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High fashion versus the private car 

By David Seymour 
web posted October 11, 2010

Before the Industrial Revolution, food was scarce and gruelling work was done outside.  European paintings of the period glamourize women who were very white and more than a little plump.  Today most workplaces are out of the sun, and food is plentiful, so people will pay a lot of money to be tanned and thin like the achingly thin models on catwalks.  Following the pattern, as cars have become abundant, fashion has set its sights on the car-free lifestyle.

It's good to be in a society where such experiments in living are available to those who want them; this writer has no car and rarely needs to venture out of Regina's Cathedral neighbourhood.  But public policy, by its very nature, binds everybody.  It's therefore important that romantic visions are tempered by respect for personal choice and cognisant of what new technology will make possible.

It's time to recognise that cars are a wonderful thing, and that there is good reason to expect technology that already exists will soon mitigate the objections some have to them.

Cars have made people more mobile than at any time in our history.  As author Randal O'Toole has calculated, the average American travels 29,000 kilometres per year, at an average travel speed of 56 kilometres per hour.  23,000 of those kilometres are by car.  For comparison, Americans in 1900 averaged 3,600 kilometres per year at an average speed of 13 kilometres per hour.  They were dependent on street cars, steam trains, and their feet.

This mobility increases the options people have for work, culture, and commerce.  The American Transportation Research Board has found that welfare recipients with a car in Los Angeles County have access to fifty-nine times more jobs (yes, fifty nine times as many) as those reliant on walking and transit. 

Minority sports would be impractical without the car.  You can play ice hockey in tropical Auckland, New Zealand, and rugby in CFL-mad Saskatchewan. Such diversity is possible only because minority sports' thinly spread devotees are able to move quickly to a central point for games and practices.  

Similarly, large scale stores like Walmart and Superstore, which have driven down prices for consumer goods, are possible only because large numbers of people can travel to them easily and take home enough goods to justify an involved shopping trip in a large store.

What's more, there are good reasons to believe that technology will make cars dramatically better for the environment and less draining on infrastructure.

Driverless cars are already here.  Try searching YouTube for "BMW GPS Control."  You'll see Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson sitting mortified with his hands off the wheel and his feet off the pedals as the car laps a racing circuit at full speed complete with smoking tires.

What that means for transport is that road use will become a lot more efficient.  With all the foibles of imprecise judgement and distracted behaviour, humans driving cars at 100 kilometres per hour can manage a traffic flow of 2,200 vehicles per lane per hour.  With the precision of computer controlled cars, that figure can rise to 8,000 and you can see how we might not need to widen roads as much as we thought.

Could we really trust robots as chauffeurs?  Autopilots have landed passenger jets for decades, and the alternative is human drivers who may be tired, drunk, texting, distracted, or all of the above.

Meanwhile, experiments in Stockholm, Sweden, have shown that electronic tolling makes it possible to charge people very precisely for road use.  The user pays approach would evaporate the arguments that car use is a private benefit obtained at the public expense.

On the environment, General Motors have claimed that their Chevrolet Volt, an innovative electric car scheduled for launch next month, will get an equivalent of 230 miles to the gallon for city driving.  That's almost ten times better than current vehicles.  Such an innovation will likely make a mockery of efforts to wrestle people out of their cars.  Why bother when technology has just solved 90 per cent of the problem anyway?

Like the pasty fat women in the paintings, alternative lifestyles will always be idealised by the trendy set.  That's fine, but the private car is not just some gross obsession of the masses.  It's probably created more freedom and opportunity than any other invention we have, and it's going to get better.  Let's hope that public policy makers can rouse enough of their own enthusiasm to respect that. ESR

David Seymour is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Frontier Centre.

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