As Independence Day approaches this year, there is less independence in my days.
With the Boston Globe’s move to new offices downtown, I no longer have the option of driving to work and parking on-site. Since the fee for downtown parking garages is too steep for my budget, I now do something every day that I haven’t done since I was a Boston University graduate student: I commute by public transit.
As commutes go, mine (so far) isn’t bad: Most days I spend between 20 and 30 minutes on the MBTA Green Line, and both home and office are only five minutes’ walk from a convenient subway stop.
But the relative convenience of even a short public-transit commute is no compensation for the loss of autonomy it entails. When I would drive myself to work (or anywhere else), there were certainly costs involved: traffic jams, bad roads, jaywalking pedestrians, occasional highway tolls or hunts for a parking space. Those are undeniable disadvantages, part of the price of driving a car.
But they pale next to the benefits. When you drive, you have auto-mobility. You travel where you choose, by the route you choose, with the company you choose, and at the time you choose. You can take your time and meander, or put pedal to the metal. You can surround yourself with silence, or listen to talk radio, or blast “Born to Run” from your car speakers. You can go shopping in the rain and come home with 12 bags of groceries. You can be a designated driver in the wee hours of the night. You can get your kicks on Route 66.
Reflections on independence and individualism aren’t usually on our minds when we get in the cars and drive. But that doesn’t change the fact that car-ownership and freedom go hand-in-hand. The values we most esteem as Americans are embodied in our car culture. It isn’t by chance that so many American songs exult in the delights of owning, cruising, or fooling around in cars. How many anthems have been penned about the happy experience of traveling with other straphangers in a government-operated conveyance over which no passengers have any control? True, the Kingston Trio recorded “Charlie on the MTA.” But look what happened to Charlie. Did he ever return? No, he never returned.
“Because we have cars to drive we can, more than any other people in history, choose where we will live [and] where we will work, and separate these two choices from each other,” wrote the American philosopher Loren Lomasky in a notable 1997 essay. “We are more able to avail ourselves of near and distant pleasures and to do so at a schedule tailored to individual preference. We are less constrained . . . by accidents of geography. . . . The automobile is, arguably, rivaled only by the printing press (and perhaps within a few more years by the microchip) as an autonomy-enhancing contrivance of technology.”
Nothing is more wearying than a lecture from a disdainful environmentalist or self-righteous collectivist about the shameful waste of cars and solo driving. Al Gore long ago proclaimed that our “hundreds of millions of automobiles” pose “a mortal threat . . . more deadly than that of any military enemy.” Americans have for the most part ignored such chiding. Even now, 91 percent of all US households have a car. A solid majority, 57 percent, have two or more cars.
Those numbers would doubtless be even higher if public transportation weren’t so heavily subsidized. Contrary to the popular misimpression that drivers benefit from rampant government underwriting, nearly all public spending on roads and highways is paid for, directly or indirectly, by drivers themselves. (When “American driver” is practically a synonym for “American taxpayer,” it could hardly be otherwise.) The Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole, citing data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, points out that — taking into account both user costs and subsidies — “public transportation costs nearly four times as much per passenger-mile as driving, while Amtrak costs well over twice as much.”
The festival of American independence is a good moment to give thanks for the immense changes wrought in our society by mass car ownership. Starting with cleanliness: At the turn of the 20th century, when people mostly relied on horses to get around, American cities were vast equine cesspools. “In New York City alone,” the historian David Kyvig wrote in his history of the years between the world wars, “15,000 horses dropped dead on the streets, while those that lived deposited 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets every day.”
Automobiles made Americans far freer and wealthier than they would have been without them. They brought knowledge, experience, and natural beauty within reach of innumerable men and women of modest means. They ended the desperate isolation and loneliness of rural life, gave rise to the consumer paradise of modern retailing, and made it possible for upward strivers to escape tenement life and own a home of their own in the suburbs.
One last word before this Fourth of July, courtesy of a splendid 2010 Dodge Challenger commercial: “There’s a couple of things America got right: cars and freedom.”
George Washington couldn’t have said it better.