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    car lights on a dark wet road

    Who Needs a Car?

    When luxuries become necessities, it’s too late to turn back.

    By Addison Del Mastro

    June 10, 2024

    Sometime in the mid-to-late twentieth century, the box fan began to disappear as the standard means of cooling a home. Before widespread central air conditioning, box fans were sturdy, heavy mechanical marvels. Many were all-steel construction, including the blades, which usually numbered five. These blades were steeply angled to produce greater airflow, which in turn required a heavy, powerful motor. The most advanced models were electrically reversible, meaning that they could go from pushing old air out to pulling fresh air in, with the flip of a switch. Even the cheapest models – the big-box or department-store brands rather than the Lakewoods or General Electrics – were more powerful than any diminutive, flimsy box fan on the market today.

    What happened? Cheap air conditioning made it increasingly unnecessary to ventilate or cool with fans. Expensive, top-of-the-line box fans became redundant or obsolete. Over time, they shrunk, and today all of them are smaller and lighter than even a K-Mart model from the 1970s.

    But not every building or home has central air, or windows that can easily accept a window AC unit. Most middle-class Americans today probably think box fans are for generating airflow in damp basements or cooling off freshman dorm rooms. But for the families living in old buildings or houses without AC, it is no longer possible to buy a really good fan. The advancement and affordability of a superior technology has made a small but non-zero number of people worse off.

    The same thing happened with cassette tape players, CD players, and VCRs. The last cassette tape transport mechanism made anywhere in the world is a Chinese clone of a budget Japanese design, used for low-end boom boxes or portable players. The last VCRs on the market were flimsy, plasticky models – some of which literally had corners cut, sporting fat T-shaped cases to save material in the interior areas that didn’t house any guts of the machine.

    As a product category becomes obsolescent, it is usually the highest-end models that disappear from the market first. That is probably because the consumers who can afford that high-end version are the same ones who become early adopters of the newest innovation. The bottom rung of the old category, however, persists.

    Something similar has happened with the car and what it has replaced – at a far larger and more consequential scale – but it is harder to discern because there is not some single obsolescent technology that has stuck around in a degraded state to serve the bottom of the market. Rather, the car has deteriorated conditions for those without it and outside it, whether through risks to pedestrians, or through pollution, urban highways, or infrastructure and design based on the assumption that “visitor” and “customer” necessarily mean “motorist.” It is frequently dirty, dangerous, and simply unpleasant to meaningfully get around without a car in most of America today.

    car lights on a dark wet road

    Photograph by Flow Clark / Unsplash.

    The broken or missing sidewalks, the uncrossable expressways, the gutted cities, the strip malls that border housing developments but cannot be walked to, the unsheltered stops where a bus may stop once an hour, the thousands of grisly, violent cyclist and pedestrian deaths that are written off as a cost of doing business – these are the junky VCRs and boom boxes, the lousy box fans. The car has deteriorated carless life in a diffuse and multifaceted way, in the same manner that the smartphone has deteriorated non-digital life. QR code menus, online reservations, the general expectation of connectivity: these developments leave those without them worse off than they were before.

    In the case of cars and their associated land use, however, the high end of the old market has not completely disappeared. Depending on their condition, old-fashioned, pre-car urban neighborhoods are widely viewed as being either for the very poor or the very rich. Perhaps it’s not contradictory. In one case, it’s the kid who couldn’t afford a CD player and gets by with his scratched-up records and ceramic-cartridge record player welded atop a busted double-cassette deck. In the other case, it’s the audiophile who thinks he can distinguish between the audio output of a $10,000 turntable and a $20,000 one.

    The car has effectively rendered the traditional city obsolete. Or to put it slightly differently, the car is not backward-compatible with the city. You cannot stick cars in old cities any more than you can stick a CD in your cassette player. And so the old cities went (at least in America and most places). Urban renewal was a revolutionary phenomenon aimed at retrofitting a traditionally urban landscape for easy motoring. It was evil, but there was little mens rea in it. The planners and businessmen who demolished our historic cities no more understood themselves to be committing a great crime than did the consumers who chucked their faded old tube sets for sleek LCD televisions.

    But then, perhaps, neither did the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks.

    Russell Kirk, America’s ur-conservative thinker, wrote very little about the car, but he did, in 1962, dub it a “mechanical Jacobin,” a “revolutionary the more powerful for being insensate.” While he references the social changes wrought by the automobile – alleging, not incorrectly, that it altered “courting customs” – he also discerned its effects on preexisting urban patterns.

    Kirk noted in the same brief essay that “other lands lack the space and adaptability of America, so that the popular automobile may destroy the beautiful cities of Europe and the pattern of centuries of civilization,” predicting a day when “Venice is drained to admit Vespas and Volkswagens.” (That, at least, has not come to pass.) Much of “urban renewal” had already unfolded by the early 1960s, and, if anything, Kirk’s reference to America’s “space and adaptability” downplayed just how drastically the car had altered American cities.

    Kirk’s amusing line might seem like nothing more than a quaint, cranky footnote, a scarce right-wing argument against the new, and one that is in any case almost absent from conservatism today. But his basic insight was also discerned by two thinkers of very different ideological persuasions.

    In 1973, the Marxist philosopher André Gorz penned “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar,” breaking down just what sort of thing the automobile really was. He understood, for example, that traffic congestion was inherent in mass motoring, not a function merely of insufficient road capacity: “Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one.”

    Gorz noted that development scaled to the car merely puts amenities back in reach of people just as they were before the car, though with less distance involved: “The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary.”

    For Gorz, the legacy city was fundamentally incompatible with the car, or perhaps more correctly the other way around: “If the car is to prevail, there’s still one solution: get rid of the cities. That is, string them out for hundreds of miles along enormous roads, making them into highway suburbs.”

    And he discerned a certain misanthropy that is almost inherent in the act of driving: “Mass motoring … gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. Take the cruel and aggressive selfishness of the driver who at any moment is figuratively killing the ‘others,’ who appear merely as physical obstacles to his or her own speed.”

    But the most pointed line in his essay is this one, capturing the frequent dreariness and loneliness of driving in more analytical terms: “In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes.”

    Gorz understood, in other words, that there was something collective and social about the car – though in effect atomizing and antisocial. The widespread adoption of the car becomes, at some point, a process one cannot simply opt out of, because it is not possible to introduce mass car ownership and hold everything else constant. Below the level of the society or community, the ability to choose breaks down. This is true for those who do not choose to drive, as much as for those who do.

    Curiously enough, Ivan Illich was, along with Gorz, Austrian. But unlike Gorz, Illich was a Roman Catholic priest as well as a political philosopher and social critic. In the same era, Illich wrote a similar set of critiques of the automobile.

    In Energy and Equity, Illich observed the visible ways in which the car promoted freedom of movement while also invisibly restricting it:

    As soon as people become tributaries of transport, not just when they travel for several days, but also on their daily trips, the contradictions between social justice and motorized power, between effective movement and higher speed, between personal freedom and engineered routing, become poignantly clear. Enforced dependence on auto-mobile machines then denies a community of self-propelled people just those values supposedly procured by improved transportation.

    And Illich understood that this restriction fell particularly on those who could not drive. In other words, by conflating automobility with freedom of movement, car-dependent transportation and land use ultimately infringed on freedom of movement:

    People are born almost equally mobile. Their natural ability speaks for the personal liberty of each one to go wherever he or she wants to go. Citizens of a society founded on the notion of equity will demand the protection of this right against any abridgment. It should be irrelevant to them by what means the exercise of personal mobility is denied, whether by imprisonment, bondage to an estate, revocation of a passport, or enclosure within an environment that encroaches on a person’s native ability to move.

    The automobile is not only not congruent with freedom of movement, but it is in some respects at odds with it. Like many other technological advancements, it throws up a barrier to entry, by increasing scale, complexity, and expense.

    And Illich sees the same thing as Gorz, but distills it even more purely: “Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few.” (One could quibble over the meaning of “a few,” given that most Americans are now motorists. But nonetheless, the insight holds.)

    In addition to philosophical currents in the air, the communitarian ethos of Catholic social teaching likely influenced Illich, and Marxist class and power analysis certainly influenced Gorz. Kirk, though a convert to Catholicism, came at this from a very different angle, not least because he was a Midwestern American.

    Notably, these essays do not read as ideological or old-fashioned today. They do not come across as lurid or alarmist like the pop-scientific commentary of the era: The Population Bomb or Future Shock. And they have not been rendered quaint, or simply wrong, by the passage of time. Rather, they possess a striking clarity as to the nature of the automobile’s impact on society and its potential to entrench inequalities. That clarity was perhaps easier to channel in the early 1970s, when it was still possible to view the car as the revolutionary device that it was. In their own way, Gorz and Illich are saying the same thing that Kirk said. All three are describing, in different language, the same fundamental reality. Forget the nitpicking questions – Why would a Marxist oppose revolution? Aren’t conservatives supposed to like markets and innovation? The important thing is that what these three men wrote many decades ago is true. Whether or not we like it is besides the point.

    What their work conveyed, and what they were able to watch still unfolding, is that we live in a postrevolutionary landscape. Like all successful revolutions, the automobile revolution obliterated the memory of what came before and established itself as a staid, respectable status quo. Some will take this to mean that it was desired – that the car and its landscape are the majority preference, and that only elitists would question it. “We like the car, leave us alone.”

    We? Who voted? Who chose? Did the residents of the urban blocks leveled for commuter expressways choose it? The carless families living in the only housing they can afford, semi-stranded by a landscape that never assumed they would exist? The teenagers and elderly and temporarily and permanently disabled whose ability to move around in the world is not enhanced but circumscribed? There is no we. There are those who can afford and benefit from the car and the vast infrastructure that supports its regular use, and there is everybody on the receiving end.

    There is a sort of philosophical end-user license agreement to which we assent when we climb behind the wheel. That the majority rules; that might makes right; that speed bestows respectability; that mobility is a privilege dependent on one’s income; that consumerism is a civic duty; that freedom of movement demands a sacrifice in blood.

    We thought we were buying a new car, but all these other items came stowed in the trunk. The question is, can they be removed? Or are they an invisible but inherent component? Was the car a fantastic innovation that merely happened to have some unfortunate and avoidable, or at least tolerable side effects, or were we consenting all along to everything that it wrought? Maybe we didn’t want it. But we chose it. And in some sense those are the same thing.

    As with selling one’s soul to the devil, there is always a price to pay. Perhaps it seems unfair, and sprung upon us unexpectedly. But, as we may have suspected, it was there in plain sight all along.

    Contributed By Addison Del Mastro Addison Del Mastro

    Addison Del Mastro writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other issues.

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