To the Editor:
I think James Q. Wilson [“Cars and Their Enemies,” July] protests too much. It is hard to see what the point of his carless-nation scenario is when no one of any consequence advocates it. One need not be a “car-hater” to entertain the idea that there is something slightly out of balance in our transportation system.
Mr. Wilson’s paranoid fear of a nonexistent campaign to “eliminate” cars belies a curious strain of modern conservatism that worships highways, cars, airplanes, buses, and jitneys, but hates railroads, subways, streetcars, cities, towns, and urban life in general.
Many conservatives loathe cities and everything associated with them simply because they have been run by liberal mayors and councils for the last 50 years. In a way it is hard to blame them. But it is no accident of history that the golden age of cities and railroads in America coincided with the golden age of capitalism, wealth creation, and individualism. Conversely, it is not mere coincidence that the rise of the interstate-highway system followed the New Deal and paralleled the postwar growth of government and the decline of values. Conservatives would do well not to abandon institutions simply because they have been coopted and perverted by the Left.
Underlying this paranoid view is the baseless assumption that the supremacy of the automobile in American life is due to the free interplay of market forces. Mr. Wilson casually dismisses the argument that public policies “make auto use more attractive than the alternatives,” but the federal government has been a huge player in creating the transportation and life-style options that consumers face today.
Mr. Wilson makes all the usual arguments in favor of a car-only society: that cars are flexible, that you can drive anywhere from anywhere. These arguments are true if and only if you have built roads all over the place. Spend enough of other people’s money on the appropriate infrastructure, and any transportation method will be convenient, fast, and marginally cheap.
The vast majority of American drivers spend their time on six-lane arterials, surrounded by fast-food joints and gas stations, lining up in protected turning lanes for three or four light cycles, just to make a left. And this routine is repeated for every aspect of life: going to work, taking the kids to soccer practice, picking up a quart of milk, or going out to a bar or restaurant. Because of the type of development Mr. Wilson favors, cars are no longer “about the joyous sensation of driving on beautiful country roads.”
The evolution of development always goes through the same stages. First, homes sprout up alongside the country road. Then full-fledged developments open up. More people follow, and when a critical mass is reached, the fast-food joints, convenience stores, condos, and town houses are not far behind. The two-lane blacktop road, which was fine for the occasional car and farmer’s tractor, is now woefully inadequate at handling rush-hour traffic. Road widening, straightening, and traffic lights follow, and it’s bye-bye, country road.
It is deliciously ironic that as Mr. Wilson was writing his article, he tells us, his wife was attempting to “prevent a nearby land development,” desperately trying to preserve their style of life at the expense of other people’s property rights. It won’t be long before they are moving to the next new suburb, one step ahead of the masses.
For the record, I own a full-size ’88 Dodge pickup and an ’88 Acura Legend with leather seats. I love both of them, and cannot imagine life without them. But I still wish there were some other way to get from downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania, to downtown New York City without spending two harrowing hours on Interstate 80, where most drivers feel that an appropriate following distance is one foot for every ten miles per hour.
Paul S. Mansour
To the Editor:
I do not know what sort of suburbs James Q. Wilson lived in while his children were growing up, but his description suggests that they had the gridded or semi-gridded street networks, the close connection between residential and commercial districts, and the walkability typical of suburbs built between the two world wars.
One cannot say the same for most post-World War II suburban developments. The car is not entirely to blame for this; misguided theories about land use also played a significant role. But the convenience, efficiency, and flexibility of the car did lead builders, designers, and transportation engineers to produce communities that are easily traversable by car—but by no other means. Such an arrangement may not diminish community activity as much as the critics say it does, but it does diminish the opportunities that exist in walkable communities for chance contacts among residents, which help cement neighborhood ties, and for the type of direct surveillance by residents that enhances safety and security.
More importantly, the freedom of action for those who cannot drive is severely restricted, or eliminated entirely. Most of us can probably recall, as children, walking to a park, playground, or neighbor’s house for unorganized play. In the autocentric suburb, children must be chauffeured to organized recreational activities.
It is these aspects of life and community in the automobile-age suburb that the urbanist critics of the car find so disagreeable. The arguments in favor of the car as a means of transportation do nothing to address these criticisms.
To the Editor:
As someone with great respect and admiration for James Q. Wilson, I knew that the best thing I could do after he criticized the anti-suburban piece that I wrote for the Weekly Standard would be to go back to my article and see where I had gone wrong. In doing so, I realized that I had mistakenly given the impression that I hate cars. As someone who dreams of owning a BMW convertible and who as a child spent six hours every weekend driving to and from the eastern shore of Maryland with my family, this could not be further from the truth.
What I failed to make clear in my article, “The New Conservative Attack on the Suburbs,” is that the modern suburb, simply by its design, has had a deleterious effect on the civic life and mental health of our country, and that the problem has little to do with cars. While it is true that suburbs make us overly dependent on automobiles, and this has a high cost, the real damage caused by suburbs is the loss of public spaces that once fostered community and filled lives with a degree of meaning and happiness. The tragedy is that, had we not adopted dumb zoning regulations, we could have had both cars and community. Kentlands, the neotraditional town in Maryland with schools, shopping, and playgrounds within walking distance, as well as upper-middle-class families with two cars, is proof of that.
As Mr. Wilson probably remembers, America was once a place of cities and small towns. These were places built to human scale, with stores, bars, dance halls, and other hubs of community life within walking distance or reachable by public transportation. In his wonderful book, The Great Good Place: Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg explored the deep spiritual, social, and political benefits of such “third places,” which have been largely replaced by shopping malls and ersatz third places like Borders and Starbucks.
In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, the late Christopher Lasch took up Oldenburg’s idea, explaining that third places can be considered even more vital to democracy than the neighborhood associations Mr. Wilson’s wife zips to—no doubt in her minivan, the suburban assault vehicle of choice. Here is how Lasch described Oldenburg’s idea:
The home of good talk is the third place—a meeting ground midway between the workplace and the family. . . . You can expect to find a core of regulars at the third place, but you also meet casual acquaintances and complete strangers. . . . It is this admixture of involuntary association that gives the third places a quasi-political character. In this milieu, recognition has to be achieved through force of character instead of being conferred by your achievements, let alone by the size of your bank account. . . .
I understand that I am something of a zealot and a dreamer on this issue, but I cannot help thinking that the return to traditional values conservatives hunger for could be precipitated by a return to small-town planning. As Lasch noted, when neighbors know one another through frequent contact in third places, it fosters conscience, “the inner voice that asks what the guys would think.” I believe that it is possible to get back to such an America.
Mark Gauvreau Judge
To the Editor:
The most implacable enemies of the car are suburban motorists themselves. To be sure, they welcome more highways, wider highways, more urban amenities to drive to, and an abundance of parking spaces at all these destinations. But none of these in their own neighborhoods, if you please; that would violate the sanctity of single-family, detached, residential zoning. Ferocious urban traffic wars have impelled the shift to hierarchical street layouts, in which through traffic is channeled onto arterials, and winding local streets finally exhaust themselves in culs-de-sac and dead ends.
With considerably fewer connections than in traditional grid layouts, the strict segregation of nonresidential uses, and steadily declining development densities, daily itineraries often become small odysseys, and modes of transportation that do not depend on the auto have been progressively disadvantaged.
The unintended consequences of these car-related changes in living patterns have ranged from the extinction of the paper boy in most urban areas to a national obesity rate (38 percent of adults) among the highest in the world. Welfare-to-work clients and people who cannot or should not drive often confront formidable transportation dilemmas, and the home-and-hearth images conjured up by the euphemism “homemaker” belie the tireless shuttling of soccer moms and kiddy car-pool queens.
Briefly interrupting his hymn of automotive rapture to address pesky safety concerns, Mr. Wilson reassures us that motor-vehicle fatalities have continued to decline for years. In fact, the low point was reached in 1992; the annual toll has since increased steadily. By 1995, deaths were up 6 percent, injuries up 10 percent. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the fatality rate per vehicle mile has remained about the same; Americans are simply driving many more miles.
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson’s assault on those who see the downside of the automobile strikes me as extreme. To criticize the car culture is to question the car’s dominance over our lives and landscape and the excesses of the auto age. It is to insist on a better way of life than taking a ton of rolling wheel and steel to buy a quart of milk. Despite Mr. Wilson’s “Ah, Wilderness!” ode, only 8 percent of the miles we travel take us on the scenic idyll he describes. The commute accounts for 22 percent, while the bulk of our mileage goes for shopping and chauffeuring. Hardly joyrides.
Instead of facing the reality of our subservience to the automobile, Mr. Wilson trivializes the toll the car takes overall—120 fatalities a day, half our global warming, the destruction of the habitat—as well as the 40 hours a year each of us spends stuck in traffic, and the erosion of the quality of life and the community, which stems from the car-bred sprawl.
As for the failure of alternatives to the automobile: Mr. Wilson manages vastly to overstate the ills of public transportation. The odds of a transit strike are far below the chance of congestion, breakdowns, crashes. To call a society that spends seven times as much on highways as on mass transit “relentlessly” rail-minded is absurd. Highway subsidies undermine non-automated mobility—walking, biking, busing—as well as rail transportation.
We pay for the car with federal taxes and local property taxes; we subsidize its turf, the suburbs, with tax-deductible, single-family mortgages. The cost increases when we add incidentals like spending $100 billion a year, half our military budget, for oil interests in the Persian Gulf. Then factor in, if you will, the $6,500 a year per car in personal costs and the $4,000 on social and environmental ones.
By distorting the 100 pages in my book, Asphalt Nation, devoted to solutions, in which I detail how to achieve walkable main streets, flowering smaller cities, inner suburbs, rural areas, etc., and by demonizing cities, Mr. Wilson sets up a strawman—or a straw high-rise city—as the only style of car-free living. Not so. Whatever the Southern California mentality, density comes in many forms, from the middle-income, three-decker to affluent North Beach or Georgetown housing.
“Imagine the country we now inhabit” without cars, Mr. Wilson observes. Imagine it with cars curbed, critics retort. Imagine Mr. Wilson’s neighbors not needing to organize to fix an intersection; not needing to stop highway-funded sprawl. Imagine more creative and truly “neighborly” meetings. Imagine walking, trolleying, bicycling, ferrying, or shuttling and busing with good service. In return, this advocate of alternatives will imagine driving to view Southern California’s splendors. But let’s book our trip soon, Mr. Wilson: the hard-toppers are coming.
Jane Holtz Kay
To the Editor:
While heading to Brooklyn via the subway, I was much diverted by James Q. Wilson’s paean to the automobile. Among Mr. Wilson’s more telling remarks is an idea put forth as merely parenthetical:
A great failing of the intellectual life of this country is that so much of it is centered in Manhattan, where one finds the highest concentration of non-drivers in the country.
The shortcomings of Manhattan intellect aside, can we explain Manhattan’s untoward influence by the fact that its thoughts arise from the ranks of non-drivers? The answer, I believe, is yes. Consider that if I had been driving to Brooklyn, I would have been able to read Mr. Wilson’s article only during traffic jams, and even on the Brooklyn-Queens expressway these are not of sufficient duration to do justice to his thoughtful piece.
James L. Wunsch
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
As an immigrant to the U.S. from Europe, I can attest firsthand to the expansion of opportunities the car affords. For those who do not live or work close to it, mass transit is inconvenient at best and impossible at worst.
But bus systems, although not mentioned in the article, could attract riders if existing regulations were removed. Most bus systems are incapable of responding to consumer demand because they are strictly controlled by local governments and frequently restricted to one provider who may be required to pay union wages.
Rather than subways, high-frequency minibus service by competitive providers is a more appropriate form of public transportation for today’s far-flung neighborhoods. It is estimated that illegal minibuses carry 40,000 to 60,000 riders a day in the New York City area, where government regulation has made public transportation an oxymoron.
American Enterprise Institute
To the Editor:
I am not among those who “dislike everything the car stands for and everything that society constructs to serve the needs of its occupants.” I am, rather, one of those libertarians to whom James Q. Wilson refers in the beginning of his article, and I am offended by his belief that the automobile is somehow a bastion of free-market devices. We as a nation can argue endlessly about the social benefits of automobiles (and we have so argued!), but the only way to determine the truth is to let people choose their mode of transportation in a free market.
I suggest that we relieve the government of its highway investment. We can start with the interstates and finish with state highways as soon as we can find buyers. If people were truly willing to pay the costs of their cars, they should be glad to be free of red tape and poor government management and should be happy to pay their way through tolls. If, for some reason, a buyer could not be found for a particular road, that would mean only that it should not have been built, since the cost of its maintenance exceeds what people are willing to pay to use it.
So let us begin as soon as possible. We will repeal the gas tax, thus freeing people to spend as much or as little on auto transport as they wish. If, however, we want to keep the gas tax and have some private company administer construction of roads, we must also allow all money which has been collected in taxes from railroads over the last 150 years to be spent constructing and maintaining rail rights-of-way. In addition, I assume that we will be removing our military from foreign lands so that we can pay the true market value for oil. Of course, private road owners would be expected to provide their own law enforcers and courts to handle speeding and accident claims.
Finally, I trust that we will begin charging for automobile pollution on a cost-mass basis. That is, if you emit x pounds of pollutants a year, you pay y dollars. This could easily be accomplished by selling pollution credits, which the government would auction off once and for all. After this, the trading of pollution credits would be governed only by the free market. In this way, companies could make reasonable decisions as to whether or not it is in their best interest to reduce their level of pollution. The same would be true for car owners.
The point of this exercise is to make it clear that the largest socialist program in the history of civilization—the construction of the American highway system—has caused significant damage to the freedom of individuals in this country.
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson’s excellent article suffers from one critical omission. Although he mentions the possibility of people driving “at different prices, depending on the level of congestion,” he fails to point out that many of the problems associated with cars arise from the way governments run the roads. Poor pricing, congestion, neglect of maintenance, and indifference to consumer needs are typical of the “command economy” everywhere.
As an engineer and transport economist whose books include Paying for the Roads: The Economics of Traffic Congestion and Roads in a Market Economy, let me say that if roads were provided on a commercial basis, with prices reflecting costs and demand and investment based on profitability, many of the problems associated with cars would become more manageable.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
James Q. Wilson writes:
My central argument about cars is easily repeated: the great majority of people want one for perfectly understandable reasons. Though there are some external costs, such as pollution, for which they should help pay, a democratic government will supply the roads on which cars can operate and market-oriented builders will furnish the homes and offices that make car use especially convenient.
I think this is a rather modest statement of a nearly self-evident truth. Now look at how my critics respond. Paul S. Mansour calls me “paranoid” and is upset that the government has subsidized the car. (What else should it have done?) Sandy Smith complains that the “convenience, efficiency, and flexibility of the car” led builders to produce communities that can only be traversed by car. (What else were they supposed to do?) Mark Gauvreau Judge supplies an answer—revive “small-town planning.” What is small-town planning? It must be a good thing, because Dwight Kingsbury thinks that cars are responsible for national obesity, the extinction of the paper boy, and the terrible burdens faced by soccer moms. And Jane Holtz Kay adds to this list (each item, of course, unsupported by facts): “half our global warming, the destruction of the habitat [and being] stuck in traffic.” Oh, and we spend too much on “oil interests in the Persian Gulf.” James L. Wunsch slyly notes that only because he was riding on a subway did he find the time to read my essay. Obviously, subways must be a great thing.
To all of them I can only repeat: what you want is not what people want, here or abroad. Jane Holtz Kay especially cannot lift her eyes to Europe to see what happens in nations that have massively taxed gasoline and heavily subsidized trains: the people there are buying and using cars in record numbers. Most of my critics believe in planning by experts. Fine. But in hoping for it, they should remember what real planners, as opposed to theoretical ones, actually do. Among other things, they ban, as Diana Furchtgott-Roth points out, market-oriented bus services, insisting instead that only “authorized” drivers with either monopoly bus routes or expensive taxi medallions can transport people for pay.
Joel Hiltner and Gabriel Roth have a different view. Let the market determine what roads will be built and how much drivers should pay to use them. There is much that is correct in their view, but I think Mr. Hiltner neglects a problem with his relentlessly libertarian approach: he wants to create a society in which only he and a few of his like-minded comrades could live. Private law enforcement? Private courts? No military stationed overseas? Perhaps he should discuss this with Jane Holtz Kay. Then they can vote.
And, Mr. Judge, my wife does not drive a minivan. Never has, never will.