Myth: The motor car is the ultimate freedom machine

Myth: The motor car is the ultimate freedom machine

Fact: The ‘freedom’ promised by the motor car is largely illusory. In the 1950s, when roads were empty and people had a choice of alternatives, there might have been something to it. Not so today when car use is compulsory for most of the population and usually involves sitting in traffic jams.

Car dependence and urban sprawl has created a pervasive mythology, as planner Roberta Gratz notes:

Myths emerged to rationalise [urban sprawl]. Market forces shape everything. People love automobiles. Automobiles define freedom. Everyone wants a new house in the suburbs with a lawn. Old houses are out of fashion. No one wants to live in cities. Developers follow the people. You can’t stop progress. And so on. All kernels of truth encased in beds of myth. Simplistically explained, conveniently ignored, totally underestimated, or craftily interpreted are the whole web of government and corporate actions that drive these trends, what environmentalist Henry Richmond….calls the tilt of existing public policy. Today, persistent myths get in the way of small cures.

—Cities Back from the Edge, p.145

The idea that cars define the very idea of freedom is quintessentially American, and the effect of that myth in that country is described by Gratz with reference to the social critic Lewis Mumford:

Lewis Mumford predicted in 1958 that Americans would discover that the highway program will, eventually, wipe out the very area of freedom that the private motorcar promised to retain for them. This warning has come to pass. Today, the car embodies the freedom to wait in traffic. Transportation choices hardly exist. Viable transit systems exist in only a few big cities, service is usually infrequent, inconvenient, and expensive, and is being drastically undermined by fare increases and service cutbacks. Gasoline is one of the few things that are cheaper today in real dollars than 20 years ago. Mass transit travel is many times more expensive. Development patterns make transit travel difficult, even for those who prefer it, and unavailable to most.

—Cities Back from the Edge, p. 163

Urban planner Jeff Speck neatly sums up this erosion of freedom by observing that the motor car is now more like a prosthetic device than the instrument of liberty that it seemed to be in the 1950s. It acts more like a costly crutch that we depend on to live normal lives, than something we can voluntarily use to markedly improve our lives. (And it is far from being the only technology to have evolved in this manner: many would argue smartphones and other digital devices have done likewise.)

Many of the things Gratz and Speck say about car-dependence in American cities also apply to Melbourne. There are many parts of our city, the outer suburbs in particular, where people are denied a free choice between transport modes. It is not that the residents of these suburbs have voluntarily chosen to drive everywhere; rather, the choice has been made for them by transport planners and other government bureaucrats who have systematically distorted transport choices in favour of the car. In present-day Melbourne it’s almost impossible to believe that public transport could provide the same go-anywhere-anytime convenience that we associate with cars:

Roads bring freedom for the individual

Imagine if the advocates of public transport had gained control of our communication system. Instead of picking up the phone whenever you liked to call whomever you liked, you would have to assemble with umpteen others at set times at the closest public phone box where you and they would make a phone call to another public phone box at which all those being rung would have to assemble at another set time….

—Chris Curtis, The Age (Business), 13 February 2006

And yet public transport does compete with the car in many cities of the world, some of them (like Toronto or Vancouver) very much like Melbourne. Chris Curtis’ cynical take on public transport is actually a fair comment on car pools, but bears no resemblance to public transport in the places where it’s actually well used. Public transport planners in these cities understand all too well that the freedom of the individual to travel as they please is paramount, and must be provided for.

Our customer wishes to set off from a place of his own choosing, travel quickly, comfortably, cheaply and in safety to his destination, and arrive there at a time set by himself; nothing else will do.

—H. Brandl, Zurich City Transport Authority, 1990

Such respect for people’s freedom to travel is hard to come by in Melbourne, except when road-building is under discussion. As a result, many outer suburban ‘battlers’ suffer financial stress because so much of their household income is spent running cars. A 2006 study by the Victorian Council of Social Service found that residents of the public transport-poor Shire of Yarra Ranges spend $233 on average travelling to and from work, while those of the relatively public transport-rich City of Yarra spend just $139. In a very real sense, outer suburbanites are less free than their privileged inner-urban cousins who can manage without a second or third car.

There is no such thing as a ‘free market’ in transport; no transport system can function unless it is facilitated, even subsidised, by governments. This is as true of private road transport as it is of public rail transport. The CityLink project, though notionally built and operated by a private company, would not have been possible without $800 million in government subsidy via tax concessions (in 1996 dollars). The annual subsidy for public transport throughout Victoria pales in comparison.

While advocates of the road system regularly cloak their arguments in the rhetoric of choice and the free market, our transportation system is actually characterized by heavy government intervention on behalf of private vehicles. Massive, taxpayer-supported subsidies effectively bribe people to drive, and insulate them from the financial consequences their choices impose on others.

—Joe Cortright, City Observatory, 11 November 2015

It’s actually remarkable that we still fall for the sales pitch that cars equal freedom. There’s nothing free about the lack of choice that comes from car dependency. And building our city-regions around cars is the most costly thing we can do. Does that sound “free” to you?

—Tweet from Brent Toderian (former Vancouver Chief City Planner), 8 August 2018

The bulk of car advertising draws on the cars-mean-freedom myth, thereby strengthening it. Cars are pictured travelling on empty country highways, without a single other vehicle in sight. The car is portrayed as giving its owner the freedom to go wherever one likes, whenever one likes, and carry whatever one likes, without concerning oneself with personal safety or exposure to the elements. The rhetoric evokes an ideal that has not existed for decades. It disguises the everyday limits to this freedom in the form of traffic congestion, limited parking space, road rules, risk of accidents and the like, all of which pit drivers against one another in the daily commuter rat race. By contrast, public transport users need not concern themselves with any of these problems. ‘Freedom to take charge of one’s travel’ means little when one is stuck in a traffic jam.

As car culture becomes pervasive, even the time-saving benefits of car travel are eroded, as commentator Wolfgang Sachs points out:

Right from the beginning, [the car] had been hailed as the ultimate time-saver, marvellously shortening the time to reach a desired destination. What has happened to that promise? Indeed, contrary to popular belief – and this is proven by a multitude of studies from many countries – car drivers do not spend less time in transit than non-drivers. Nor are drivers more frequently on the move; they leave the house slightly less often than non-drivers. Where has the time gained been lost? Those who buy a car don’t take a deep breath and rejoice in extra hours of leisure, but they travel to more distant destinations. The powers of speed are converted not in less time on the road but in more kilometres. The time gained is reinvested into longer distances. And as time goes by, the spatial distribution of places changes and long distances become the norm. People still go to school, to work, to the cinema, but are obliged to travel longer routes. As a consequence, for instance, the average German citizen today travels 15,000 km a year as opposed to only 2,000 km in 1950.

—Wolfgang Sachs, Why Speed Matters

Motoring freedom, moreover, is purchased at the cost of curtailing the freedom of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users (ostensibly for their own safety), as well as those without the means to drive, including the young, elderly, and less affluent members of society. Indeed, almost everyone is affected by the pervasive pollution and noise which is a necessary condition of the freedom we enjoy as motorists. The fact that car culture excludes, disenfranchises and threatens is too often ignored by the proponents of motoring freedom, some of whom go so far as to hail car culture as a model of democracy:

There is a further dimension of a truly democratic society that is preserved on the road. Drivers form a community of equals. They have equal rights, and they are equal before the law as practised…. The road then provides the balance of a longed-for responsibility, or a salutary constraint of their power. Here again, car-culture serves as an important practical model for a democratic society.

—John Carroll, Ego & Soul: The modern West in search of meaning, 2008

Such sentiments would be hard to maintain if one were ever to take to the streets as a pedestrian or cyclist, breathe the air on a Smog Alert day, or find oneself paying for double-glazed windows in one’s house. Too often, the ‘freedom’ of motorists calls on others to make sacrifices.

We’re in danger of creating a ‘bubble wrap generation’ of children – kids who are driven everywhere, who’ll never know what it’s like to explore their neighbourhood and play in the streets.

—Dr Rob Moodie, VicHealth chief executive officer, Moreland Leader, 30 May 2005

Even the symbolism of car design stands in opposition to the vision of automotive democracy painted by Carroll, as journalist Geoff Strong observes:

It does seem strange that someone would think it necessary to try to make someone else feel intimidated as they both go about the business of transporting themselves somewhere. But we all now know what is at stake. How we move and in what style is more than just a metaphor, it is seen as a statement of what we are. This was always the case as the peasants trudging along a road were mud splattered by the carriages of the aristocracy, then along came democracy and the rule of law and on the roads too we were all supposed to be equal if we obeyed the rules. But equality is pretty boring and that’s where the eagle eye [BMW’s aggressive headlight design] comes in. BMW designers might be Germans, but they are responding to a global trend. They know there are people out there who like the idea others will stand aside for them.

—Geoff Strong, Our cars say a lot about who we are, The Age, 23 January 2009

Perhaps the most obvious limit to the motorist’s freedom, however, is the fact that cars need fuel in order to go anywhere. The inescapable consequences of this fact subject the motorist to yo-yo petrol prices and thraldom to the oil industry. Talk of ‘freedom’ in this regard hides an inescapable dependence on a vast support structure comprising oil refineries, tanker fleets, service stations, repair shops, road crews, traffic police, emergency services, investment in road projects, manufacturing, licensing, registration, insurance, and all who work in these areas. Seen this way, even a bicycle permits greater freedom. The freedom of public transport users is at least on a par with motorists, and public transport users aren’t burdened with the responsibility of driving their vehicles!

Yet for all this, there are those still determined to preserve the 1950s idyll of the unrestrained motorist against twenty-first century reality, and to somehow preserve a unique special place for the motor car among all the diverse ways we express our personal liberty in the modern era. John Carroll, who we quoted just above, makes the case at some length:

As passive consumers, modern individuals are granted no more responsibility than a child; their freedom is restricted to asking for more, or for this rather than that. As the possessors and drivers of a motor car, they find themselves treated as adults….

[The] increased power of institutions, particularly large corporations and governments, has been accompanied by the social and psychological importance gained by consumption. The motor car is a bulwark against the dimension of passivity that threatens to follow these developments….

The very fact that reckless drivers are allowed the means to be so effectively irresponsible is one of Western society’s great remaining freedoms — a real one, in contrast with many illusory liberties. If these drivers were restricted to trains, or to some futuristic compromise such as an electronically controlled bubble car, there would be one less sphere of social life in which to find themselves thrust together with their fellow citizens in situations in which their own authority counted for something. For individual liberty to be a reality, there must exist situations in which that liberty is in peril….

Cars…. are about much more than transport. Love for the car is complemented by the deeper fact that it has become, to modern consumers, one of the most vital, effective elements in their struggle to keep their liberty intact.

—John Carroll, Ego & Soul

Yet for all the eloquent intellectual rhetoric, such defences of the unique place of the motor car carry a hint of desperation. Essentially, they suggest that modern citizens have been rendered so utterly passive by consumerism that their only existential avenue for authentic self-expression is to go and hoon around the streets! What of all the myriad of other activities – some of them ‘violent’ in nature – that go on for better or worse under the rubric of free expression, but don’t kill and maim as a side effect? What of the internet, whose creative possibilities have been hailed by commentators alternately as the ‘great democratiser’ and as the symbol of freedom for a new tech-savvy generation? The curious idea that reckless driving, of all things, ranks among our few ‘great remaining freedoms’ betrays a remarkably shallow understanding of the possibilities of contemporary life.

[The decline in car use] is particularly evident among young Americans and young Australians. They actively prefer using public transport because you can wire up your devices – your iPod, computer, phone – in a way that you can’t do when you’re driving. You’re free and flexible if you’re using public transport but you’re not free and flexible if you’re in a car.

—Peter Newman, discussing his report Peak Car Use: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence (with Jeff Kenworthy), June 2011

[It is] one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars. That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the centre of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence…. Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.

As Young Lose Interest in Cars, G.M. Turns to MTV for Help, New York Times, 22 March 2012

One recent study by the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics shows people under 35 are less likely to hold a licence. Twenty years ago, almost four out of five people between the ages of 20 and 24 had their full licence. By 2009, that figure had fallen to 51 per cent…. Social analyst David Chalke says that in Australia the increasing number of young people attending university for long periods of time in major metropolitan areas means that cars are more of a hassle than a convenience. “With kids staying at university for longer, they’re more likely to want an iPad than a car,” Chalke says.

Young people choose computers over cars,, 2 April 2012

Car makers have tried hot pink hatches. They’ve styled cars around ski gear, running shoes, sunglasses and digital media brands…. Nothing has worked. The big sell to the next generation of car owners is failing. Young people are giving up on cars, they’re giving up on driving and they’re entering adulthood with different ideas of what freedom is all about.

Careless and carless: youth gets going, Australian Financial Review, 23 June 2012

In truth, the motor car is no paragon of democracy, nor does it enjoy a unique position as the saviour of personal liberty in a society obsessed with passive consumption. To encourage high rates of public transport use, cycling and walking is not to deprive people of liberty in any meaningful sense; the places that have done so include the world’s most livable cities, and the most creative places on Earth.

To me, a well-designed and successful transit system equals freedom and flexibility. The car used to be associated with freedom, but not anymore. High gas prices that will just keep going up, traffic congestion, struggles to find parking – increasingly, the car just means a hassle. However, I can travel to anywhere I need to in my city on transit, easily and inexpensively. That’s freedom.

—Brent Toderian, TransLink Buzzer blog, 7 August 2013

Mobility used to be all about driving a personal car. For Baby Boomers, driving one’s car represented freedom and spontaneity. Today – especially for younger people – owning a car is likely to represent big expenses and parking hassles. Meanwhile, technology and vehicle-sharing are making it easier not to own a car, or for households to drive less. Public transit systems, especially with on-board wi-fi and real-time apps, can be the backbone of this new mobility.

—Phineas Baxandall, US Public Interest Research Group, October 2013

Richmond station opened up my world – it was where I changed lines and headed out to where Josh lived. I spent hours travelling back and forth on those lines as a teenager. It was such freedom, thank God for public transport.

—Jess Harris, The Age, 12 October 2013

Last modified: 11 November 2018