Cars and Sprawl

If the Tea Party applied its supposed ideas consistently, it would take up the slogan: “Oppose big government, say no to cars.” Or for the more fervent among them: “The automobile is a socialist plot.”

Does any other technology demand more government involvement than the car? Not according to Washington. A few decades ago, the U.S, government reported that “the average American citizen (has) more direct dealings with government through licensing and regulation of the automobile than through any other single public activity.”

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Some Tea Partiers complained about the recent bailout of GM and Chrysler, but the amount of government money spent saving these bankrupt companies is peanuts compared to what is plowed into roads each year. For the first three decades of car travel basically none of this money came from users and today less than half does.

Licensing, bailouts, and roads are relatively obvious examples of the government-car symbiosis. So is curbside parking, which sucks up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year. Less obvious are the ways in which cars spurred the modern administrative state. Norman Damon explains:

State officials concerned with building roads, licensing drivers and their vehicles, enforcing traffic laws, as well as concerned with school and college education, early organized to deal with common problems. Thus, the American Association of State Highway Officials came into being in Washington, D. C. in 1914; the Institute of Traffic Engineers was founded in Pittsburgh in 1930 …; the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in Chicago in 1932; the State and Provincial Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police at Toronto in 1938; and the National Commission on Safety Education at Washington, D. C. in 1943.

Early on the automobile demanded aggressive social engineering. Traffic lights are now taken for granted, but pedestrians don’t need them and cyclists would do fine with a lot fewer lights. To make way for cars most cities and town were restructured in the 1910s and 20s. Influential architect and city planner, Le Corbusier, captured the sentiment of the automobilists at the time.

WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE! The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically, the needs of traffic also demanded total demolition: ‘Statistics show us that business is conducted in the centre. This means that wide avenues must be driven through the centre of our towns. Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.

Tea Partiers claim an “originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution” that would see severe limits to government power. But I’ve yet to hear one right-wing speaker mention how the car era ushered in zoning regulations, which radically changed legal thinking about property rights. To facilitate automobility and corporate real estate ventures the administrative state was massively expanded through zoning regulations that usually prescribed detailed controls on living quarters and various uses for different parts of the city.

Sprawl World After All describes the effect of these regulations.

Zoning laws make it illegal to build anything but sprawl in America. Although it may seem hard to believe, since World War II it has been against the law to build community-oriented small towns complete with main streets, nearby homes, and schools within walking distance.

From 1916 to 1936 the number of U.S. cities following zoning rules rose from none to 1322. In 1926 the Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision, ruling 6 to 3 in favor of a Cleveland suburb’s ordinance dividing itself into areas for single-family homes and commercial spaces. The lead judgment legalizing zoning admitted the historically determinant nature of the decision.

Even half a century ago [zoning regulations], probably would have been rejected as arbitrary and oppressive [violations of property rights]. Such regulations are sustained, under the complex conditions of our day, for reasons analogous to those which justify traffic regulations, which, before the advent of automobiles and rapid transit street railways, would have been condemned as fatally arbitrary and unreasonable.

The Supreme Court’s decision is peppered with other references to the auto age. This shift in interpretation of property rights was designed “to reduce … congestion, … expedite local transportation … and the enforcement of traffic … regulations.” The Supreme Court even discussed “cheaper pavement”. “The construction and repair of streets may be rendered easier and less expensive, by confining the greater part of the heavy traffic to the streets where business is carried on.”

In Republic of Drivers Cotten Seiler argues that one of the reasons for the car’s rise to dominance is that driving formed “the right kind of American subjects.” Car travel legitimated “the power structures of managed, administered, modern liberalism” (or state capitalism) all the while preserving “the symbolic figures of Republican political culture.” Driving can engender “sensations of agency, self-determination, entitlement, privacy, sovereignty, transgression and speed”. But, this is made possible by massive government intervention.

The sense of freedom that cars create is inextricably intertwined with huge profits for mega corporations, which work hand in glove with government. These corporations just happen to be some of the sources of Tea Party funding.

That’s why the Tea Partiers would never dare challenge them.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 2nd, 2010 at 8:26am #

    i liked the piece. yves’ thoughts on this appear as mine. i wld just emend one one of his statements about govts.
    we may view govts as another branch of u.s governance. so, it is the governance; i.e., the system of rule or, rather, some people who have forced people into reliance on cars and opting for spreading around and escape from cities, towns, communities, etc.
    it really does not take much perspicacity to espy that dependence on cars leads to ever greater dependence on oil people and other rich people.
    these are the people who manage all of the region’s [also known as u.s or d.n in my labeling] affairs.
    the idea is an ancient one: those who own all the land and in modern times those that control the money and own much of the land, solely run the store.
    no worker wld ever be elected for that duty unless s/hes bought and ‘educated’ for it. tnx

  2. kanomi said on December 2nd, 2010 at 1:45pm #

    While it is true North America still lives with the legacy of car-dictated suburban sprawl and all the waste and destruction that entails – best chronicled by James Kunstler, amongst others – that is hardly the driving force in America today.

    The bailout of GM was like an afterthought, compared to the trillions of dollars looted from the treasury by organized gangs of grifters fronted by Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, Summers, and the like and given to Wall Street criminals, like tribute.

    In this new regime, this new economy, you won’t be driving very far, when the TSA-hired Blackwater thugs sets up checkpoints on every on-ramp to search for “terrorists” and Peak Oil puts gasoline prices forever out of reach.

    The criminal owners of your country have long since abandoned anything so prosaic as car manufacturing or suburbia as a means of profit. Industrial production (apart from war machines) is outsourced, it is irrelevant now. So is the Tea Party for that matter, or the imaginary differences between Democrats and Republicans – who differ not at all on anything that matters to their masters: endless war profiteering, banking graft, and a rapist police state.

    We are ruled by vile powers, by immense concentrations of wealth, and bleating about GM is like bemoaning the oppression of a Napoleon from 200 years ago when the TSA is kicking down your door and jamming their hands into the clothes of children for all the cattle to see.

  3. Liberte said on December 2nd, 2010 at 2:03pm #

    Help me Obi-wan Kanomi, you’re my only hope. Seriously, good rant.

  4. bozh said on December 2nd, 2010 at 2:30pm #

    that’s how i see it as well. and mns of people. even a few americans! that liberte is using ridicule as ‘answer’ and namecalling, proves we r right. hopefully, more americans wld see it! tnx

  5. Liberte said on December 2nd, 2010 at 3:06pm #

    I agree as well. That wasn’t ridicule.

  6. kanomi said on December 3rd, 2010 at 12:22pm #

    I didn’t take it as such, Liberte. 🙂