist who accused Greater Greater Washington of being part of some sinister conspiracy and compared them to the KKK.

He sounds like addict suffering from withdrawl. Apparently 45 minutes on the Green Line was enough to cause delusions — especially since unles there was a major disaster taking place, that trip could only have taken about 20. I can’t blame him, but I usually bring a book to read and I’m fine. That’s how I read Ulysses.

Anyways, he’s still as wrong as it is possible to be. Walking is the best and most convenient form of transportation ever invented, considering you don’t need a license, special equipment, parking permits, a loan, contracts or indeed an advanced industrial economy before you can walk. Walking is also much more efficient — you can walk all day with a cheap loaf of bread and go about as far as on an expensive gallon of gas. It’s true the car will do it faster, but that loaf of bread contains only 5.3 MJ whereas the gallon of gas contains 120 MJ — 24 times the energy to go the same distance.

It would make much more sense to simply build everything within walking distance of everything else.

The purpose of public transit is not to “reduce congestion” and road widening will not reduce congestion. Transit supplements walking and road widening results in induced demand. These are very well known facts and it is distressing that Keane is unaware of them, but given that he also believes there is a large anti-automobile lobby, it’s posible that the toxic exhaust fumes have eaten away his brain.

If the government is really so keen on taking away Keane’s keys, maybe he can explain why the MBTA was forced to take on the debt from the automobile-exclusive Big Dig? That was a highway widening and on-ramp clearing operation that cost the taxpayers a huge amount of money to benefit a few well-connected drivers on the North Shore and they made the T foot the bill. Not only that, traffic increased and according to The Globe, it actually takes longer to drive I-93 than it did during the days of the Central Artery. To be unaware of this and yet call for more of it is inexcusable.

Too make matters worse, Keane thinks that driving can be made greener. This is, however, imposible. As predicted by Jevons’ Paradox, more energy efficient cars are driven more, producing no net decrease in energy consumption and in fact, in real life, drivers in Scandinavian countries that adopted policies to encourage the sale of energy efficient vehicles actually ended up consuming more energy than they had before. America’s continued dependence on the car is a paradigm which long ago ceased to be viable and never was sustainable.

Modern cars are triumphs of engineering and many are marvels of design and style. But to hold on to them in this way will bring only ruin and disappointment, like trying to run the internet on the Victorian telegraph system.

Keane, however, is correct in saying that archaic laws need to be abolished. They do, especially the laws that privilege driving over walking and transit. Laws like parking minimums and those that allow drivers to escape punishment from killing walkers.

As a journalist myself, I can’t help but find the attitude of big city dailies towards big cities counter-intuitive. The New York Times has been a cheerleader of the destruction of New York for decades, enthusiastically endorsing Robert Moses’ projects, the planning and zoning that destroyed the city’s complex economy and ignoring the problems of the buraeucracy. In the 1950s a Boston newspaper had its photographer overturn trash cans in the West End to create the appearance of a blighted slum in need of urban renewal.

It’s posible that this attitude resulted from the ownership of the newspapers, which used to reside in Old Money, Protestant families. The Sulzbergers are not Protestants, but have adopted many Old Money ways. As Jane Jacobs recorded, the WASP establishment was advised by Radiant City Beautiful planners and architects. In addition, there was ethnic conflict between the WASPs and Irish, Italian, Jewish and Black newcomers.

The Globe also has Mike Ross, Paul McMorrow and Ed Glaesar, who are all more pro-urban in their outlook, on its roster of columnists.

Finally: libertarians.

While my thoughts on libertarian urbanism could fill a blog, as they are doing, it is worth outlining why the car is no more the liberator of the people than any Marxist power-fantasy. Sadly, too many libertarians believe that private automobile ownership is good for individual freedom.

Nothing could be further from the truth: the automobile is a tool for the State to enslave people in their millions. Mass automobile ownership enable the State to restructure the financial system around its own ends, use the law to restrict or compell the uses of private property, abuse emininent domain and create health and pollution problems that have in turn justified the State taking on even greater powers. Furthermore, the suburbia/automobile paradox has resulted in people dependent on cars to get to work, but unable to make enough to save, thus driving them to greater dependence on the State. All drivers are inherently dependent on the State for highways, which are absurd subsidies, whereas public transportation was historically developed by for-profit companies and the better systems continue to be private. Suburbia has also had a “divide and conquer” effect, undermining our ability to form the associations De Tocqueville praised, again, increasing dependence on the State.

Far from liberating us, the automobile has proved to be a Trojan horse enabling ever more subversion of our freedoms.




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