When it comes to freedom and prosperity the automobile remains supreme

My Chevy Volt: A thing of beauty, a work of art.

Democrat Party presidential aspirants are falling over each other on their race leftward like the reporters at the end of Airplane! Newly-minted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has unveiled (albeit bumblingly) a Green New Deal.

But for the real avant-garde, as always we must look to California. Officials statewide have all but declared war on the individual automobile, and by extension the single family home. The former is the bugaboo of environmental correctness; the latter, we’re told, the source of economic and racial inequality.

As with the Soviet central planners who are their political mater and paterfamilias, at the core of the new Utopianism are schemes for densely populated cities connected and interconnected by grandiose transit systems and encircled by federal open space. The Central Committee had its imperious Moscow Metro and V.I. Lenin Leningrad Metro systems; the politburo in Sacramento will have its bullet train and light rail. For that matter, at least the Reds did their transit in style, compared to the post-apocalyptic hellholes of systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A metro station in a repressive, impoverished dictatorship where people had no hope.
A metro station in the richest nation in human history, where opportunity is everywhere.

Mass transit limits economic opportunity. Consider a recent immigrant from Mexico trying to gain a foothold in his new land. His first job likely will require him to travel considerable distances. He may find work as a gardener, a field worker, a day laborer. At first he’ll be dependent on others to get around, so he’ll hook up with workers who already have vehicles. Then, at the earliest possible time he’ll purchase a second- or third-hand car or truck of his own, and like that the gates of opportunity will open wider: In that vehicle he can visit multiple work sites every day, haul around his equipment, and transport others to work sites. He can supplement his income with odd jobs (go to any Home Depot and out front you’ll see the guys with their pickups offering hauling and removal services).

For millions of immigrants that secondhand car or truck, while expensive, is their central economic lifeline. That’s true of lower income people generally. According to a 2010 paper in the journal Urban Geography, “studies of mostly welfare populations have suggested that while public transportation is not unimportant, the automobile is a critical factor in moving from welfare to work.” (emphasis added) Indeed, even the Utopians acknowledge this fact, which is why states like California issue driver licenses to illegal immigrants and soften requirements such as registration fees for low income people.

To you and me, an old Chevy. To a recent immigrant, hope.

The individual automobile has been the single biggest driver (pardon the pun) of economic prosperity in the last 100 years, unlocking opportunities simply unknown to past eras. After World War II the auto industry lifted tens of millions into the middle class. They bought cars, built cars, sold cars, and repaired cars. Families were able to move away from crowded, dirty urban cores to the space and affordability of the suburbs. By the 1950s the automobile was as central to Americans’ identity as baseball and rock and roll.

The car also was central to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. In his landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal observed of black America, “the coming of the cheap automobile has meant for Southern Negroes, who can afford one, a partial emancipation from Jim Crowism.” Travel by car overcame the segregation blacks endured on buses, trolleys, and trains. Sociologist Arthur Raper, studying race in rural Georgia in 1936, noted that “opportunities provided by the automobile provide a basis for a new mobility for whites as well as Negroes, based upon personal standards rather than upon community mores–upon which the individual wants to do rather than what the community does not want him to do.” Behind the wheel, southern blacks discovered a freedom unknown on public conveyances. The “green book” travel guide indexed service stations, restaurants, and inns that would serve them, further weakening Jim Crow. During the Civil Rights Movement both black and white activists devised an ingenious – and completely autonomous – transportation system based on individual vehicles.

To this day there simply is no comparison between cars and transit in terms of economic mobility and personal freedom. Consider again our recent immigrant. He’s not going to be carrying his equipment on a Metro bus or a bicycle. It’s a personal vehicle or nothing. Indeed, the cohorts that most support transit are overwhelmingly white, college-educated Millennials and Boomers (thankfully the religion skipped much of my generation, Gen X). These are folks for whom riding a fixie to their start-up every morning is a lifestyle choice.

Yet the Utopians want to eliminate cars. They want everyone on trains, buses, bikes, and their own two feet. Of course they never explain how manual laborers will get to work, how a worker living in Pacoima will get to her housekeeping gig in Brentwood. They cannot account for the lost hours spent walking to, waiting for, riding on, and walking from the bus or train.

What’s more, assume for a moment cars and transit are equal. It still will take decades to build out systems, along with the dense housing they’re supposed to serve. Yet already policymakers are acting as though the whole thing is a fait accompli, so they’re removing car lanes everywhere you look. In this way they are putting the cart precisely before the horse, expanding transit before the built environment exists to support it. The vast majority of Angelenos, for example, still have to drive everywhere. The result is gridlock at an historic scale and with it billions in lost economic activity and, ironically, increased emissions and pollution. So much for the Green New Deal.

Never mind, though, for the Utopians in Sacramento have seen the enemy, and it is us. At least those of us who wish to go where we want, when we want, and how we want. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, best of luck taking transit to your favorite trailhead.

What remains to be seen is whether society will accept their increasingly draconian diktats, or if California will experience its own version of perestroika and restore some sanity. Nothing less than freedom is at stake.


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