Mass-produced automobiles and their kin, trucks and tractors, are arguably the greatest invention of the last two centuries. Indeed, automobility is a major reason why the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth.
Largely because of the automobile,
- Inflation-adjusted incomes have increased by seven times in the last century;
- Homeownership rates have increased by more than 40 percent as working-class people can now afford to own their own homes;
- The variety of foods and other goods available to the average consumer have increased by roughly a hundred times;
- Farmers have restored more than 80 million acres of former horse pastures to forests and converted another 40 million acres to more productive crop lands;
- The isolation and loneliness of rural families has been banished;
- A wide range of social and recreational opportunities are now available to the average American.
Automobility enables workers to find better paying jobs and jobs better suited for their skills. Conversely, autos give employers access to better skilled workers. Thus, autos contributed hugely to both personal wealth and the broader distribution of wealth.
Automobiles further contributed to consumers by providing access to low-cost goods and services. Retailing concepts such as supermarkets and big-box stores could not exist without automobiles, and they have dramatically reduced consumer costs and provided people with a wider variety of goods and services. For example, when Wal-Mart opens its supercenters — variety plus grocery stores — in a community, the average grocery prices in that community fall by 13 percent. Even the people who don’t shop at Wal-Mart benefit from its presence.
Automobiles also provide people with access to rapid-response emergency care, saving and prolonging many lives. Autos make it possible for us to visit family and friends who live at distances that, a mere century ago, would have prevented regular or even occasional visits.
Autos allow people to recreate in many otherwise inaccessible areas. In 1904, for example, Yellowstone National Park hosted fewer than 14,000 visits, or fewer than one visit for every 6,000 Americans. By 1965, more 2.0 million people were visiting Yellowstone each year, or more than one visit for every 100 Americans.
Automobiles also supported the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Without autos that blacks could use for carpooling and shared rides, the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott would have been a failure. It may be no coincidence that blacks successfully campaigned for civil rights only after a significant number of black families obtained automobiles, just as the women’s liberation movement successfully campaigned for fair employment for women only after a significant number of households became “two-car” families.
It is hard to imagine what life was like before automobiles. Despite passenger trains and streetcars, many people spent their entire lives without traveling more than a few miles from where they were born. Pioneers who did move more than a few hundred miles away from home might never see their parents or other family members again. Only the wealthiest people could afford to travel frequently by train. Farm families, particularly women, led lonely lives, rarely seeing anyone except their direct families.
Far from making us “auto dependent,” as auto opponents claim, the automobile has liberated Americans, making us far more mobile than any society has ever been. In 1920, with the world’s most extensive network of urban streetcar systems and intercity passenger trains, Americans traveled an average of 2,000 miles per year by transit or trains. Today, the average American travels seven times that many miles by auto. This mobility has given Americans access to far more opportunities. Moreover, it is far more evenly distributed, as 92 percent of American families today own at least one auto, while eighty years ago most people only rarely traveled by train.
In recent years, the biggest increases in driving have occurred as women and minorities have entered the work force and obtained cars. Women are more likely than men to do trip chaining, in which several errands are run on a single trip. While some auto opponents claim that people are “enslaved” to their cars, University of Arizona researcher Sandra Rosenbloom responds, “You wouldn’t believe how owning their first car frees women.” Social scientists say that one of the best ways to help someone out of poverty is to give them a used car; even in the most transit-intensive urban areas, free transit passes don’t provide access to anywhere near as many potential jobs as an automobile.
In short, the automotive revolution played a critical role in reducing poverty, improving health care, and otherwise greatly improving the lives and lifestyles of Americas. Compared to these benefits, the costs of automobiles have been very low.
The American Dream Coalition supports automobility and all the benefits it provides. At the same time, we support an end to any subsidies to the automobile and new systems of user fees that allow people to pay the full cost of road use. In the case of areas that still have significant air pollution problems — primarily southern California — we support experiments with incentive-based systems of reducing automotive pollution.