The Inevitability of the Car

Posted: May 29, 2007 4:51 PM

Americans have arrived at an answer to high gas prices and concerns about global warming -- buy more cars. According to a report in The New York Times, households with a small, gas-efficient car own, on average, almost three cars.

They are just adding the small car to their driveway fleet. The Times reports that last year more than 500,000 small models -- the Toyota Prius and Corolla and the Honda Civic -- were purchased as a second or third car. Which couldn't have been what small-car evangelists had in mind when urging people into more efficient vehicles. Ever since Henry Ford alighted on his vision of mass-produced cars affordable to the average consumer, there is no question to which Americans haven't found the answer to be more cars and more driving.

By 1930, three of four American households already owned a car. Today, more than 90 percent of even urban households have cars, as do 80 percent of poor households. So any plan to save the planet or anything else by getting Americans to drive less is a fantasy.

The White House and top Democrats are proposing to increase mandatory fuel-economy standards for cars as a way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse emissions. By increasing the efficiency of cars, however, they only will encourage more driving. In the Cato Institute publication Regulation, Andrew Kleit writes, "The latest estimates are that for every 10 percent increase in fuel efficiency, people increase their driving by two percent."

Henry Payne of The Detroit News points out that Europe has reduced its oil consumption by 15 percent throughout the past 30 years on the strength of onerous gas taxes. Even so, Europeans still drive plenty. In their book "The Road More Traveled," Ted Balaker and Sam Staley argue that car ownership and driving track with wealth -- the richer a country is, the more it will drive.

"Europeans enjoy top-notch transit and endure five-dollar-per-gallon gasoline, and yet they don't drive that much less than we do," they write. "In America, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel, and in Europe the figure is about 78 percent. And the Europeans are gaining on us. In Europe, per capita driving has been increasing more than twice as fast as in the States."

There is nothing irrational about Americans' attachment to driving, as critics of car culture would have it. Cars offer the most convenient and cheapest way to get from Point A to Point B. National Public Radio did a quick survey and found that, even with elevated summertime gas prices, driving from Washington, D.C., to Boston was cheaper by several orders of magnitude than flying or taking the train or bus. Gas would have to be $15 per gallon to make it more expensive to drive.

Mass transit is the supposed alternative to driving, but outside of the imaginations of urban planners and environmentalists (and a few large cities), it's not practical. The number of workers increased by 63 million from 1960 to 2000, according to Balaker and Staley, but 2 million fewer people took transit to get to their job. Less than 5 percent of Americans use transit to get to work, and most who do simply don't own cars.

Do all the new cars clog the roads? Sure, if no new roads are built. The amount of driving has doubled in the past few decades, but roads have hardly been expanded, and so congestion has increased 200 percent since the early 1980s. But urban areas with more roads don't have a congestion problem. "Of the 10 largest urban areas," Balaker and Staley write, "Los Angeles has the least amount of pavement per person. Dallas has twice as much pavement per person, and congestion is only half as bad as it is in L.A."

The automobile is an inevitability of modern American life. For good reason, the average American loves his cars -- each and every one of them.