All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility

Dunn Emphasizes Hardheaded Realism

Over the last two generations a battle between the automobile and its enemies has raged in most urban regions. Aligned against the automobile is an elite composed of self-appointed visionaries who believe they have the answer to how urbanized man should live. On the other side we have the masses of common people and the commercial interests that have catered to man’s preference for the automobile.

The battle is over. The auto has won. Because it empowers the individual to go where he wants to go when he wants to go, the auto provides a freedom and quality of service that public transit systems cannot match. The author refutes all the key anti-automobile arguments. For example, in response to the claim that General Motors conspired to drive the streetcar out of business, Dunn points out that streetcars went out of business around the globe, not by any nefarious deeds of General Motors, but by the superior performance of the automobile. In Los Angeles the auto was embraced as a means of escape from the “corrupt” streetcar monopoly.

In response to the argument that the Interstate Highway Act and Highway Trust Fund gave autos an unfair advantage, Dunn points out that the federal highway trust fund is self-sustaining from taxes and fees levied on highway users. This stands in contrast to federal aid to transit in which users pay a minor share of the costs. Dunn compares transit’s and autos’ shares of passenger travel (1 and 99 percent respectively) with their shares of government expenditures (25 and 75 percent). Transit would seem to have the unfair advantage.

In response to the argument that American cities should imitate European cities, Dunn asserts that Europe is imitating America. Despite heavy gasoline taxes, huge subsidies for public transit, and more densely developed urban land use, auto ownership has been growing faster in Europe than in the United States.

Public transit has been declining for very good reasons. Foremost among them is that public transit’s attractiveness is inversely correlated to personal income. When people are poor, public transit may be the best transportation they can get. As people prosper, they want to move up to a higher quality of transportation. It is economic growth that dooms public transit to a dwindling share of urban travel. Short of driving the majority of urban populations into poverty, there is no public policy that is likely to revive public transit.

Dunn acknowledges that traffic congestion and air pollution are serious negative byproducts of the automobile. The cure, though, is not to waste billions of dollars on attempts to resuscitate moribund public transit systems in the vain hope that this will provide some relief. Instead, he recommends that public policy focus on more cost-effective solutions.

He calls his program “Auto Plus.” The key is to make auto transportation work more effectively and with fewer negative social impacts. Along those lines, he suggests electronic road pricing, technological fixes for vehicle emissions, and vouchers for the transit dependent. Transit agencies, rather than jealously protecting faltering bus and train monopolies, should become “mobility managers,” says Dunn. As such, transit officials would promote rather than suppress competition from “jitney vans.” And instead of attempting to hold on to the urban poor as a captive clientele, they would be supportive of ways to help the poor obtain cars.

There is one aspect of Dunn’s prescription that may cause some consternation among highway advocates. He recommends ending the “trust fund” concept. In fact, he goes even further by suggesting that higher taxes on cars and trucks could be a productive source of revenue for general government purposes. Let’s not turn efficient transportation into a cash cow for federal boondoggles elsewhere.

Whether one agrees with Dunn’s prescribed remedies or not, his emphasis on hardheaded realism is a better foundation for policy debate than the notions of those who wish that things were different, that people could be induced to give up their prized mobility, or that the clock could be turned back to a time when life was “simpler.”

John Semmens is an economist with the Laissez Faire Institute in Chandler, Arizona.

  • John Semmens is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and research project manager in the Arizona Department of Transportation Research Center.