All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 2001

Enemies of the Automobile

An Influential Movement Is Underway to Restrict Car Use

Ralph Clark is a professor of philosophy at West Virginia University.

The automobile age is approximately 100 years old. With the approach of a new century and new millennium there could be no better time to celebrate the automobile for its profound contributions to human happiness.

Unfortunately, automobiles have enemies. An influential movement is underway to make it much more difficult for people to use and enjoy their cars.

Even people who are not enemies of the automobile frequently view it as a mundane piece of machinery whose main function is to provide transportation from point A to point B. Cars cost a lot to buy and to operate, these people say. Public transportation is cheaper and more rational even if not always as convenient.

Automobiles have done more than any other single invention or discovery in history to expand the freedom that human beings can exercise day in and day out. Cars play an important role in supporting human autonomy for large numbers of people. And this number would be considerably larger if the enemies of the automobile were less influential.

Many critics of the auto charge that its widespread availability in countries like the United States has contributed to the breakdown of cities and the spread of suburbs, with a resultant loss of community and ready access to the conveniences of downtown areas. The catch phrase for this much denounced phenomenon is “urban sprawl.”

But shouldn’t people be allowed to decide for themselves whether suburban living is desirable? If they wish to try it, they should be free to do so, which means they will need access to automobiles. If suburban living is as undesirable as some critics claim, then experience will teach people. The lesson of the suburbs—if there is a lesson—will have been learned on a wholly voluntary basis, which is always best.

The alternative favored by the critics is to make it much more difficult for people to use and enjoy their cars: they seek to raise gasoline taxes, cut back on building new highways and improving existing highways, place additional restrictions on the use of the streets and highways that we already have, and require that new construction for homes and businesses be “high density,” which means squeezed into a small space, even when there is plenty of land available for development. Taken together, these policies are what politicians mean these days when they talk about “smart growth”—but the term itself is nonsense because the policies are not smart and they also don’t have much to do with growth. Even more important, these policies don’t have much to do with what most people really want regarding better places to live and more convenient ways to go about their daily business.

Some critics of the automobile contend that federal and state governments have subsidized cars at the expense of other forms of transportation and that therefore the lesson of the suburbs has not been voluntary. This claim is simply not true. Gasoline taxes and other highway user fees provide virtually all the funds for highway construction and maintenance. As Randal O’Toole observed, “I once believed the myth that autos and highways are subsidized. It turns out that the subsidies are negligible. . . . In the past decade, the average subsidy to auto users works out to less than a tenth of a cent per passenger mile, while the average subsidy to transit is around 40 cents per passenger mile.”1

Cars Versus Alternative Transportation

Politicians everywhere like to talk about “shared burdens” and “cooperation”—which mean doing things the government’s way. Americans must work together, sacrifice together, plan for the future together, and ride everywhere together on subways, trains, and buses. This theme is echoed by numerous social scientists and journalists as well as by politicians. Media stories refer to “sophisticated” European countries that have better public transportation systems than we do. The Europeans and others are held up as models for us to emulate.

The policy the United States has pursued up to this point—a policy based on the ideal of letting cars be available for people in all economic classes—is far superior. European policies make ownership of cars impossible for poor people and many members of the middle class. One reason is that value added taxes increase the prices of new cars dramatically. Only the wealthy can use their cars frequently for long trips because gasoline costs so much. Few individuals can use their cars anywhere near as much as they would like to use them. And in places where new cars are extremely expensive and few new ones are sold, many fewer used vehicles are available for people with modest incomes. Visitors to Europe who look around for used car lots are surprised to find how rare they are.

On purely practical grounds, there is much to be said for public transportation, especially in areas with dense populations. The greater the density, the more we need subway systems, commuter trains, buses, and other types of “people movers.” Mass transportation systems contribute in their own way to freedom—namely, freedom from worry about parking or driving on bad roads. But everyone already understands this. The citizens of the United States know all about both the strengths and the weaknesses of mass transportation systems, and therefore they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves how much they want to use buses and trains in relation to automobiles. What they do not need is to have someone else make the choice for them and force it down their throats while calling it “smart growth.”

What About Global Warming?

A more serious criticism of the automobile concerns the possibility of global warming. There is no denying that automobiles contribute to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Critics say that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will exacerbate the greenhouse effect, change the world’s climate, melt portions of the polar icecaps, raise the sea level, and produce other undesirable consequences.

The first question to ask is whether scientists know with any degree of assurance that predictions of an impending harmful greenhouse effect are correct. Second, do we know how much automobiles contribute to any global warming that is actually occurring? According to prominent climatologists, such as Patrick Michael and Robert Bolling, Jr., the evidence for dangerous manmade global warming is lacking, making draconian measures, such as raising gasoline taxes substantially, unwarranted.2

The immense benefits that people enjoy because they live in what I like to call an “automotive civilization” can easily be documented. Cars make our lives better in numerous ways, and cars are improving all the time. By contrast, predicting future weather patterns is hugely complex and highly problematic. It is virtually impossible to do it over the long term. The interplay of causal factors is extremely difficult for scientists to sort out, and no adequate computer simulations have yet been devised for mapping and predicting the course of any future increase in the greenhouse effect.

One reason for this failure is that gases produced from the burning of hydrocarbons contribute to changes in the earth’s surface temperature in at least two important ways—first, by trapping heat that reaches the earth’s surface, and second by contributing to an increase in cloud cover which blocks out some of the heat from the sun. Moreover, carbon dioxide is not the most important greenhouse gas—water vapor is. According to the best models, the contribution made by carbon dioxide to the presently existing greenhouse effect (which overall keeps the earth from becoming so cold that it would not support life as we know it) is only about one twentieth that of water vapor. Even among the products of chemical interactions involving hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide is not the main greenhouse gas—methane is. But methane production has nothing to do with the use of automobiles, coming as it does primarily from agricultural sources.

A major believer in global warming has come around to this view. In August, James Hansen of NASA’s Center for Climate Systems Research said he no longer believes carbon dioxide is an important contributor to the greenhouse effect. “We argue that global warming in recent decades has been driven mainly by non CO2 greenhouse gases such as chlorofluorocarbons and [nitrogen oxides], not by fossil fuel burning,” Hansen said (emphasis added). This revised view, contained in “Global Warming in the 21st Century: An Alternative Scenario,” published by the National Academy of Sciences, dramatically defangs the case against the automobile.3

Furthermore, there is no historical correlation between actual increases in the earth’s surface temperature and increases in carbon dioxide levels. Instead, from about 1940 to 1970, when carbon dioxide levels were rising, the earth’s temperature dropped slightly, after having risen during the previous 25 years when carbon dioxide levels were increasing at a much lower rate. One possible explanation is that fluctuations in levels of solar activity may be a much more significant determinant of the earth’s surface temperature than carbon dioxide levels are.

As far as the polar icecaps are concerned, a small increase in global temperatures would likely produce an increase in evaporation from the oceans, which in turn could mean more rain and snow. That could increase the thickness of the icecaps. There is also the question of whether we are living during an interglacial period that is about to wind down. (Even less is known about the causes of the earth’s many ice ages than is known about possible roles played by greenhouse gases in climatic changes.) If that is the case, then a strengthening of the greenhouse effect over the long term might be desirable to counteract the onset of an ice age.

Critics of the automobile will ask: What if scientists do succeed in demonstrating that increases in the greenhouse effect are real, harmful, and linked to rising carbon dioxide levels? Would this not prove that the enemies of automobiles had been right all along?

It would prove nothing of the kind. If cars do contribute significantly to a harmful greenhouse effect, then we need to put into place measures that address this specific harm caused by cars. After all, there is no essential link between the “automotive ideal” and the use of internal combustion engines or the burning of hydrocarbons.

The Automotive Ideal

The “automotive ideal” is the concept of affordable and practical self propelled vehicles for people and their belongings, regardless of the power source.

Internal combustion engines can run on hydrogen—which produces no carbon dioxide—and new designs may be developed that are much more efficient than present designs. A number of promising alternatives to the internal combustion engine are possible, and one or more of them will undoubtedly be developed and made commercially feasible early in the twenty first century within the competitive atmosphere of a flourishing global economy. Among the new ideas for automotive power currently being tested and actively developed are fuel cells that convert gasoline and ethanol directly to electricity—with almost no pollution.

The same approach that is best for dealing with problems that may be connected to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is appropriate for other potential problems brought about by the use of automobiles. Step one: Identify the problem rationally (get the facts straight; use reasonable caution). Step two: Require that the specific harm in question be removed or reduced to acceptable levels, but leave the question of how it should be removed to market forces. We must not allow politicians to exaggerate the problem for demagogic, political reasons.


  1. Randal O’Toole, “Dense Feedback,” Reason, April 1999, p. 51.
  2. See Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Bolling, Jr., The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2000); also Jonathan Adler, “Global Warming—Hot Problem or Hot Air?” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, April 1998, pp. 231–36.
  3. UPI, “Global Warming Scientist Downplays Fossil Fuel Threat,” August 18, 2000.