The following reports and books are useful references on the benefits of the automobile and why it has become the dominant form of transport in the U.S.
Roughly every five years, the US Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics does a National Household Travel Survey (692-kb pdf), which examines such things as how people travel, where they go, and how many people occupy the typical car for various kinds of trips. The first survey was in 1969, so more than thirty-years’ worth of travel trends (2.4-mb pdf) are now available.
One of the findings of the travel surveys is that the average number of people in American cars is about 1.6. This has declined from 1.9 in the 1969 survey. Census data also reveal that carpooling to work has similarly declined: in 1980, nearly 20 percent of workers usually carpooled to work, but by 2000 only 13 percent of workers carpooled. Some social critics have claimed that these statistics reveal a loss of a sense of community.
The truth is much simpler: average household sizes have fallen from about 3.14 people per household in 1970 to 2.60 people per household in 2000. The decline in auto occupancy almost exactly reflects this shrinkage in household size: on average, auto occupancy is equal to household size minus one. The decline in carpooling also reflects changes in household size. Most carpooling consists of family members sharing a car to work, not people picking up co-workers on their way to work. As household sizes decline, fewer family members are available to share a car to work.
Some people argue that the high costs of auto ownership imposes a major burden on American families, and that they would be better off driving less. In Transportation Costs and the American Dream (24-kb rft), Thoreau Institute economist Randal O’Toole shows that this isn’t true. In fact, U.S. Department of Commerce data reveal that Americans spend about the same share of their personal incomes on cars as they did fifty years ago. Yet per capita driving has increased from 3,000 vehicle miles in 1950 to nearly 10,000 vehicle miles today. This huge increase in driving is possible without costing a greater share of personal incomes partly because autos have helped people significantly increase their personal incomes.
Another argument is that poor urban design forces people to drive too much. This is based on the assumption that driving is “derived,” i.e., people drive only to get from point A to point B. In fact, University of California engineering Professor Patricia Mokhtarian has shown that people actually enjoy driving and sometimes go out of their way for purposes of enjoyment. Her paper, How Derived is the Demand for Travel? (948-kb pdf) is only one of many she has written on the subject.
In one of his presentations (192-kb PowerPoint) at the 2005 Preserving the American Dream conference, Joel Schwartz challenges the myth that Americans have an irrational “love affair” with the automobile. Instead, he shows that auto ownership has produced enormous benefits at a relatively low (and declining) cost.
- The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great (940-kb pdf)
The Greatest Invention (high-resolution version) (5-mb pdf)
- Author: Randal O’Toole
- Citation: Bandon, Oregon: American Dream Coalition, 2006, 27 pp.
- Summary: The automobile has done more to enhance the quality of life of the average American than any other invention in the nation’s history.
- Quote: “In 1900, the average American traveled less than 3,000 miles per year, mainly on foot, and many lived and died without ever journeying more than fifty miles from home. Today the average American travels close to 20,000 miles per year, mostly in automobiles, and thinks nothing of taking trips of several hundred miles.”
- Paying at the Pump: Gasoline Taxes in America (712-kb pdf file)
- Author: Jonathan Williams
- Citation: Washington, DC: Tax Foundation, 2007, 20 pp.
- Summary: Rather than increase gas taxes to pay for infrastructure, Congress should stop diverting such taxes to non-highway uses.
- Quote: “Years of political pressure have eroded the original intent of gas taxes. . . . Today, gasoline tax revenue is spent on everything from public education and museums to graffiti removal and parking garages.”
- Don’t Increase Federal Gasoline Taxes — Abolish Them (450-kb pdf file)
- Author: Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren
- Citation: Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2007, 24 pp.
- Summary: As a user fee, gasoline taxes are a “second-best” solution. Tolls and other highway user charges would work better, so both federal and state gas taxes should be abolished.
- Quote: “If government feels compelled to more aggressively regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions or access to public roadways, pollution taxes and road user fees are a better means of doing so.”
- Coping with the Car: Reconciling Automobility and “Smart Growth” (2.7-mb pdf)
- Author: James Dunn
- Citation: Presentation at Transportation and Economic Development 2002, Portland, Oregon.
- Summary: Smart growth is not likely to have much of an impact on air pollution and energy consumption.
- Quote: “Investing political and economic capital in improving the environmental and energy performance of automobiles will yield greater and more sustainable results than attempting to change the preferences of Americans for automobility and low density, single-family homes.”
- Do Americans Have Unique Love Affair with the Automobile? (192-kb PowerPoint file)
- Author: Joel Schwartz
- Citation: Presentation before the 2005 Preserving the American Dream conference, Bloomington, MN, 17 slides.
- Summary: The automobile vastly increased human welfare and is doing so all around the world.
- Quote: “By 1992, many European countries had reached America’s 1970 per-capita income level, and America’s 1970 per-capita car ownership level.”
- The Automobile, Its Impacts, and the Role of Government (380-kb PowerPoint)
- Author: Joel Schwartz, American Enterprise Institute
- Citation: PowerPoint presentation made to the 2006 Preserving the American Dream Conference, September 16, 2006, 24 slides.
- Summary: People are driving more, yet pollution and highway fatalities are declining. Moreover, they were declining even before the federal government began to regulate pollution and safety in 1970. The big problem is that roadway capacities have not kept pace with demand.
- Quote: “Most expenditures induced by federal air law don’t actually reduce air pollution, but centralized federal control has caused great collateral damage.”
- Energy Efficiency, Fuel Economy, and Policy Implications (4.4-mb pdf)
- Author: Nicholas Lutsey and Daniel Sperling, UC Davis
- Citation: Transportation Research Record, #1941 (2005), pp. 8-17.
- Summary: Cars have been getting more fuel-efficient since 1973. From 1975 through the mid 1980s, this could be measured in higher miles per gallon. Since then, miles per gallon have remained the same but cars have gotten heavier and more powerful. The paper concludes that technological innovations have continued during both periods.
- Quote: “The rapid rise in fuel economy in the late 1970s was due to a mix of efficiency improvements and downgrading of utility in the form of reduced size, power, and eliminate of accessories and amenities (such as air conditioning). In constrast, since the mid-1980s, fuel economy has remained constant while the benefits of technological innovation were used to satisfy private desires (more power, size, and amenities).”
- Why Mobility Matters (880-kb pdf)
- Author: Ted Balaker
- Citation: Los Angeles, CA: Reason Foundation, 2006, 16 pp.
- Summary: A heavily illustrated policy brief explaining the benefits of automobility.
- Quote: “The freedom of mobility helps make other freedoms more meaningful. The more mobility we enjoy, the more choices we have.”
- Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life (476-kb pdf)
- Author: Ted Balaker
- Citation: Los Angeles, CA: Reason Foundation, 2007, 28 pp.
- Summary: A somewhat more scholarly version of the previous policy brief.
- Quote: “A person who walks for an hour has access to 50 square miles, but someone who drives at 30 miles per hour for 60 minutes has access to 2,827 square miles . . . more than 56 times as large as the walker’s.”
- Size, Sprawl, Speed and the Efficiency of Cities (104-kb Word file)
- Author: Remy Prud’homme and Chang-Woon Lee
- Citation: Paper presented at the Doubling Dublin Conference, 8 November 2001
- Summary: The productivity of cities depends on how well they are managed, and a key indicator of good management is how many jobs a commuter can reach in 20 minutes of travel.
- Quote: “Increasing speed in a city by 10% increases productivity by 2.9%.”
- The Anti-Car Movement in Britain (248-kb Word document)
The Anti-Car Movement in Britain (10-mb PowerPoint show)
- Author: Malcolm Heymer
- Citation: Presentation to the 2007 Preserving the American Dream conference, San Jose, 11 November 2007
- Summary: Critiques current policies favoring transit and bicycles over cars, traffic calming, and roadway surveillance.
- Quote: “The rise of the militant ‘green’ movement, with its ideological hatred of cars as symbols of individual freedom, demanded a halt to road building and the introduction of measures to reduce car use. It found sympathetic ears in the Labour administration that took office in 1997.”