Dynamist Blog

More Important than Glamorous Bloggers

Amid all the blogger self-obsession over the NYTM's cover story, John Tierney's far more substantive and significant article on automobility has been ignored. That's too bad, because it's not only a great overview of the policy issues but a good read. So read it. Here's a small sample:

Americans still love their own cars, but they're sick of everyone else's. The car is blamed for everything from global warming to the war in Iraq to the transformation of America into a land of strip malls and soulless subdivisions filled with fat, lonely suburbanites. Al Gore called the automobile a "mortal threat" that is "more deadly than that of any military enemy." Cities across America, with encouragement from Washington, are adopting "smart growth" policies to discourage driving and promote mass transit. Three years ago, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new freeway just outside Los Angeles, Gov. Gray Davis declared that it would be the last one built in the state. Standing at the cradle of car culture, he said it was time to find other ways to move people.

I sympathize with the critics, because I don't like even my own car. For most of my adult life I didn't even own one. I lived in Manhattan and pitied the suburbanites driving to the mall. When I moved to Washington and joined their ranks, I picked a home in smart-growth heaven, near a bike path and a subway station. Most days I skate or bike downtown, filled with righteous Schadenfreude as I roll past drivers stuck in traffic. The rest of the time I usually take the subway, and on the rare day I go by car, I hate the drive.

But I no longer believe that my tastes should be public policy. I've been converted by a renegade school of thinkers you might call the autonomists, because they extol the autonomy made possible by automobiles. Their school includes engineers and philosophers, political scientists like James Q. Wilson and number-crunching economists like Randal O'Toole, the author of the 540-page manifesto "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths." These thinkers acknowledge the social and environmental problems caused by the car but argue that these would not be solved -- in fact, would be mostly made worse -- by the proposals coming from the car's critics. They call smart growth a dumb idea, the result not of rational planning but of class snobbery and intellectual arrogance. They prefer to promote smart driving, which means more tolls, more roads and, yes, more cars.

Drawing on authorities ranging from Aristotle to Walt Whitman, the autonomists argue that the car is not merely a convenience but one of history's greatest forces for good, an invention that liberated the poor from slums and workers from company towns, challenged communism, powered the civil rights movement and freed women to work outside the home. Their arguments have given me new respect for my minivan. I still don't like driving it, but now when the sound system is blaring "Thunder Road" -- These two lanes will take us aaanywhere -- I think Bruce Springsteen got it right. There is redemption beneath that dirty hood.

My friend and former boss Bob Poole, father of HOT lanes and popularizer of all sorts of toll systems (and, interestingly, a major train fan), is mentioned.

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