Blue Sky Consulting Group

The social benefits and costs of the automobile

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Courtesy of Blue Sky Consulting Group

Have we been forced into automobile dependence by an unholy alliance between carmakers, roadbuilders, and government planners? From the perspective of the automobile's critics, Americans have an irrational love
affair with the automobile that results in a range of social ills from pollution to congestion, makes us dependent on unstable oil-producing countries, and drains our private and public coffers of scarce resources that would be better put to other uses.

On the other hand, for its proponents, the automobile is the most convenient and flexible transportation that humankind has yet invented, giving people a degree of social and economic opportunity and autonomy unprecedented in human history.

The automobile's critics--urban planners and environmental, anti-suburb, and anti-automobile activists--claim that urban 'sprawl' forces people to drive by pushing them far from work, shopping, and other activities. Americans' reliance on the automobile, they say, is not a choice, but a necessity forced on people by suburban development patterns that require an automobile for most travel. These development patterns have in turn been encouraged, so the argument goes, by implicit and explicit subsidies that make traveling by car seem much cheaper than it really is.

The result of automobile favoritism, in the view of critics, has been a wide range of automobile-imposed ills, such as sprawling suburbs that thwart community involvement, long commutes that steal time away from social and family interaction, air pollution, injuries, obesity, and a drain on families' budgets from excessive transportation costs. If people had to pay explicitly for the full social costs of driving, they argue, people would live in denser, more urbanized housing and walk or use public transit for most travel. Furthermore, people would be happier and healthier as a result of these lifestyle changes.

This view is mistaken. If Americans were forced into suburbs and driving against their will, we would expect transportation and land use to look quite different in other countries with policies less favorable to automobile travel. Yet people all over the world choose suburban lifestyles and automobile-based transportation
as soon as they become wealthy enough to afford them.

This is true in Europe, where, despite $5 per-gallon gasoline and other high automobile-related taxes, as well as widely available public transportation, automobiles account for about 78 percent of all motorized travel and transit accounts for about 16 percent. Transit's share of all European motorized travel dropped 35 percent from 1970 to 2000 and continues to decline. Europe's old central cities are now surrounded by suburbs that look very much like their American counterparts.

People also choose driving in the developing world, where demand for automobiles is rising faster than income, despite poor roads and high levels of traffic congestion. Even without reference to other countries, the claim that Americans had the automobile forced on them does not stand up to scrutiny. By 1930, Americans already owned an average of three automobiles for every four households, showing that Americans embraced automobile travel long before there were interstate highways and long before the postwar suburbanization
of American metropolitan areas.

The critics have it exactly backwards. The automobile is a powerful enabling technology, allowing people the world over to satisfy what seems to be a deep-seated human desire for space, privacy, mobility, and autonomy. Automobile travel has vastly increased humankind's wealth and prosperity. Compared to other modes of travel, the speed and flexibility of automobile travel gives people access to many times more choices of housing, jobs, and consumer goods, and gives employers a much wider pool of potential employees. Automobile travel is also far cheaper than transit, with direct costs only about one-fourth as much per passenger-mile of travel.

Even after including the most extreme and implausible estimates for the health costs of air pollution and other negative side effects of automobile travel, automobiles still cost only about half as much as transit. The automobile also creates new social opportunities, allowing people to visit friends and relatives who would be too far away by other transport modes. Not only do wealthier people choose automobiles--automobiles also help people become wealthier.

While the automobile confers enormous benefits, automobile travel also has undesirable side effects. As with most things in life, automobile travel includes a set of unavoidable trade-offs among things people want and things they do not want. Most people prefer flexible, rapid, and safe transportation to work, shopping, and leisure. Most people also dislike congestion, noise, accidents, and pollution.

The history of the automobile is mainly a story of how Americans got more of what they wanted out of the automobile and less of what they did not want. Technology has drastically reduced air pollution from automobiles and continues to do so. Automobiles built during the past few years will be more than 90 percent cleaner over their useful lives when compared with the average car on the road today.

Automobile safety has also substantially improved. Per mile of driving, the risk of dying in a car accident has declined more than 75 percent since 1960. Suburbanization, facilitated by the automobile, also allowed tens of millions of Americans to move to larger larger homes and to areas with less traffic congestion, less crime, and quieter streets.

Based on evidence to be presented below, this chapter will show the following: The dominance of automobile transportation over other modes is mainly the result of consumer choice, rather than subsidies or coercion, and
overall, the automobile and its associated road and street infrastructure delivers huge net benefits to Americans that could not be obtained by any other means currently available or likely to be available for the foreseeable future. In addition, as will be shown here and in other chapters of this book, the benefits of automobile travel can be retained and augmented while, at the same time, undesirable side effects can continue to be reduced.

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