When it comes to economic opportunities and personal freedom, the automobile remains supreme

My 2018 Chevy Volt: A thing of beauty.

California officials have declared war on the individual automobile and the single family home. The former is the bugaboo of environmental correctness; the latter, we’re told, the source of economic and racial inequality. In reality, like politicians and activists around the country California’s political class has declared war on prosperity. They’ve also signaled their opposition to economic opportunities for low income and immigrant Californians.

As with the Soviet central planners who are their political mater and paterfamilias, at the core of the new Utopians’ schemes are densely populated cities connected and interconnected by transit systems and encircled by open space. The Central Committee had its imperious Moscow Metro and V.I. Lenin Leningrad Metro systems; the politburo in Sacramento will have their light rail and (some day) bullet train. For that matter, at least the Communists 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.

The fact is that in the vast majority of American cities and towns reliance on mass transit, much less cycling and walking, as one’s primary means of getting around 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 and lower income people (often one and the same) that secondhand car or truck, while expensive, is their central economic lifeline. A 2018 UCLA study commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) notes that over the last 15 years in the region “vehicle ownership has grown particularly sharply among subgroups most likely to use transit, such as the low-income and the foreign born from Latin America.” Moreover, “compared to Americans at large, the poor use transit more but like it less. The typical low-income rider wants to graduate to automobiles, while the typical driver might view transit positively but have little interest in using it.” And, “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.

A 2010 paper in the journal Urban Geography, reached the same conclusion: “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 implicitly 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 helped lift 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 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, “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 public 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” (it’s quite ironic that bike activists want to precisely reverse this arrangement). 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 landscaping 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. These are folks for whom riding a fixie to their start-up in San Francisco every morning is a virtue-signaling lifestyle choice.

Yet the Utopians want to eliminate cars for the rest of us. 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. No matter the mode, transit generally takes twice as long as driving.

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 traffic and 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 have seen the enemy, and it is us. At least those of us who wish to travel and live 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.

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