The “Don’t Replace The Market: Respect Choice” Duplicity

Conservatives complain that spending public money on non-automobile facilities ignores the public’s overwhelming choice of cars as their preferred method of transportation; that prioritizing walking or cycling or even public transportation is an unwarranted distortion of the free market – another example of elite culture’s social engineering trying to manipulate ordinary people.  

It is true that most people drive.  And it is not entirely fair to say that our land-use patterns and transportation system has been deliberately structured over the past half century to give them no other option – although that is largely true.  The post-WWII GI bill’s mortgage subsidies and Interstate Highway system created a landscape of decentralized, auto-dependent sprawl that gives people little choice but to buy a car and drive to nearly everything.  The deliberate destruction of urban trolley systems and the underfunding of the nation’s railroad networks pushed things in the same direction.

But it is also true that many people (myself included) like to drive.  Historically, many of the pioneering bicycle enthusiasts of the early 1900s moved into car production as that technology developed – the power was greater, the speeds were higher, the profits were bigger.  Henry Ford started as a bike mechanic.  And Albert Pope, the nation’s first bicycle tycoon (headquartered in Boston!), ended up making cars.

As our economy become more car-centric – by the 1970’s nearly one out of every seven jobs in the entire nation, from coal mining to road maintenance, was directly or indirectly connected to the auto industry — our entire culture became car-focused.  Rock and roll was about cars – and sex.  Cars represented freedom to rural people and status to the rising middle class.  After World War II, the returning vets wanted to escape from the grip of their extended immigrant families in the cities, or had to move from the farm due to increasing automation in the countryside.  People wanted a better life, the security of owning their own home, to be surrounded by grass and trees (no matter how stunted), and to feel that they were moving up in the world.

But, still, we weren’t given a complete menu of options to satisfy those yearnings.  On the national level the quick depression at the end of WWII, ended only by the boost of Korean War spending, gave enormous clout to the constellation of business networks whose common ground was auto-dependent growth – more roads, more construction, more houses, more products to fill those houses.  It is true that people were given choices – endless choices – but only within the general framework of auto-centric development.  It was a little like offering a child the choice of going to bed with a book or listening to a tape – in either case they’re going to bed.

Unless you believe that structuring our economy for the pursuit of maximum profit is by definition not social engineering, it is actually the automobile industry, working in concert with government policy makers, that has created a distorted market, that has conducted social engineering on the grandest scale.  It is our job to rebalance the playing field, to finally give people the ability to actually choose.  And doing this requires a long period of deliberately prioritizing investment in pedestrian and bicycling facilities –even to the extent of taking away some of the unequal advantages previously enjoyed by car users.

Now that’s an interesting strategy for unleashing market forces.

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