The Publicly-Funded Convenience of Cars

Like most issues, people engage with transportation mainly in an individualistic way. Hence most “debate” about transportation infrastructure, as in this predictable piece, merely amounts to recounting a set of personal anecdotes such as seeing cyclists riding on sidewalks, without extrapolating any broader insights beyond expressing one’s peevishness. Maybe this is just systemic – people are “inherently” selfish (or encouraged to be so), and have great difficulty considering some issue beyond their immediately personal wants and experiences – say on a societal or structural level. Whatever the case may be, what’s frequently missing from the constant stream of indignant rants about transportation (and even transportation debates by our finest politicians) is a discussion about what the relative societal benefits (and costs) are of differing transportation schemes. What kinds of transportation systems and urban planning are most efficient, affordable, safe, and least damaging to human and environmental health?

In this regard I find the position of most motorists utterly contradictory and, again, bearing out the selfish, individualistic nature of transportation debates. Motorists decry investments in public transport that “they never use” and lament expenditures on bike lanes for cyclists who “don’t pay for the roads.” In a previous post I explained how such reasoning only makes sense if motorists assume that they are covering the cost of their road use. The majority of motorists do not. The fundamental point here is that all forms of transportation are subsidized, including roads for motorists. That this fact is so rarely acknowledged by motorists creates a misnomer in the term “public transit.” This is typically used to define mass transit in contrast to personal motor vehicle use, thus creating the impression  that the latter is “private transit.” This is incorrect. All transportation systems are public transit. So, the debate isn’t about, as most motorists would have it, subsidized vs. non-subsidized transportation systems, but the optimal form of subsidization. And since people who don’t drive cars regularly (or at all) also contribute taxes used for transportation projects (and non-drivers contribute more to these projects in terms of per-capita-usage than drivers), everyone should have a say in how such projects are constituted. Moreover, since nearly all transportation infrastructure is publicly-funded (minus the rare private road and shopping mall parking lots), then it seems reasonable to expect that transportation policy should attempt to maximize the benefit to the public.

Unsurprisingly, when most motorists approach transportation debates, their main concern is for more roads. No doubt the main concern for cyclists is typically equally selfishly motivated: more bike lanes. Arguably, the difference is that one priority is actually better according to a set of relevant criteria for assessing transportation policy that extend beyond sheer convenience for individuals (guess which one I think it is). Convenience matters , but it needs to be weighed against other measures of good transportation policy. Having a publicly-funded fleet of personal limo drivers would optimally meet a criteria of personal convenience (but – and I haven’t looked at the numbers mind you – I suspect it might fail in other criteria. Cost, perhaps.). Overall, personal convenience – perhaps synonymous with luxury – is given far too much import in transportation debates, hence the primacy of automobiles. Furthermore, as I argue below, “convenience” is such a flexible notion, that what constitutes convenience is open to a wide degree of interpretation. Indeed, things can be perceived as (or construed as) convenient despite the fact they fail to meet meaningful criteria in this regard. Most importantly, the convenience of some technology does not stand outside of system in which it is embedded. Thus, the primacy and the conception that motor vehicle use is optimally convenient is constructed, both socially and infrastructurally.

Much of the transportation infrastructure in Toronto (and almost all of it in the areas of the city whose residents voted for the current mayor) was built primarily for the use of motor vehicles (and the older roads in the city that weren’t originally built with cars in mind have since been optimized for motor vehicle use). So it is deceiving to think of cars in themselves as convenient. It is so taken for granted that there will be abundant roads to drive around on that most do not consider the economic, environmental, political, and social conditions in which such infrastructure becomes a reality. One can almost imagine a motorist getting on to the 401 and exclaiming, “Wow, how fantastic that this eight lane highway just happened to be here!”

The go-to counterpoints to the transportation infrastructure in North America  are European cities. It is arguably inconvenient to drive around in a car in many parts of these cities, and thus people turn to alternate forms of transportation. Of course, the convenience of these alternative forms of transportation is likewise a matter of infrastructure. It is extremely convenient to bicycle in Copenhagen, for example, because of the priority they assign to cycling infrastructure, just as the mass transit in pretty much every major city in Europe makes Toronto’s mass transport system seem laughable, again due to prioritizing mass transit over personal motor vehicles.

Embedded in the decision for North American cities like Toronto to prioritize motor-vehicle infrastructure is the belief that motor vehicles are inherently superior to all other forms of transportation. Senior Massey College Resident and public policy pundit Patrick Luciani insists, “When people are wealthy enough, they get a car. The fact we put up with exorbitant insurance rates, traffic jams, the expense and all the rest is proof of how much people prefer cars. Why else would people prefer to go through the agony of congestion?” No doubt, based on basic observations, people do prefer to take cars. The danger here is taking this personal preference to mean something about the superiority of cars, whether or not they should be prioritized in transportation systems, or if they are actually convenient, even according to the user’s own criteria. Rational choice theory is obviously not a good tool by which to assess transportation systems. (Anecdotally, I have known people to insist on taking cars even when I have explained that it would be significantly more expensive, take significantly longer, and be less comfortable than either walking or taking public transit. I could only surmise that these people had somehow been so utterly convinced of the superiority of cars that they would prefer them even in the face of obviously more convenient alternatives).

I personally do not find driving a car more convenient, more comfortable, more satisfying than alternate forms of transportation. In fact, I acutely dislike being in a car. Perhaps I might find driving a very fast car in a closed course to have some recreational benefit, but in general, I can honestly say that I hate driving. I find cars isolating, uncomfortable, cumbersome, and claustrophobic. And that is in ideal driving conditions, say on a traffic-free highway. Between being forced to read every comment to an article about climate change in the National Post and driving a car around in the city, I would say it it’s a wash. The traffic, the miserable, aggressive, selfish, and callous other drivers, the pollution, the noise, the stress – it’s unbearable.

Beyond my personal visceral distaste for the act of driving, there are all of the other structural, systemic problems with motor vehicle use that factor heavily into my view of cars.  The over-production of cars and the poor integration of recycling into the production life cycle.  The broad environmental costs of a petroleum-based transportation system (climate change, cough cough). The contamination of our waterways by petroleum, oil, and other chemical run-off. And the most visceral consequence of all: the air pollution. There are certain days in the summer that we are literally advised to limit the amount of air we breathe (and if you go outside on these days you can actually feel the pollution in your lungs). That people do not react to such consequences with sheer horror demonstrates the totalizing extent of people’s taken-for-granted expectations of exorbitant motor-vehicle use.

I resent that my position is typically considered a deviation from the “rational” position on cars – that it is “radical” (indeed, I find that someone would drive to the corner store to get milk a “radical” choice). At the very least, that I, and others like me, can have a view that contrasts so pronouncedly from the prevailing view, demonstrates that the benefits of widespread automobile use is (or should be) open for debate – not merely taken for granted as a given. But, of course, my entire point is that a profound wariness of our current level of automobile use is the more rational position. There is nothing inherent about automobiles that makes them superior to other modes of transportation, or even optimally convenient machine-human interactions. The perception of convenience is an artefact of infrastructure, cultural values (chief amongst them is the right to selfishness), and excellent marketing.

Our “need” for cars is a product of path-dependency based on opportunistic, short-term planning and insidious social values. Houses are built in places that are inaccessible by any other means. Condos are built well beyond the walking distance of any grocery store. Employers rent out office space in commercial parks fifteen minutes from the closest sidewalk. Entire cities’ (and even nations’) economies are made dependent on the automobile industry (imagine if the amount of money spent bailing out American auto-makers was used to subsidize the development of electric trains, for example). And crucially, returning to the question of public (i.e. publicly funded) transportation, we invest an immense (and disproportionate) amount of resources into building infrastructure that allows individuals to drive around in very large vehicles. (Consider how smaller cars, such as Smart cars, are ridiculed based on some social convention about the “proper” size of  a car – arguably a reflection of the view of cars-as-status-symbols – accounting for the prevalence of SUVs amongst rich people. This despite the fact that the majority of trips taken in cars have no passengers ). We do this not because it is more cost-effective, more efficient, less environmentally damaging (to all kinds of environments, natural, social, urban, etc.), but because of the selfish personal insistence that driving around in a car is more “convenient.” I submit that it is simply not more convenient. In downtown Toronto (and I’d imagine in many other cities as well) there are faster, cheaper, quieter, less obtrusive, less environmentally-damaging, and safer ways to get around than a car. And this despite the car-centric city-planning and infrastructure. Imagine the possibilities if we actually invested in alternative means of transportation.

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