An argument can be correct in nearly every particular claim it makes, be enormously perceptive as far as it goes, but err nearly to the point of failure either by omission or through one-sidedness. That’s my verdict on this recent condemnation of car culture in The New York Times. I mean that as a recommendation of the essay. Indeed, I hereby demand that you read the linked article before you read my post. Personally, I have every intention of getting and reading the authors’ book at first opportunity, and have every intention of agreeing with it. I agree with just about everything they say in the Times essay, including the general spirit of their arguments, and just about all of their policy recommendations.
To be clear: I hate cars. I hate driving. I hate traffic. I hate drivers. Too many of my friends and relatives have been killed in traffic accidents. Worse still, no one pays attention to my traffic-related policy proposals, on this blog or anywhere else I get them published. In a more practical and less narcissistic vein: cars are expensive, a hassle to maintain, and a good way to have an unwanted encounter with the police.
For one reason or another, I’ve gone long swatches of my life without a car, and for the last year or so, have once again been carless. I’m in this situation because I drove my last car, really my late wife’s car, into a flash flood during Hurricane Ida, losing the car in the process, and nearly drowning. Escaping the floodwaters, however, was the least of my problems. I made it out of the car by jumping out the passenger window and swimming to safety. That took all of a few minutes. Then the misery really began: dealing with Geico, dealing with Geico’s outsource companies, dealing with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, and so on and so forth. Who knew that a flooded-out 2007 Toyota Corolla could be so much trouble?
More than a year after the fact, I still get registered letters from junk dealers and their lawyers claiming that I’ve “abandoned” the car on their lot, demanding this or that as the price of their shakedown. And though I know it sounds crazy, I’m convinced that my wife killed herself in part out of frustration at dealing with the bureaucratic niceties of establishing title to this car, a car she’d owned for almost two decades but to which she had lost the title. So I’m not exaggerating when I say that I associate cars almost reflexively with death.
In short–or at length–I’m sympathetic to the authors’ argument. And yet, there’s something missing there. In fact, there are bunch of things missing–the same missing things one finds if one scratches a bit at any anti-car jeremiad, especially when written by academics in a New York City State of Mind.
To put the missing truth in a nutshell: cars suck, but they’re often indispensably useful. It’s all well and good to praise the wonders of mass transit. But as someone who essentially lives on mass transit right now, and has in the past done so for years at a time, there’s a lamentable fact about it that anti-car ideologues tend to shove under the rug: mass transit sucks, too, and sucks far too much to be easily fixed.
The authors tells us that “no combination of apps and cloud based solutions” can solve the problems of car culture. I believe them. But the same thing is more obviously true of mass transit. No combination of apps, cloud-based solutions, or well-imagined proposals for “massive funding” or “dramatic improvements” etc. will solve the problems of American mass transit, either. And yet a wholesale attack on mass transit would elicit a very different reaction from the readership of the Times than one on The Mythology of the American Freedom Machine Traversing the Open Roads.
I live in New Jersey, and “mass transit” here means New Jersey Transit. The axiom about New Jersey Transit is that it’s a kind of anti-fascist transit system: if Mussolini, the Ur-fascist, made the trains run on time, New Jersey Transit makes sure that they don’t. And the less said of Amtrak, the better.
Praise of mass transit tends, in American liberal discourse anyway, to have a powerfully counterfactual air, the invocation of a just-so story that’s always more a flight of utopian fancy than description of actual or probable fact. We could get rid of cars, we’re told, if only mass transit were conceived and funded and run in a drastically different way than it is. Well, yeah. The problem is, this “different way” is not only different than things currently are, but different than things will ever likely be–for reasons that are only too obvious to anyone who knows the geography of this country, the logistical requirements of getting from point A to point B in it, and the politics of funding anything.
I won’t try to give you an exhaustive enumeration of why I think cars are useful. I think it’s sufficient to leave you with the following very short list that came to me within about three minutes of thought.
- There are lots of places that, for obvious economic or logistical reasons, mass transit will never service, and yet, are places to which one might legitimately want to go. One of these, in my case, is my wife’s grave, which I have never seen because, lacking a car, it’s either impossible or formidably expensive to reach.
- Mass transit is, from an individual’s perspective, enormously wasteful of one’s time. The same trip that could take 30 minutes by car might well take two hours by mass transit. Multiply those trips, and that’s a lot of time killed. What I’m describing here is my daily commute, which involves a round trip of about 40 miles, but takes about four hours to traverse.
- Some ordinary activities, like grocery shopping, are far more difficult on foot or by mass transit than they are by car. Try to go shopping for a family of four at a grocery store maybe a mile away without a car. Now imagine doing it in the rain, with the temperature at 40 degrees, and winds blowing 15 mph from the north. I’m describing current weather conditions.
- It’s a lamentable but inescapable fact that we don’t live in a pedestrian-friendly country, and are not about to do so anytime soon. You can have a destination in mind that’s an easy walk as the crow flies, and yet be impossible to reach on foot, if only because no one reading this is a crow: getting to your “nearby destination” may well require crossing roadways that can’t be crossed except by courting death. I know immigrant laborers who have no choice but to do this sort of thing on a daily basis. They do it, not because it’s fun or otherwise sensible, but because it beats living in their countries of origin, where the probabilities of suffering violent death are even higher.
- Many people have physical disabilities that prevent them from getting anywhere except by car. Asked to choose between walking, riding ADA-compliant mass transit, or driving, they might reasonably choose driving. It is, I’d think, hard to argue with that.
You can’t write intelligently about cars and wish all of this away. Granted, the authors don’t literally wish it away. But they don’t explicitly acknowledge it, either.
I realize that one could dream of ways in which to remedy all of these defects in the direction of a less car-centered culture. I dream of them myself, and heartily applaud all the dreamers engaged in the same dreamy activity. But we may as well admit it: we’re not likely to realize our carless dreams anytime soon. In the meantime, we need to get places. Therefore many of us need cars. QED.
What we also need much more than dreamwork about a carless future is hard thought about how to negotiate our way through our car-centered present. How do we reconcile fair policing with the kind of traffic enforcement that’s necessary to deter bad driving? How do we get people to drive more safely, but assertively exercise their rights when stopped by the police? How do we get the cops to feel safe in performing their duties without resorting to abuses of power? How do we start, at the margins, to chip away at car culture without indulging in idle fantasies of an America that runs, not on Dunkin Donuts, but on mass transit? That’s the Guest Essay I’d like to read.
Why don’t I write it myself? Because I lack the time to write very much any more. Try writing anything worth reading on the train.
I sent the post above to Andrew Ross and Julie Livingston, the authors of the Times essay, and got a nearly immediate response from Ross, who granted some of my criticisms, but pointed out that there were limits to what they could say within the space constraints of an op-ed piece. Ross: “I direct you to our book, where we you will find much more, and some of it relates directly to your criticisms, which are well taken.” That seems fair enough. If I can get to it, I’ll “review” the book here.
By sheer coincidence, I noticed yesterday in a bookstore that Ross is the author of Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Palestine.
The last time I was in Palestine, in 2019, a Palestinian friend mentioned these “stone men” to me. It occurred to me at the time that the topic was worth a book. Evidently, two years after that conversation, Ross wrote one.